Navigating Our Return to the Gym: Turn a Dial, Don’t Flip a Switch.

Gosh, I cannot wait to get back in the gym with a barbell on my back.

I’ve had the thought many times and day-dreamed about that first workout back with barbells and plates and all the heavy kettlebells I can hope to lift.

However, I’ve also had to check my thinking and stop it in its tracks. Though I wish I could lift every weight in the gym, pick up my new phase as if I were never gone, and squat heavy weight immediately, the coach in me knows that’s not smart.

I think there’s a misconception that we can pick up right where we left off, as if we didn’t take time away from the gym. Flip the switch. Get back in the gym. Lift the exact weight that is written in our progressions on our program. But that line of thinking is short-sighted.

It’s not that the home workouts were ineffective. It’s not that we lost all of our gains and progress. Seriously, even if you took time almost entirely off, you didn’t lose as much as you probably think. But we were exposed to a different stimulus for an extended period of time. We advanced and progressed in a different way. Not better, nor worse, but different.

When we step back in the gym, it will feel as if we’ve lost progress. Weights that we could move with ease pre-shut down will feel heavy, especially if we haven’t had access to them. And that’s totally okay. It’s the natural progression of exposure to different training.

Have you ever done a goblet squat with a kettlebell, and then you use a front-loaded Ultimate Sandbag in your next phase? Chances are, it felt different. Moving from our at-home training programs to those in the gym is similar. We’re progressing into a new phase of training.

In this phase, we have to approach it with a beginner-like mindset. The gym, and the equipment within it, is a “new-to-you” stimulus. The problem is, though, we don’t feel like beginners in this situation. Instead of someone who is just joining the gym, we’re coming back to things we’ve done before. This small discrepancy is where the difficulty lies.

We’ve done it before; we can do it again. That’s how it works, right? Not exactly. We’re going to feel sore from a “small” amount of work done simply because the stimulus is different than what we’ve been doing at home. And, while soreness isn’t fun, it’s not the biggest problem we have to worry about.

Our biggest problem is injury.

You don’t get better from training. You get better from recovering from training.

When we flip the switch, turn it back to 100% of where we were pre-Safer at Home, it’s highly unlikely that we will be able to adequately recover from that training. The workload, intensity, and volume will likely be massive in comparison to our current at-home training. This is the perfect recipe for injury. Sure, it might not happen in that first session or perhaps not even in the first week.

But we don’t train to see where we are in a week; we train to see what we’re able to do for years.

Getting back into the gym, we have to play the long game and think for the future. Cutting down workload will seem awful. We have access to this equipment, why not do as much as possible with it? Simply put, we have to prioritize our future selves over our immediate desires. We have to check our ego at the door. Spending time easing back into your gym program and acclimating your body to the new stimulus, allows you to build up to a manageable training for you.

What might this “turning the dial” approach look like in practice? There are a few factors we have to consider:

What are you doing right now, at home? What weights have you had access to? How many days have you been training?

This is a big consideration when you’re planning your return to the gym. If you’ve been doing bodyweight only training, 2-3 times per week, you absolutely cannot hop back into 4-5 days, full equipment training on the first week. Heck, perhaps not even in the first month! You will have to gradually add days, as well as weight, to your training programs. If you’re in that situation, perhaps start with lighter weight, fewer sets, and only 2-3 days for at least the first week or two. Then, gradually build up over the course of 4-5 weeks. Tentatively plan, for a full volume training session at the very least one month after the return to the gym. Of course, this can vary wildly, and I highly recommend working with a coach to navigate this transition seamlessly.

How is your recovery? Are you incorporating regeneration days? How is your nutrition now and what changes, if any, do you have to make to support greater workloads in the gym?

During this initial transition, it’s important that we monitor recovery closely. Like I said earlier, it’s the recovery that makes us better, not the training. As you increase your training, make sure that you increase sleep, hydration, quality nutrition, regeneration sessions, etc. These are all vital to ensuring a seamless turn of that dial. When you turn the dial up on the training, all of these dials must get turned up as well.

What is your long-term goal? What are your short-term goals?

Having a goal during this time is important. It gives direction and a greater purpose to your training and allows your coach to help you get there in a way that is gradual. Instead of planning to use every single piece of equipment that you haven’t had access to for a couple months”, I hope you can see how taking it a bit easier now can benefit you in the long-term. It won’t feel like a waste of time when a lighter few weeks will allows you to truly ramp up your training when it really counts, or avoid injury that will hold you back from doing things outside of the gym – golfing, running, walking, gardening, hiking, racing, participating in events, etc.

At the end of the day, we have to stop comparing our pre-COVID-19 gym experience to that of the return to the gym, at least for the first couple of weeks. It’s likely going to look very different as we regain a sense of normalcy. Once again, we must strive to embrace the new normal. This time it’s post-Safer at Home orders. One thing can make this easier: preparation and managing our expectations.

I encourage everyone to start thinking about this now. Take time to think about what you want your return to the gym to realistically look like. Spoiler: it should not be an all-out, max effort workout on the first day in the doors. Think about your goals. Identify what you want long-term and how approaching the gym slowly will support that goal. Identify how you will turn the dial and leave “flipping the switch” to TikTok.

Written by Emily O’Connor, NSCA-CPT, Pn1, SFG1, XPS, and Lead Lifestyle Transformation Coach