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)


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.

USAF Comments Policy
If you wish to comment, use the text box below. AF reserves the right to modify this policy at any time.

This is a moderated forum. That means all comments will be reviewed before posting. In addition, we expect that participants will treat each other, as well as our agency and our employees, with respect. We will not post comments that contain abusive or vulgar language, spam, hate speech, personal attacks, violate EEO policy, are offensive to other or similar content. We will not post comments that are spam, are clearly "off topic", promote services or products, infringe copyright protected material, or contain any links that don't contribute to the discussion. Comments that make unsupported accusations will also not be posted. The AF and the AF alone will make a determination as to which comments will be posted. Any references to commercial entities, products, services, or other non-governmental organizations or individuals that remain on the site are provided solely for the information of individuals using this page. These references are not intended to reflect the opinion of the AF, DoD, the United States, or its officers or employees concerning the significance, priority, or importance to be given the referenced entity, product, service, or organization. Such references are not an official or personal endorsement of any product, person, or service, and may not be quoted or reproduced for the purpose of stating or implying AF endorsement or approval of any product, person, or service.

Any comments that report criminal activity including: suicidal behaviour or sexual assault will be reported to appropriate authorities including OSI. This forum is not:

  • This forum is not to be used to report criminal activity. If you have information for law enforcement, please contact OSI or your local police agency.
  • Do not submit unsolicited proposals, or other business ideas or inquiries to this forum. This site is not to be used for contracting or commercial business.
  • This forum may not be used for the submission of any claim, demand, informal or formal complaint, or any other form of legal and/or administrative notice or process, or for the exhaustion of any legal and/or administrative remedy.

AF does not guarantee or warrant that any information posted by individuals on this forum is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. AF may not be able to verify, does not warrant or guarantee, and assumes no liability for anything posted on this website by any other person. AF does not endorse, support or otherwise promote any private or commercial entity or the information, products or services contained on those websites that may be reached through links on our website.

Members of the media are asked to send questions to the public affairs through their normal channels and to refrain from submitting questions here as comments. Reporter questions will not be posted. We recognize that the Web is a 24/7 medium, and your comments are welcome at any time. However, given the need to manage federal resources, moderating and posting of comments will occur during regular business hours Monday through Friday. Comments submitted after hours or on weekends will be read and posted as early as possible; in most cases, this means the next business day.

For the benefit of robust discussion, we ask that comments remain "on-topic." This means that comments will be posted only as it relates to the topic that is being discussed within the blog post. The views expressed on the site by non-federal commentators do not necessarily reflect the official views of the AF or the Federal Government.

To protect your own privacy and the privacy of others, please do not include personally identifiable information, such as name, Social Security number, DoD ID number, OSI Case number, phone numbers or email addresses in the body of your comment. If you do voluntarily include personally identifiable information in your comment, such as your name, that comment may or may not be posted on the page. If your comment is posted, your name will not be redacted or removed. In no circumstances will comments be posted that contain Social Security numbers, DoD ID numbers, OSI case numbers, addresses, email address or phone numbers. The default for the posting of comments is "anonymous", but if you opt not to, any information, including your login name, may be displayed on our site.

Thank you for taking the time to read this comment policy. We encourage your participation in our discussion and look forward to an active exchange of ideas.