A PT shares 10 rules to follow as we head back to the gym

    Elderly man lifting weights at the gym
    Published: 6 April 2021. Written by: Phil Hilton.

    We’ve all missed it, everyone’s excited, but read this before you charge through those gym doors. For so many of us, the gym was a place we could go to just for us. A place to feel in control, get away from endless screentime, and, let’s face it, to look at ourselves in a really big mirror. 

    When the pandemic took the gym away, however, instead parks filled up with personal trainers, thousands of couches lost their owners to the magical 5k, and we all jumped in our lounges whenever Joe Wicks told us to. 

    Our efforts were heroic, but the gym is the gym and nothing else quite hits the spot. A survey carried out by Sport England found the British public missed the gym more than any other activity. The same study also revealed 87 per cent would be likely to resume their memberships when possible. 

    So, we have pent-up excitement combined with a room full of weights and machines. What could possibly go wrong? As we return, we all need a new strategy and some new rules. 

    We spoke to Stephen MacConville, a former rugby semi-pro and Fitness Lead for Flagship Programmes at Nuffield Health, and discovered that even he will be taking things slowly before hitting the accelerator. Oh, and we’re told the big mirrors are still in place…

    The heavy weights are not your friend (yet)

    Woman pushing weights

    Although you may have been doing your best with home equipment, your body will need to be eased in before you pile the big plates back onto your bar. Stephen says, ‘It’s been several months since gyms were last open – nobody should be going anywhere near any heavy weights. The last thing you want to do is go back to the gym and do a massive session, feel great and 48 hours later be unable to move.’ 

    After a long break, your muscles will be more susceptible to damage and soreness. This could interfere with your technique or cause you to stop training altogether. According to Mike Zourdos, a Professor of Exercise Science at Florida Atlantic University, it takes half the time you were away to return to your former lifting capacity, so don’t rush things.

    Go for reps, not records

    Those heavy, strongman sets of five can come later. Your first moments back in the gym should be about remembering how to move correctly again. Stephen says, ‘Think about what movement pattern you want and what you’d like to achieve. You should be activating muscle memory – your body will know how to move, but not while straining under maximum weight. Instead, increase the number of sets and reps using weights that you can lift comfortably.’ Work with a bare bar to perfect your form before you start loading weights onto it. 

    Think days, not hours

    Stephen recommends planning the number of days a week you will train on before mapping out each session. As a former semi-professional rugby player, under normal circumstances he would train twice a day. But his return to the gym will be planned via a structured week, building from three to four days back up to his full schedule. Returning to the gym also means returning to a structured mind-set. From this base, a more formal approach to the actual exercises can follow. It will be quite a change from the looser approach many of us have adopted at home over the past year.

    Woman squat pressing weighted plate

    Start with the basics

    Standard compound movements – such as bench presses, squats or overhead presses – will form a foundation and allow you to move on to more technically demanding moves. ‘You want to relearn the fundamentals so you’re in a better position to graduate on to more complex exercises,’ says Stephen. Although more demanding moves can be useful when you are ready, an exercise like an overhead squat (where you squat while holding a barbell above your head) will be more trouble than it’s worth at the start. Your body is relearning movements it hasn’t performed for a long time, so establish the basics before asking it to negotiate trickier exercises to reduce the risk of an injury. 

    Track your activity

    For those who’ve really missed the gym, there is a danger of being overtaken by the initial euphoria, especially when you see all the equipment you haven’t used for months. ‘You might have a honeymoon period where you feel like a kid in a candy store,’ says Stephen. However, when reality sets in during weeks two and three, you could find yourself wrestling with disappointment and a lack of motivation. Stay positive by focusing on your long-term goals and remember to track your activity to earn your Vitality points

    Set sustainable goals

    It’s essential to find a meaningful goal that will motivate you through those inevitable rainy days and difficult moments. ‘I can’t stress the importance of goal-setting enough,’ says Stephen. ‘But it needs to be something you believe in and will benefit from – not just “I have to jump into my swimsuit for Ibiza because flights are back on sale.” That’s not sustainable.’ Instead, identify intrinsic goals with a personal meaning for you, rather than ones that are about impressing others. Wanting to feel strong and healthy enough to complete a parkrun is an intrinsic goal – wanting to shout about it to colleagues isn’t. 

    Man running on treadmill

    Don’t compare

    This is the first time for a while that you’ll be working out next to others. There might be a temptation to feel intimidated or defeated before you’ve even begun. ‘I completely empathise with anyone who feels intimidated,’ says Stephen. ‘I’d remind them that other gym-goers are likely to be more concerned with whatever they’re doing themselves than what you’re doing. We’re all pretty much starting out again, so if there’s ever a perfect time to join, it’s got to be now.’

    Tune in to your body

    Stephen is himself still recovering from Covid-19 and is very grateful for his fitness as he came through his illness. He says your body will guide you through how much you should take on when rest is a priority.

    ‘I had Covid-19 this time last year and I was absolutely wiped out – and I played semi-professional rugby for six-and-a-half years so I am relatively fit! I couldn’t walk more than 100 metres without having to sit down. It taught me that the best guide to returning to fitness is your body. If your body is tired, then listen – and rest.’

    Always warm up

    Warming up can feel like sitting through the trailers before the main film comes on – but it’s vital before every training session. Set a timer, get on the bike or rowing machine and make sure you’re doing a cardiovascular warm-up for at least 15 minutes before you start your workout. 

    According to Dr Polly McGuigan, a Lecturer in Biomechanics at the University of Bath: ‘If you warm up, you’ve got blood flow to the muscles and your body is ready to receive the workout. Not many people realise that warm muscles are more receptive to learning things. Cardiovascular work improves your [body’s] ability to learn.’  

    Still want to head straight to the free weights? A review of 32 studies investigating the effects of warming up, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that it improved performance 79 per cent of the time. 

    Make friends at the gym

    Friends working out at the gym

    Before the pandemic, we didn’t always place sufficient value on being around other people. Lockdown has taught us all humbling lessons about the importance of interacting with other humans. The gym will be filled with people who also want contact and are excited to be back. It may be (gasp) time to occasionally slip off your headphones. ‘Don’t be scared to safely approach people – everyone has been dying to communicate. So forge friendships at the gym,’ says Stephen. 

    Remember to follow the latest government guidelines around social distancing in and out of the gym. 

    Need some gym motivation? Take a look at our 5 ways to kickstart your gym routine here.

    As a Vitality member, you could get a discounted membership at selected Nuffield Health Fitness & Wellbeing Clubs. Available with qualifying health insurance, life insurance and investment plans. A joining fee will apply. Log in to Member Zone for the details.