Following on from 4 months of lockdown, we’re allowed to return to the gym. Fitness facilities are opening back up and strength training will be back on the agenda for many.

At KYMIRA we strive to educate and inform using an evidence-based approach. In this article we’re going to share best practice on returning to the gym, what you need to be aware of and how you can make your return to weight training safe and effective. With the advice we’ll share here you’ll be able to do just that.

We’ll follow up the article with a sample training session from KYMIRA endorsed Personal Trainer, Nathan Kennedy, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

So without further ado, here’s the evidence-based guidance for returning to the gym after a break…

Time to read: 8 minutes


Key Points:

  • The Principle of Reversibility in Action
  • Effects of Detraining on Various Physical Capabilities
  • V02 Max
  • Muscular Strength
  • Muscle Power
  • Returning to the Gym - Best Practice

In this article we’re going to share best practice on returning to the gym, showing you how you can make your return to weight training safe and effective.

The Principle of Reversibility in Action

One of the principles of training is ‘reversibility’. The principle dictates that any adaptation that takes place as a result of training will be reversed when you stop training. This includes (but is not limited to) muscle mass and strength, connective tissue strength and elasticity, bone density, capilliarisation, cardiovascular output and endocrine function.

When we return to the gym after a layoff, we have to consider the effects of reversibility on our own physiology and fitness. Going straight back after a period of inactivity or reduced loading and intensity to your previous training schedule is at best, unwise and at worst, downright dangerous.

So what happens to our fitness levels after a training break?

Effects of Detraining on Various Physical Capabilities

Different physical capabilities react in different ways. Some of this is age-related, some is down to physiology, but what’s important is understanding what happens to our bodies and how to regain fitness in the safest and most effective way.

VO2 Max

Research has shown that effects of detraining on VO2 Max can occur in as little as 2-4 weeks [1], but these results are particularly individualised – the rate of decline depends on a lot of different factors. 

Further research shows us that in power endurance athletes, in this case an Olympic Champion Rower, peak oxygen uptake declined by 8% after 8 weeks of inactivity [2]. Additionally, muscle power at VO2 peak was 20% lower, showing the effects extend beyond the cardiovascular system. When we consider the dramatically worse decline in muscular power output, it suggests that actually the cardiovascular system is slower to decline than the musculoskeletal system.

Muscular Strength

Relative to cardiovascular function, muscle strength drops off more quickly and interestingly, at different rates depending on your age. 

In a comparison study between strength losses in the genders and different ages, the results showed that strength loss is quicker in the older age groups [3]. Gender differences don’t appear to affect strength loss significantly, but after 31 weeks of inactivity the young subjects in the study lost around 8% of their leg strength, whereas the older subjects lost around 14%.

Muscle Power

As we know, muscle power and muscle strength are different. Power is the ability to use strength at speed, such as when sprinting, jumping, throwing or performing a weightlifting movement. Strength is simply the ability to lift a mass. We know that detraining affects power as well as strength and the research suggests it could be due to a change in the physiology of muscle tissue.

In this study [4] on the effects of detraining in men, researchers discovered that the loss of strength and power could likely be attributed to a reduction in size and number of type 2 muscle fibres, which are the muscle fibres associated with strength and power. 

Returning to the Gym – Best Practice

Once we know and understand what has happened to our bodies, we need to think about how we approach our return to the gym. It’d be foolish to go straight back to pre-lockdown weights and volume, so a gradual approach is the most sensible thing to do.

What research on strength training shows us is that actually, muscle strength and power returns quickly post reduced exercise, with rates of protein synthesis returning to normal within 2-6 weeks of a training return, depending on the population (typically in older populations it takes longer). Using this as a guideline, you should look at start your return to exercise lifting around 50% of your previous best and gradually return to where you were pre-lockdown.

Research in older populations (typically those who respond slower to exercise) shows that strength is regained within 8 weeks of returning to training [5]. If we use this as a benchmark we can adapt training programmes to ensure we return to our previous levels of strength at around the 8 week mark. 

Final Thoughts on Returning to the Gym

The reality is that unless you’ve been lucky enough to maintain your training frequency and intensity throughout lockdown, you’ll have suffered a level of reversibility in your strength and performance levels. The most pragmatic thing to do is to start slowly and return your strength over a period of time.

Research shows us that strength does return, but if you rush the approach you risk injury. By wearing KYMIRA you’ll improve blood flow and tissue elasticity, improving performance and reducing injury rates. 

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July 30, 2020 — Stephen Hoyles

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