Our return to the gym is coming closer. With the re-opening of fitness facilities on the horizon, I wanted to provide a few practical strategies so that you can return to your fitness routines safely and in the best way possible. Some states may be enforcing different at-home restrictions due to COVID 19, which may cause a spike in positive cases, but that doesn’t mean your risk of injury at the gym needs to spike as well during these subsequent weeks and months.

In this post specifically, I wanted to review the importance of easing back into your fitness regimen and how to go about that process after quarantine restrictions are lifted. The smoother our transition back into our normal fitness routines, the more we’ll be able to reap the benefits of our movement practice.  

Even though we’re all ecstatic to return to our pre-COVID workout routines, we want to avoid doing too much too soon because that predisposes us to injury. With everyone and their mom sprinting back to their fitness classes, dumbbells, and squat racks, it’s important to still recognize that we’ve been on the sidelines for the past few months. Even if you’ve been consistently doing our bodyweight at-home workouts, you probably haven’t been sustaining the same level of strength and fitness while in quarantine compared to your fitness levels prior to the lockdown. Or maybe this lockdown has given you the opportunity to build your baseline fitness, in which case you still need to attack your fitness goals and build momentum. Either way, we want to train in an intentional and safe manner moving forward.    

Regardless of your fitness background, it’s important to remember that your ego can be your worst enemy in the gym. If you were bench pressing 200 lbs before the shutdown, it doesn’t make much sense to return to the bench and throw on the same amount of weight after not lifting that amount of load for the past few months. Your joints, muscles, and tendons haven’t been exposed to the loads they are accustomed to for quite some time, and we risk acute injury or unnecessary fatigue if we try to lift the same amount of weight right off the bat.

Especially for the more compound lifts such as bench press, squats, and deadlifts, our bodies are going to need some time to adapt to the stressors we place on it in the gym when we return. To successfully re-build our training, we need to initially focus on quality sets and reps with submaximal weight during exercise. In strength training, this can be formally coined as the minimum effective dose, which is the minimum dose of training we can administer to achieve a certain outcome (whether that’s strength, hypertrophy, endurance, etc) (Androulakis-Korakakis, 2020)

To achieve this, I’d recommend dropping the intensity of your weight around 80-90% of what you were lifting pre-COVID (not your 1RM). For a week or two this weight may feel lighter in your workouts, and that’s OK. Having the discipline to gradually increase the intensity of these loads will allow your body to reap the benefits of lifting while operating with proper technique. Even if you’re not an avid weightlifter, having some gradual exposure to your return to running, cycling, HIIT training, specific sport of choice, etc may help reduce your overall risk of injury as well. Many musculoskeletal injuries can occur from a spike or sudden increase in training volume, and the last thing you want is to be exempt from the gym even longer due to an injury.

If you’re the type of person that would prefer to use more concrete data to track your potential risk of injury and ensure your safety in the gym, that’s possible as well: regardless of your fitness activity, we can do that by monitoring your training volume and your Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE).   

RPE is a useful tool to self-report how challenging an activity, or even an entire workout, feels for you. The specific RPE scale I am referencing is shown below, ranging from 1 being “Nothing” to 10 being “Maximal/Exhaustion”.

The Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale – Maximize Potential, LLC

Recent research has shown that we can predict increased risk of injury by calculating the ratio of acute load in training volume (over the course of 7 days) to the chronic load in training volume (over the course of 28 days). To calculate acute load, we take the total volume of weight lifted for a particular training day (sets x reps x weight lifted), multiply it by our self-reported RPE for that workout session (number on a scale from 1-10), and take the average of those numbers over the course of 7 days.

For example, let’s say you went to the gym on a Monday and only performed back squats for that day for 5 sets of 5 reps at 150 pounds. Let’s say after you finish you rate that session of exercise a 6 on your personal RPE scale. For that day, you would then take 5sets x 5reps x 150lbs x 6 RPE = 22,500 total for that day. Come Sunday, after a full week of exercising and monitoring your volume, you take the totals from each day you exercised and average them to find your acute workload volume for that particular week.

To find the chronic workload value, you perform this same sequence of math and calculate the average load over the course of a 28-day period. Once you have your acute workload value and your chronic workload value, you divide acute load by chronic load and get your end result.

What’s awesome is that researchers have found that if the acute:chronic workload ratio exceeds 1.5, the individual places themselves at a higher risk of injury from their spike in training volume (Blanch and Gabbett, 2016). This means that you can objectively track your daily/weekly/monthly workload in the gym while simultaneously knowing if your training regimen is putting you at higher risk of injury or not. What’s also nice is that the external load that you measure throughout your training doesn’t just need to be how much weight you lift. In fact, you can use other factors like total distance ran or total number of sprints to calculate your acute:chronic workload ratio as well (White, 2017). So anyone can theoretically use this strategy, regardless of their movement practice.  

Again, these are strategies for when you DO return to your normal fitness routine in the near future. In the meantime, keep checking out our free bodyweight workouts (provide link) to keep you sweaty, sane, and active at home. My hope is that these tools can help ease your transition into the gym, proactively protect your body, and allow you to make more informed decisions on your post-COVID exercise plan.

Enjoy the Week!

Nati Schnitman

CSCS

References

Androulakis-Korakakis, P; Fisher, JP; Steele, J. The Minimum Effective Training Dose Required to Increase 1RM Strength in Resistance-Trained Men: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2020 Apr;50(4):751-765. doi: 10.1007/s40279-019-01236-0.

Blanch, P & Gabbett, T. Has the athlete trained enough to return to play safely? The acute:chronic workload ratio permits clinicians to quantify a player’s risk of subsequent injury. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2016; 50: p471-475.

White, Ryan. (Nov 26th, 2017). “Acute:Chronic Workload Ratio.” Science for Sport.