For lots of us, lockdown meant that our usual fitness routines became a little different. No longer able to access the racks and benches at the gym, we needed to adapt our workouts to the equipment we had at home. If any at all.
As much as we may have enjoyed the running, Yoga, and at home HIIT, it has been pretty difficult to strength train in the same way as before. Without the heavy plates, dumbbells, and weights at our fingertips, maintaining the same levels of strength has been impossible. And that’s okay. We’ve had plenty of more important things to worry about.
But now the gyms are opening up again and we’ll soon be able to get back to all that equipment. Being able to restart a fitness routine and a level of strength that we’re proud of is probably motivation enough for many.
So, the eagerness is there and the effort is ready to be put in. How do we go about building our strength back?
3 things to do before you get back to it:
1. Accept the change
For the dedicated fitness types, losing significant strength and muscle mass during lockdown may have had an effect on mental health. It’s been hard.
The first thing to recognise is that everybody has had the same struggle and instead of obsessing over the mirror or the scale, congratulate yourself for getting through a tricky time and doing the best you were able to in the circumstances. Focus on feeling better physically rather than how you look. Although the latter will follow.
All physical states are only temporary and what has been lost can be regained. Fitness will always ebb and flow. After a few months back in the gym, you’ll be able to do what you could before.
2. Understand what happens to the body
Building strength requires the lifting of heavy loads. By definition, strength training is about exerting force.
When your muscles are being trained to work against high levels of resistance, a couple of things happen. The first is within your nervous system. In a nutshell, the neural connections between your brain and your muscles get better and allow you to exert more force. The second thing is to do with the muscles themselves. You need more muscle fibres to lift more and this will lead to a growth in the physical appearance of them.
When you’re no longer using and training your muscles to the same extent, gradually, the neural connections will weaken. And the muscle fibres will no longer be required by the body. As a result, your strength will decrease, and your muscles may reduce in size.
Strength and muscle mass are not the exact same thing.
Sure, they have a lot of overlap and their training styles will certainly complement each other. But it’s not as simple as increased strength = increased muscle size. What this means is that developing muscular strength, is not the exact same as hypertrophy (muscle growth), which is also not the exact same as muscular endurance. Without getting too deep into it, there are different nuances in training styles that need to be considered depending on your exact goals. Specificity is a key principle of training.
For developing your strength, you need to focus on increasing the maximum amount of weight you are able to lift for approximately 4 reps.
This might be a reminder that you actually want to develop other types of fitness rather than strength and strength only. Variation will always be important.
There are also different types of muscle fibres. The fibres developed with strength training are different from the ones developed with endurance training. High intensity, high rep exercises are great for your muscular endurance. They’ll help you go for longer and will see you develop one type of muscle fibre. However, this isn’t the type of muscle fibre that is capable of growing significantly in size. The other type of muscle fibre, developed with strength training, is.
Your at home HIIT workouts and bodyweight circuits will have been a great test of your muscular endurance, have kept you toned and lean, as well as developed your overall fitness. But they probably won’t have helped you reach new highs in your strength training or muscle mass missions. Just something to know.
The takeaway message is that after 3 months without lifting the heavy weights you were before; your strength will have decreased. But it’s only one area of overall physical fitness. And it’s one you can always build back up again.
3. Know you’re not starting from zero
If you got into the at home fitness and still managed to work out using your bodyweight or weight alternatives, it’s likely you will have maintained a level of strength through these activities. Granted, it might not be the same level you’re used to and that all the equipment in the gym will allow, but it doesn’t mean there’s nothing there at all. A push-up for example requires a degree of strength that not everybody has. It’s likely that your body is in a good position to start building strength back up again.
If you’re new to strength training and want to give the gym a go following all the at home fitness you’ve been enjoying, it’s likely you managed to achieve a certain level of strength too.
There’s also evidence to suggest that building strength back up to previous levels isn’t as difficult as it would have been the first time. It’s not a proven thing, but muscle memory theories can be used to explain why regaining strength is easier than building it for the first time because certain physical expansions remain in place.
Either way, you’re not starting from zero strength. You’ve maintained a certain level and you’ve built strength before. So, you can do it again. It just takes time and patience. Oh, and some hard work.
Okay, housekeeping done. So, if you’re ready to get back to the racks and start building your strength back up after lockdown. Here are some key principles to follow that will help you maximise your efforts and make some progress:
7 Important principles for training
One of the fundamental principles of any type of physical training is specificity. That means being really specific about what you want to achieve in order to get there efficiently.
