|Dr. Mike Israetel, PhD, RP's Chief Sport Scientist
You’re itching to train in the gym again after months of being out. And FINALLY, your city, state, or country has allowed gyms to reopen! Of course, you want to smash it and get those gains FAST. And, as soon as you get into the gym, this will be easy to do, because all of your favorite and so dearly missed machines and weights will be there waiting for you!
While your excitement is understandable, we're here to caution that rushing back in to a lot of gym work can be a very bad idea. Read on to find out why, and get advice on how to wisely - and safely - resume gym training.
READ MORE on how to get the most out of your at-home training if your gym is still closed (or you're not quite ready to return).
Why Rushing Back In Is Unwise
First thing's first: muscle is very easy to regain. Yes, new gains that you’ve never made before are a struggle, especially if you’ve been training hard for years. But regaining lost muscle is a matter of very minimal efforts, and occurs very rapidly. Even a regain of 10lbs of lost muscle (which is a lot) might only take 4 or 6 weeks of very normal training. So, the good news is that you don’t need to train that hard to make rapid gains happen upon your return to the gym. If you want to train harder, however, your gains will come back a little faster. The big downside here is that one of the biggest predictors of injury risk is a rapid jump in training volume. If you’re used to training with 10 sets per muscle per week, and you go up to 12 sets over the course of the next week, this small increase is just not that big of a deal. But if you’re used to minimal (or no) training at home over the past several months, and hop back into 15 sets a week when your gym reopens, that’s a HUGE elevation in training volume over a very short time, and the chances for injury rise substantially. Because getting hurt is quite counterproductive for your gains - not to mention bitterly ironic, given the wait to get back in the gym to resume making them - it’s just not wise to set yourself up for this unnecessary setback.
You might want to train harder upon your return to gym training because those quarantine pounds won’t drop themselves! In reality, very hard training doesn’t help with speeding up fat loss as much as many think it does. In fact, most of your fat loss will come from just a minimal amount of muscle-regaining training while your diet and daily activity change significantly. If you gained a lot of fat during the quarantine, it was because you started eating more and moving less, and the one or two hours per day not spent at the gym was only a minor contributor. So, just becoming more active, taking control of your eating, and easing back into hard gym training is definitely the way to go. Let’s get into the nitty gritty of what easing into the gym actually looks like.
It’s going to be super tempting to use every single machine in the gym on the first day back, but that’s just not required for rapid muscle regain. Yes, pick the machines and implements you didn’t have access to at home. For example if you’ve been using a pair of light dumbbells at home, barbells and machines are absolutely great choices for when you return to the gym. If you had a barbell at home but no dumbbells or machines, then using dumbbell and machine variants for most of your exercises is a good idea. The novelty of these exercises will spur muscle regain faster, and be psychologically more enjoyable as well, if some of your at-home training has gotten stale.
However, you’ll only need the normal number of exercises - perhaps just 2-4 per muscle group per week - to resume making your best gains. To put it another way: resist the temptation to do all 12 options per muscle group in every single workout!
The question of loading depends on what you’ve been doing outside the gym to date. If you’ve not really been able to train, you’re better off starting with mostly sets of 5-10 reps. The low rep numbers don’t require you to be in great cardio shape or have a high work capacity, and they are more than enough to regrow tons of muscle.
On the other hand, if you’ve been training hard at home with limited light weights for higher reps, the majority of your first weeks back into training should probably be in the 10-20 rep range. This range is heavier than the 20-30 you’ve been training at, but not so heavy as to be a shock to the system and increase injury risk, which weights in the 5-10 rep range are likely to pose.
Why the difference? If you’ve not really been training, both your muscles and connective tissues have shrunk, and you won’t be strong enough at the muscular level to increase injury risk much by going relatively heavy. On the other hand, if you’ve been training for months with lighter weights and higher reps, your muscles might very well be capable of producing large forces, but your connective tissues, having not been heavily loaded for months, might not be as ready, and might be hurt in the process.
After your first mesocycle back at the gym - aka a month or two of training followed by a deload - your next mesocycle can be more normal, with a mix of 5-10, 10-20, and 20-30 rep ranges.
