How to Get Back to the Gym (Injury/Illness/Lockdown)

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As gyms are gradually opening up, this is extremely useful info for all iron fans resuming full-fledged workouts. So, how to get back to the gym avoiding injuries and other obstacles?

A Couple of Disclaimers Before You Get Back to the Gym

how to get back to the gym after being sick

This article was inspired and written at a time when exercise was severely restricted due to covid lockdown. Hopefully, this is a temporary phenomenon, but the information from the article can be applied in other cases when you return to training after a long break or significantly change the training program.

Indeed, the regular ARVI easily unsettles and forces you to change plans: refuse to meet with friends, skip shopping and give up training. Even if you are used to the motto “not a day without sports,” you have to take a short break. As soon as the symptoms subside, doubts arise: when it is possible to get back to the gym, whether training will weaken the immune system, whether fitness will cause complications.

Tissue damage and pain are not the same things. Some changes do not lead to painful sensations or decreased performance. Pain is just one of the trauma-correlated factors that I view as “something we can control.” If you feel pain when you return to the gym, please consult a specialist.

It should also be understood that finding any abnormalities on an MRI does not mean that you cannot return to full training.

While you can make great progress with minimal equipment at home, I can safely assume that many readers are unlikely to kill themselves in bodyweight exercises and harnesses at home as fiercely as with your favorite barbell in the gym.

Again, the info below will suit both post-lockdown athletes and those who had to miss several months due to an illness. Especially, given the fact that lockdown is introduced for people to recover from illness, we decided to group these two categories together.

How Physical Activity Affects Health

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It has long been known that moderate exercise boosts immunity and reduces inflammation in the body. Researchers found that people who exercise five or more days a week had respiratory infections 46% less frequently than those who were inactive. The fact is that exercise activates the immune system at a faster rate and forces cells to attack viruses that have entered the body. Also, regular aerobic exercise can help you recover faster.

In order not to join the ranks of sneezing ones, you need to remember the main aspects of a healthy lifestyle:

  1. adequate sleep, 
  2. exercise,
  3. proper nutrition. 

When you understand how much physical activity benefits, how the immune system works, you don’t want to quit training at all. But if you do get sick, postponing fitness is the right decision.

What Happens to the Body During Illness

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ARVI challenges immunity. The virus damages cells and the immune system sends its “fighters” to the affected areas to eliminate the danger. The unpleasant symptoms that appear during illness are the result of the body’s struggle.

Classic symptoms of ARVI:

  • runny nose;
  • sore throat;
  • weakness;
  • body temperature 37–38 °С.

On average, ARVI lasts for about 7-10 days. Medicines can only help alleviate the symptoms and transfer the disease with minimal discomfort. One of the conditions for a speedy return to normal being is rest and sleep.

How to Prevent Injuries After You Get Back to the Gym


Injury Susceptibility: Injuries Are Almost Impossible to Predict

It is clear that healthy athletes perform better than injured ones. The way to predict and prevent injury is the Holy Grail that coaches of different sports are looking for. Many approaches are used to identify predisposition to injury, for example, genetic [1].

Various tests and measurement schemes for risk assessment are being developed, but, unfortunately, there is still insufficient data in the scientific literature on common screening methods [2]. It seems that no single test or even a combination of tests is capable of reliably and 100% predicting injuries [3]. With regard to powerlifting and bodybuilding, only knowing the medical history can predict the injury in a particular individual.

Injury Prevention: Strength Training Reduces Sports Injury

Prevention is more interesting. A number of studies will definitely delight you. A review by Lauersen et al. [4] showed that strength training reduced sports injury rates by up to 68% and reduced cumulative injuries by almost 50%.

The same group investigated the dose-response relationship between training volume and injury risk: a 10% increase in repetitions led to a 4.3% reduction in injury risk [5].

The increase in strength itself also helps: relatively strong people are subject to less risk and withstand more stress without adverse consequences [6].

No direct dependence of injuries on load volumes (or on the ratio of one-time/total load) was found

weight machines

But the bad news is that while the relative incidence of injuries in powerlifting is low (recent estimates put 1-4.4 injuries per 1000 training hours [7], injuries are very common among athletes. A survey of Swedish sub-elite powerlifters found that 87% of them suffered the injury during the last 12 months [8], and our study [9] also revealed 74% of those injured during the year of follow-up.

As far as I know, no prospective study has investigated a causal relationship between exercise performance and injury. Interesting data on the influence of training volume [10], it seemed, could be used to regulate loads in order to reduce injuries [11]. It was hoped that we could apply this metric (single/chronic workload ratio) in the gym. But it didn’t happen – problems with calculations were revealed [12], and the totality of “evidence” in favor of this method was questioned.

Torstein Dalen-Lorentsen and colleagues stated [13] that “the quality of the data (regarding the ratio of one-time and chronic training load) is currently insufficient to describe the ongoing processes.” And harsher critics urge to abandon the use of this ratio altogether due to “serious methodological flaws” [14].

