How to make a safe (and sensible) return to gym, according to a biokineticist

With gyms now open, albeit with limited capacity, many of us will start venturing back to our sanctuary for some much-needed body TLC.

But making a safe return to training is about more than just adhering to the safety protocol in place to stop the spread of COVID-19.

After 5 months away from the gym, it is vital that we also consider how to return to training with minimal injury risk, and ensure an enjoyable experience that is free from that dreaded next-day muscle soreness.

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All locked up

Lockdown living has not been conducive to movement for many. More hours spent sitting at make-shift desks or work stations, less frequent trips to the mall or the park, and a lack of regular exercise have likely resulted in immobile joints and stiffer muscles and tissues.

As such, jumping straight back into the training program you followed before lockdown is probably a bad idea.

Any major change in lifestyle has consequences, which is evident in the rise of common complaints related to necks, hips and lower backs.

Michelle Willenberg, a biokineticist at Samantha Dunbar Inc, registered physiotherapists and biokinetics, says the team has witnessed an increase in clients experiencing neck and back pain since lockdown restrictions eased and people were able to visit their physical therapists again.

“The main causes include working from different desks and chairs at home, which may not be as ergonomic as the equipment provided in corporate offices. Many people have also used different hardware and devices, like laptops and tablets, which forces them to look down at their screens, or shifts their wrists out of neutral positions.”

A shock to the body

As such, working from the dining room table or on the couch for extended periods has caused various issues, while a sudden increase in the volume and frequency of housework caused additional biomechanical problems for many.

“People have also come to us with muscle spasms and aches and pains from cleaning, DIY and gardening, as people haven’t done many of these activities for years,” adds Willenberg.

Get assessed

Obviously, these factors will impact people differently based on their individual circumstances, but everyone could benefit from an assessment from a qualified fitness professional or biokineticist before ramping up their training intensity or volume.

“A qualified healthcare provider can ensure that everything is fine, or a movement specialist can prescribe individualised mobility and strength plans to address any imbalances or weaknesses to reduce your injury risk.”

Willenberg adds that following a program suited to your specific biomechanics may also deliver better results.

The sensible approach

When you’re finally ready to make your return to gym, Willenberg suggests that you start sensibly.

“Don’t just jump into a new program, or pick up where you left off before lockdown. Ramp up your training intensity and volume slowly, and take sufficient rest between sessions to fully recover.”

Mark Field, Managing Director of Virgin Active South Africa, stated during a Let’s Work It Out Vitality Home Serieswebinar that people going back to gym should take precautions to do so safely.

“If you haven’t exercised through lockdown, take it easy when you return. It could take two and a half months to reach your pre-lockdown fitness levels.”

Ramp-up guidelines

Willenberg recommends that you start with 30 minutes at 60% of your pre-lockdown intensity.

“That equates to an RPE of 6/10. Those who remained active during lockdown could accelerate the pace and scale of their weekly ramp up, but everyone should gauge as they go and listen to their body.”

It is also prudent to review your exercise form and techniques, and re-engage movement patterns before adding resistance or significant weight to reduce injury risk.

Avoid the dreaded DOMS

And Willenberg says you can avoid those ‘T-Rex’ arms by starting with light weights and compound movements as part of full-body workouts.

Isolating muscles from day one can cause serious delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. While some next-day stiffness is welcome – it lets us know we had a good session – it shouldn’t be painful or stop us from training again the next day.

“Slowly build up over a few weeks to transition back to a split routine, and include active rest sessions between your weight training days with walks, yoga or Pilates. Aim to keep moving to make a quicker and safe return to your usual routine,” concludes Willenberg.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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