Managing your training expectation when you return to the gym

Unless you are a professional athlete who sculpts their schedule and commitments around optimising their performance, then it is almost guaranteed that at some stage of your fitness journey there will be unavoidable interferences.

COVID-19 is a timely example, if you live in NSW it’s probably been 3 months since you stepped foot in a gym because of local public health orders. At some stage in your fitness journey an injury, personal commitment or holiday may also jeopardise your schedule for an extended period of time.

When an interference like this arises it’s crucially important to keep it in perspective. I agree it can be frustrating and disappointing especially when it threatens to interrupt a streak of progress. Despite this, it’s important to remember that more often than not it’s temporary and unless you’re the professional athlete (unlikely) life will go on - plus you might be surprised how effective resistance training sessions in the park can be.

In the context of resistance training, depending on the participant’s goal they are generally concerned about regressing either in their strength or their muscle size - this is known as muscle atrophy. While both of these are certainly a risk when people take time off from training, based on my experience working on gym floors people tend to vastly overestimate the rate and the severity in which they experience these declines.

This is supported by research published in the US national study of medicine in 2013 that confirmed high-performance athletes can expect to retain their strength for up to 3 weeks of detraining. Similar results have been replicated in a study using a non-athlete audience with the caveat that non-athletes would likely experience a more rapid decline after the 3 week period than a high-performance athlete. These studies serve to invalidate the concern many fitness enthusiasts have that by missing a session they could be taking a backwards step away from their goal, irrespective of what level of training you are at.

The rate that muscle atrophy occurs is less clear as variables such as body composition, training experience and diet all come into play. When it comes to muscle growth there is some truth to the saying ‘use it or lose it’ which is why if you’ve ever broken an arm and had the cast removed it likely looked significantly smaller. The good news is that atrophy occurs predominantly when the muscle is not in use at all; that means if you’ve been doing your best to make the most of the lockdown with some bodyweight exercises and maintained adequate protein levels it’s unlikely that your muscles would have shrunk. If you are looking in the mirror and thinking otherwise there’s a good chance this is the result of less water retention in the muscles causing them to appear smaller.

Based on the evidence above we know that while the interruption will have certainly caused some regression in your performance it certainly won’t be back to square one. So what now that gyms are re-opening?

Having been deprived for 3 months no doubt many of you will be rearing to get back onto the gym floor and try to make up ground before we reach summer. While the enthusiasm is admirable, training expectations should consider these performance changes, and so instead of heading straight to the bench to match PR’s here’s what you should focus on to help re-establish your fitness routine.

Movement patterns

Unless you are one of the lucky few with a home gym there’s a good chance you’ve been confined to a single set of dumbbells recently, and while these are ample to achieve a productive workout they require a specific technique and create a different stimulus to the barbells or machines you might frequent at the gym. For your first few sessions pay particular attention to re-familiarising yourself with movement patterns on your compound lifts, move up the weights to your working sets patiently and make sure you’re hitting the ROM that your mobility allows and you’d been reaching before the hiatus.

Minimum effective dosage

Double sessions, Super Saturdays, Putting yourself in a hole… People love pushing themselves at the gym and one of the most common ways to do this is by increasing the total volume across the week. While volume is an important variable to manipulate to progressively overload, the first weeks back at the gym should be conservative while the body adjusts to routine. For my online clients, I’ve recommended using the minimum effective dosage for the first few weeks back. The concept is very simple, it is, essentially using the smallest dose that will elicit the desired outcome, or in training terms doing the minimum amount of volume that will still allow you to progress with your training. Not only will this help clients to recondition to the routine but it will ensure that their body has ample opportunity to recover from what will probably be considerably more stress.

Establish baseline

In the spirit of expectation management, it is important to retest your performance levels after returning to the gym (recommend doing this during the third week back). This will be important if you intend to stick to a program that works on percentages and also to improve your own morale when you begin improving on this new starting point. Some good news - research shows that after periods of de-training both athletes and non-athletes can return to their levels of peak performance much faster than when originally reaching these levels due to the concept of muscle memory.

With the excitement of gyms reopening it would be easy to jump straight into previous training habits without ample consideration for the performance regression that may have occurred during your time away. While the changes to your strength and muscle size is likely less than you originally feared, it’s worthwhile incorporating the methods above to ease back into training. If you're interested in receiving added guidance and structure to your training once gyms return then check out the Spike Fitness Online Coaching product that provides customised training plans around your goals and starting point.


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