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Getting back into the gym

A person performing the squat exercise.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Austin J. Prisbrey, 377th Air Base Wing photojournalist, performs a squat lift at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, Dec. 8, 2019. Prisbrey gives exercising regularly credit as to the reason why he is able to handle stress. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kimberly Nagle)

A person running on a track

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Austin J. Prisbrey, 377th Air Base Wing photojournalist, runs at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, Dec. 8, 2019. Prisbrey utilizes the hour of time allotted to him by his office to lift weights, run and swim regularly. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kimberly Nagle)

A person selects the weight on a weight machine.

Individuals from Team Kirtland participated in a Weight Training 101 class at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico January 15, 2020. The purpose of the class is to present basic weight training principles to attendees who have little or no previous weight training experience. Future classes will be held based off of demand. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ireland Summers)

KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --

Gyms are opening up again, and exercise-starved Airmen are eager to lift more than furniture or performing endless push-ups/sit-ups. It’s important to be cautious and patient when transitioning back to the gym, in order to avoid injury and reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Your muscles do have memory of previous workouts; as such, it will take much less time to return to where you were prior to gyms closing down. As an example, if you worked out for 12 weeks, and completely stopped, you would regain your 12 week progress in four to eight weeks, which is pretty cool. If you continued with body weight and/or lifting items around the house, the recovery time will be even faster.

Comparing strength vs. muscle size losses; it’s easier to retain size than strength. Let’s take push-ups as an example for working the chest. If you perform push-ups to fatigue, 15-30 repetitions will be enough to keep most of your muscle size.

There is published research which indicates that if you completely stop lifting weights, muscle size for at least two weeks does not measurably change. Strength is another matter; strength requires high loads (5-12 repetitions to fatigue/near fatigue) to maintain/improve. That’s because strength is partly determined by nervous system adaptations, and those adaptations regress in a few weeks if high loads are not sustained.

For volume, start at about 50% of what you were used to doing, and do not go to fatigue on the sets; stop 2-3 repetitions before that point. This will reduce the risk of being sore the day after the workout. On week two you can increase volume to 75% of what you lifted before; and on week three, you can return to 100% of your training volume (you can also go to fatigue at this point).

The same advice applies to cardio. If you were running three miles per day, cut that to 1.5-miles for the first week, and don’t worry about how fast you run. Week two, increase to a 2-mile session. Week three, 2.5-miles; and by week four, you can run 100% of the volume you were used to.

The same principle applies to cycling, elliptical and related equipment. If you were using an elliptical for 30 minutes, start week one with 10 minutes, week two with 20 minutes and back to the full 30 minutes by week three.

If you decide to venture back into a gym, it’s important to take into account COVID-19 safe practices:

  • Be sure to wipe down equipment before and after you use it.
  • Wear a face mask whenever possible.
  • If you do feel sick, please stay home.
  • Wear gloves to minimize contact with surfaces, and maintain physical distancing.
  • If a portion of the gym is crowded, move to an area that is less populated.

Duration of exposure matters with regard to COVID-19 risk, so it’s best to get your workout done and get out. Don’t wait for your favorite equipment/machine; if that equipment/machine is occupied, use something else.

I would recommend performing cardio workouts outdoors, as the infection risk is reduced outdoors. A recent study from Japan linked 112 infections to group aerobic classes indoors; so such classes are high risk! The same study found that small classes of yoga or Pilates with 7-8 students did not seem to raise infection risk, perhaps because those types of exercise are low intensity, and therefore less heavy breathing was involved.

For more information on getting back to the gym safely, contact the Health Promotion Flight at 846-1186.

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