It links back to what we mentioned before about strength, endurance, muscle growth, and all the other different components of physical fitness that you might not have been thinking about.
What is your goal exactly? Do you want to build strength? Or do you want to increase the size of your muscles? Although the training for these two goals will definitely complement each other, they’re not exactly the same. If your goals are specific, your training will need to be too.
It’s also okay not to know what your goal is. That can sometimes be the hardest part. Perhaps you just want to be fitter. You want to feel stronger, go for longer, enjoy different types of lifts in the gym, and develop some muscle or get a toned appearance while you’re at it. That’s okay too. Just keep variety at the heart of what you’re doing and focus on consistency.
If strength training is what you’re after specifically, it means you want to improve the maximum force you’re able to exert.
Know that going back into your training and focus on it.
2. Plan your progression
In order to progress and continue progressing, the stress you put your body under needs to keep increasing. Your routine needs to get harder. Fitness and strength plateaus can happen when you’re getting better at your workout and it no longer tests you anymore.
Our bodies are very good at adapting, meaning that to see continued improvement and progress, you need to keep making it hard for them in order to stimulate the physical changes that need to happen. Keep refining your routine.
Progressive overload describes the approach of gradually increasing the amount of stress the body is put under in order to increase muscle size, strength, and endurance.
If it’s muscle growth you’re after in particular, use weights within 60-80% of your one rep max and aim for around 10 reps.
If it’s strength you’re after in particular, use weights within 80-100% of your one rep max and aim for around 7 reps.
See, subtle differences.
3. Rest and recover
Rule one for anyone looking to strength train is to understand the importance of recovery. It’s during this time that your muscles repair and build and the effort you’ve put in is acknowledged. So don’t skip it.
During the first few weeks back in the gym, your muscles will need more recovery time than they might have done before. As your fitness builds, be gentle with your body and don’t push through periods of soreness.
It might be frustrating but taking it slow will get you further in the long run. Before, you might have been able to strength train 4-5 days a week. Start back up again at 2-3 days and see how you get on. Your body will tell you if it needs to do more or less.
4. Get enough protein in
Protein is one of the most fundamental nutrients and makes up a large amount of the tissues in your body. Your muscles are, of course, are one of those tissues.
Getting enough dietary protein is important to make sure that your body is able to carry out all of its normal processes. If you exercise, the body will need even more in order to carry out the breaking down and repairing of muscle tissue that happens after you work out.
You might hear people talk about a net positive balance of protein. That basically means having enough to do all the different processes your asking your body to do. Plus enough to repair exercise-induced muscle damage.
The average sedentary adult needs around 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight per day. If you exercise, this will increase to around 1.2g. Elite athletes need closer to 2.0g.
Use these guidelines to make sure you’re getting enough.
5. Don’t neglect your mobility
When you’re lifting weights regularly, it’s important to pay particular attention to your mobility as well.
Having good mobility is being able to work through the full range of motion of a joint. When it comes to strength training, that means you’re able to lift with the full and correct form. This allows you to lift heavier and reduces your risk of injury.
Make time for mobility focused exercises and stretches to ensure you keep moving forward in your strength training.
6. Go for full body
Unless you have any particular imbalances that you’re looking to iron out, it’s important to make your training equal.
This means attending to all the major muscle groups and not neglecting anything. Working one muscle group more than another can leave you weak and susceptible to injury in those neglected areas. There’s a reason behind the joke of never skipping leg day.
Aim for compound exercises. Ones that will target more than one muscle group at the same time. This will let you be much more efficient about your exercise and help you to develop well rounded strength across fewer sessions.
You can still segment your training days into lower body, shoulders and chest, back and arms, core, or however you want to break it up. But keeping compound lifts at the heart of your routine will make your efforts go further and help you avoid any significant imbalances in body strength. You can always top it off with some isolated exercises if you feel like it.
7. Keep it flexible
Fitting fitness in can be harder than lifting those weights themselves. Life gets in the way of a lot.
Keeping a flexible fitness routine means it’s an easy thing to make time for. It shouldn’t have to be difficult. Multiple gym access. A variety of facilities to use. A membership you can pause, play, or stop at any time. Hussle can help with that.
With the UK’s largest network of gyms, a Hussle pass lets you go to any of them, at any time. Take it one trip at a time, or one month at a time.