All of this means that I cannot predict the likelihood of injury to you and also cannot give out a reliable way to preserve health when you get back to the gym.

How to Protect Yourself from Injury When You Get Back to the Gym: Practical Advice


But, since the research doesn’t suggest anything, here are some practical tips. If you are relatively young, more or less healthy, and have already trained with iron without any particular problems, then most likely, you have nothing to worry about. The simplest advice is – don’t be stupid.

The guidelines below are primarily intended for those who have suffered from trauma (or pain) in the past.

#1. Start With Ridiculously Low Volume and Intensity

Although it turns out that the ratio of one-time to total training load does not help much, controlling the volume is still useful.

Even trained individuals can increase muscle strength [15] and mass [16] by performing only one working set in training. Of course, this is not a recommendation to switch to such a low-volume training style, but you should understand that not so much is needed to progress.

So start with ridiculously low volume and intensity. Even a couple of training cycles that are not at your maximum workload will not hurt long-term progress. Then gradually increase both volume and intensity.

#2. Turn On Auto-Regulation


Quarantine, of course, has disarmed many. Even if you did something at home, working with a heavy barbell requires restoring specific neuromuscular coordination, so you shouldn’t grab the old 1RMs and calculate the percentage of them on the first visit to the gym.

So what kind of weights to work with? Auto-regulation will help to understand [17].

Auto-regulation is a form of periodization that allows you to adjust the load in each workout in accordance with the individual’s capabilities. The most practical and affordable option is the Remaining In Reserve Retry scale [18]. Simply put, by doing a work set, you are subjectively estimating the number of reps left to failure.

The introduction of this scale allows us to select a load that is adequate to our capabilities at each individual workout. Lifters are usually good at detecting this scale when they approach 3-5 (± 1) repetitions to failure [19]. This is how you should work when you return to the gym after a long break. You will not abuse the failure, and you will gain enough “hard” sets.

I would recommend starting with an average number of reps (5-8) and adjusting the weight until you reach your target reps in reserve (~ 3) in that range.

#3. Limit the Range and Speed of Movement


As shown by the data of Judd Tyler Kalkhoven [20] and Cook [21], the likelihood of damage to muscles and tendons is influenced by the amplitude and speed of the exercise. Muscle injuries are correlated with stretching (change in length), and the higher the rate of elongation, the more severe the injury.

Read more: How to Prevent Injuries in Sports.

The stress experienced by the tendons during pulling is also higher with faster movement [22]. Of course, this is not a reason to abandon the “explosive” or full-amplitude movement. Some tissue “damage” is an important stimulus [23] for positive physiological and mechanical adaptation. It is only when the degree of damage exceeds our recovery capacity that we experience the negative effects of “trauma.”

Detraining leads to a change in the properties of tissues, which is why they are less resistant to stress [24]. With this in mind, you should resume training at a slow pace and avoid prolonged pauses at the endpoint of the movement. You can mechanically limit your range of motion by, for example, box squats or bench presses from the lower restraints of the power rack.

As the body re-adjusts to higher loads, gradually return to the full range of motion and faster execution speed.

#4. Get Enough Sleep!

To date, there are no prospective studies looking at the effect of the amount or quality of sleep on the risk of injury in security officials. However, some cross-sectional data [25] indicate a positive association between good sleep (whatever that means) and low injury rates.

Data from other areas [262728] also make one think about the importance of this factor.

Sleep is the simplest and most accessible means of “recovery” and “prevention” of injuries. If you have been injured before (or suspect that you will soon), do not neglect it.

Also, see – Overtraining: Causes, Signs, and Solutions.

When Can I Get Back to the Gym?


It used to be thought that long-term intensive training “opens a window” for infections to enter the body and weaken the general immunity. However, scientific studies have disproved this theory, finding that exercise is only beneficial. During exercise, the number of lymphocytes increases 2.5 times.

At the same time, you need to understand that you should not load an organism that has just survived an infection. The American Physical Culture Committee recommends abstaining from physical activity for two weeks after recovery.

And of course, you cannot return to the gym until the symptoms disappear completely, so as not to infect other people: you must show respect and social responsibility.

What the First Workout After You Get Back to the Gym Should Look Like


Gunnar Peterson, an American fitness trainer for professional athletes and movie stars, believes there is no need to rush into intense workouts. After illness, the load level should be reduced: shorten the duration of the workout, take less weight.

It is important to control your breathing and heart rate. With extreme caution, after ARVI, the cardio load should be added to the training program. Peterson recommends choosing multi-joint exercises: squats, push-ups, deadlifts. Such exercises help to keep fit and create high metabolic demand, even with small weights.

You need to return to your usual activities gradually and carefully monitor your well-being. After all, the main rule in sports, as well as in medicine, is to do no harm.


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