Back to the gym and all you need to know if you don't want to have DOMS for a week.

For 3 full weeks already many gym goers have been happy to be back in the gym. Some of them have experienced the excitement of picking up their first dumbbell in a while and the horror of not being able to get out of bed for a couple of days after. Which is totally expected but avoidable. What exactly happens when you haven’t trained for a while and get back to it? How do you restart your training program?

I had a chat with some gym members who were in their first year of training before gyms got closed. They admitted that they are feeling a bit defeated. Just starting to see some changes in their performance or physique, they felt as all the progress was lost and the process would have to start from beginning.

It might feel so, however if you have achieved certain physical adaptations to your body they do not disappear as quickly as you might imagine. As long as you have been moving at least a little bit during this break.

Next paragraphs will look more in detail about specifics of restarting training in the gym, however most advice would be useful for the first time goers as well. So, if you are just thinking about taking a look at what the situation is in your local fitness centre, read on.

Not everyone's first month back in the gym is the same

It will massively depend on how active you were during the break. Were your only movements from desk to sofa, to cornershop, to fridge and bed at the end of the day? Or were you jumping around with all the free available online classes, hiking, cycling, doing pull- up’s on scaffolding bars?

Sustained activity even without any kit would have helped to retain muscle mass, aerobic fitness and strength much more than total inactivity.

How long you have been training before a break will play a significant role as well. More muscle mass, training experience, physical adaptations to exercise (heart, blood pressure etc.) will make your return much easier.

What is the effect of decreased physical activity in trained adults?

Without activity it takes around 3-4 weeks to see a significant reduction in aerobic endurance, but slight decrease might be noticed even after a week. 

Many research papers state that strength can be held on for at least 3 weeks without any significant changes, but after week 5 strength decrease might reach 14% mark and from there decrease more rapidly.

Does it mean that after 4 month of inactivity, you are basically where you started?

Not really. Even though your endurance might have suffered the physiological changes to your cardiovascular system, particularly heart valves, do not disappear that quickly, especially in recreational athletes.

Similarly, there is certain “muscle memory” or neurological adaptations that are created during resistance training that will make coming back to lifting weights much easier and allow for progress faster in comparison to non-trained adults even if you have lost a bit of muscle mass.

Things to be aware during your first week back

You might feel strong. Recovered from all the injuries and tightnesses that made lifting or running troublesome before break. Energetic and excited, you step in the gym for the first time. And you go for it! It feels good, you feel strong, not as strong as before, but stronger than expected.

Even if you do remember all the exercises, your form might need some refreshing. It’s easy to make small mistakes and pull a muscle on your first day back, just because you think you remember how every exercise should feel. Take it easy, use the mirror and go through all the cues. Are you holding your back and knees right, is your position straight or bent over enough, are you lifting elbows in the right direction?

Lower the weight to at least 60% of the weight you did before the break. You might feel strong, but DOMS or extreme soreness could possibly slow down your return by another week, if you over do it. Starting with compound moves or whole body training might be a good tactic as well, as it will lower the risk of overworking one muscle group in particular and spread the work over the whole body, letting you assess intensity of the workout much easier, and adjusting it for the next one.

How long will it take to get back to where I left off?

It will depend on how long and consistent your training history was before the break, however the rule of thumb is that if it was consistent  it can take around half the time of the break. So, if for example you were unable to train for 6 months, it might take around 3 months to get back to the strength or endurance you had before the break.

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