How closely should you push to muscular failure when you come back to the gym? Again, the answer is different based on whether you’ve been training hard for higher reps during the lockdown. If not, you’ll get excellent results from being as far as 4 or 5 reps away from failure (4-5 RIR aka reps in reserve) in your first week back, and then getting a rep closer to failure on each subsequent week. This will also keep you safer from injury, as being nice and far from failure will keep your technique more stable. This is a challenge not to be underestimated, since you’ll have to fine tune it anew upon your return after this long hiatus!
If you have been training with light weights for higher reps during the lockdown, there's no harm in starting at the normal 3 RIR or so in your first week back.
Whether you trained a lot or not so much during the lockdown, expect to see big jumps in strength upon your gym return, thanks to gym equipment's newfound novelty for your muscles. Not rushing load onto the bar and letting RIR be the guide is best practice here. For example, if you did 150lbs for sets of about 10 reps at 3 RIR in your first week, you might go up to 155lbs in the second week and do your first set of 10 reps at 5 RIR. This means that you’ve regained lots of rep strength, and it’s probably wise to put 165lbs or so on the bar for the remaining sets that week. If you find yourself in this boat, also consider going up by 10lbs each week rather than 5lbs, as your strength is coming back rapidly. For reasons previously described, what you don’t want to do is feel great, add 25lbs each week, and grind all the way to failure at 10 reps just two weeks into your comeback mesocycle.
If you haven’t trained much during the quarantine, your minimum effective volume (MEV), or the smallest amount of training required to make gains, will be VERY low. Thus, if you’re just coming back, simply doing 1-3 hard sets per muscle group per session, and only about 2 session per muscle group in the first week is likely more than enough. Much more will not yield notably faster gains, but will substantially increase your risk of injury. As you train over the coming weeks, you will no longer get very pumped or sore from that much volume. Over 1-2 mesoscycles, you can then slowly add a set here and there as you return to your usual volume, in step with the rate at which you will - not coincidentally - find yourself returning to your previous muscularity.
If you have been training hard at home this whole time, you’ll actually need to lower your volume a bit, because the heavier exercises at the gym are so much better designed to grow muscle (and cause fatigue) per any number of sets you do. For example, you might have been doing 8 sets per session of dumbbell squats for your quads at home, but now that you have machine hack squats to do at the gym, merely 3 or 4 sets of those will toast your quads like even 8 sets of dumbbell squats at home couldn’t do. The last thing you want to do is do 8 sets of hack squats and cripple yourself for a week and a half, sacrificing potential growth you could have achieved from additional training your first week back. So, if you have been training hard at home, perhaps lowering your weekly per-muscle sessions from ~ 3-4 to ~ 2-3 is a wise move. Likewise, it's smart to start at just 3 or 4 sets per muscle group per session and gently move up from there as your body recovers from the novel stimulus of gym training.
What should a return to gym training mean for your diet? If your long-term goals are to build muscle and burn fat, the answer is actually rather simple. When returning to the gym, maintenance dieting (eating enough to keep your bodyweight about the same over the first mesocycle back) is probably best. Because of the novel stimulus of being in the gym for the first time in a while, eating at maintenance will enable building muscle and simultaneously burning fat during those first few weeks! By eating at maintenance, you can also focus on just rebuilding your training momentum, without the added concern of managing a weight loss or weight gain nutritional plan. And, with any luck, open gyms will be accompanied by reopened restaurants, which you can enjoy during your maintenance phase. Once you regain your lost muscle (or even gain some extra) by eating at maintenance in your first mesocycle back, depending on your body composition goals and current body fat percentage, you can choose to lose or gain weight in your next mesocycle.
Stepping foot back in the gym can definitely be a bit daunting, not to mention how frustrating it is to have to RE-gain your hard earned muscle. But, there is definitely a silver lining. If you didn’t train much during the quarantine, your body and mind are super healed from harder training, kind of like from a very long active rest phase or vacation! As you return to your previous muscularity, you’ll actually be able to attain your highest-ever gains shortly thereafter, thanks to being refreshed by your time away. A few months of easy or no training after years of training can actually be a NET POSITIVE, and is almost certainly not a net negative. Sure, if it was half a year or a year of missed training, that would be sad. But don't sweat a few short months of not sweating!
On the other hand, if you did train hard during the lockdown and made some gains, then you’re now going to make even more impressive gains coming back to the much more effective gym training your body has been missing! Instead of taking one step back and two steps forward, you’re just taking your next step forward. So get out there, be smart, ease in, and make those gains!