Following months of a concerted national effort to flatten the curve and prevent the spread of coronavirus, gyms, PT studios and physiotherapy practices around the country have welcomed their members and clients back in droves.
What athletes have lost in terms of strength and fitness depends on several different variables. Firstly, a lot will depend on how inactive they have been during the lockdown. Many athletes have had some sort of workout equipment at home and have embraced the online training revolution over the past number of months. They have been able to stimulate their workouts to the best of their ability, without access to heavy weights and exercises using specialised equipment. Inversely, the last 4 months may have been a time of low training load for some secondary to a lack of gym equipment or motivation given the fact that the gyms have been closed.
Several clients have asked me about the possibility about deconditioning during a layoff from training. The research looks to be fairly conflicting on the level of deconditioning that can occur after a period away from the gym.
An interesting study to come out of Germany looked at programming a block of strength training for a sample group, followed by a period of complete rest. Each participant performed resistance training three times per week for 12 weeks. The participants then took three weeks off from training or sport. The scientists measured the body mass, fat mass, fat-free mass, muscle thickness, one-rep max in the squat and bench press, countermovement jump, medicine ball pull distance, and sprint times at baseline, after 12 weeks of training, and after three weeks of detraining.
After the 12 weeks of resistance training, both groups showed similarly significant gains in all measurements except for fat mass. After three weeks of no exercise, the fat mass increased, and fat-free mass decreased significantly, but all other measures of strength and performance remained unchanged. Therefore, the effects of the two training programs remained, even after taking three weeks off from any training.
At a more extreme level at the other end of the spectrum, a period of rest can be linked to be negative effects on both skeletal muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness, as seen in the papers by Kortebein et al and Convertino et al. A caveat to these is that the sample groups were of an older population and their detraining/deconditioning period was bed rest. I imagine very few were confined to their bed during the lockdown as they were forced to adapt to the “new normal”!
Where there seems to be an agreement is that reconditioning tends to be a slower process so starting back into intense bouts of exercise can lead to injury. With that in mind, below are a couple of tips to look at as you return to your normal training routine -
1. Lifting too heavy, too early.
Although the common tendency following a break from the gym is go gung ho on lifting as much weight as possible, advice is to gradually return to your regular pre pandemic routine. . Especially after a break, most athletes need to accumulate training volume before jumping directly into heavy lifting. By doing so, you will make steady progress and prevent injury. It takes longer for joints, tendons, and ligaments to recover from heavy lifting than it does your muscles. . Consider reducing your intensity or load to 70-80% of your pre-pandemic efforts for a few weeks. If you’re used to doing a 70kg bench press, consider starting at around 55kg and building gradually from there.
2. Training variability.
If there was ever an opportunity to add in variability into your training, now is the time. Backing up sessions of upper limbs strength workouts or intensive running sessions can increase the likelihood of picking up a niggle or a full blown injury. It is important therefore to reflect on your week to see if there was an opportunity to switch up your approach to allow it to become more balanced. The addition of active recovery or rest days between a heavy strength or cardio laden day can make all the difference, reducing the accumulation of the dreaded DOMs and leaving you feeling a lot fresher.
3) Active recovery/accessory work.
Aches and pains have many causes, but are a typical by product of training. Complete rest isn’t always the best way to manage them. Consider an active recovery day – go for a brisk walk that would match the average length of your training sessions or cold-water immersion in the sea.
Accessory work (also known as maintenance) can include stretching, self-myofascial release or yoga/ pilates are great ways to deload mentally and physically between sessions. Exaggerated training spikes place a strain on the body that it may not be ready to handle. These can help you recover effectively and present as easy injury prevention strategies.
4) Patience Patience Patience!
Your enthusiasm needs to be tempered with a realistic view of your current condition, not the memory of your ability four months
ago. After a layoff, you need to be patient. Consistency and progressive overload are the most important factors for rebuilding your strength and cardiovascular fitness. Focus on ensuring those factors first.
Train hard. Train smart. Stay patient. And stay consistent.
- Covertino et al 1982. Cardiovascular responses to exercise in middle-aged men after 10 days of bedrest - 1982 Jan;65(1):134-40. doi: 10.1161/01.cir.65.1.134.
- Kortebein et al 2007. Effect of 10 Days of Bed Rest on Skeletal Muscle in Healthy Older Adults - JAMA. 2007;297(16):1769-1774. doi:10.1001/jama.297.16.1772-b
- Int J of Exercise Sci. 2020;13(6):633-44