That gym membership clinched it all, didn’t it? You bought new gear. You’re packing a shiny new water bottle. Your playlist has more rocking guitar riffs than a Led Zeppelin compilation. You’re getting back to working out and while everything you’re bringing is all new, your body isn’t. If you’re like most people over 40, you’ve done your share of skipping workout sessions in the last decade or two. No judgement here: You get caught up with paying bills, working hard, building a family and simply living life. That’s how we all get a little softer in the muscles, a little rounder in the middle and a lot slower going up the stairs. But with renewed vigor (or a carefully worded warning from your doctor), you’re heading back into the gym to reclaim your former glory. And you’re going to get hurt.
The percentage of gym related injuries grows each year. The reason? You’re not who you were the last time you went to the gym. You’ve spent your entire adult life hunched over at your desk, sitting for hours at a time and eating food that has softened your muscles. You’re living to get by. The last time you were in the gym regularly, you were living to get better. That’s what working out is: Getting better every day. It’s a process. It’s gradual. So is getting back into shape.
Let’s address the elephant in the room: You’re first injury coming back from a long layoff will be from overworking yourself—and not on the treadmill. Your ego will push you to match who you were, not who you are. Here are five rules for starting out after a long layover:
1. Stretch: Sure, you’re going to be tempted to skip this one, but stretching will prevent injury just by warming up your muscles and joints. You don’t have to make a production out of it though—just make sure you prime your body before you ask it to perform like it was a sophomore in college.
2. Light Sets: You probably skipped stretching, didn’t you? Either way, performing an initial light set of any exercise is always a good idea. It let’s your body know what’s coming, allows your mind to connect with the movement and also further stretches and prepares your muscles and joints.
3. Higher Reps: If you’ve skipped step one and two, you’re going to hate this step. Why? Because performing higher reps of lighter weight means your muscles are ready for an assault. If you skipped one and two, they aren’t ready. Why higher reps of light weight instead of lesser reps with heavy weight? Simple: To protect your joints—especially after a long layoff!
4. No Cheating: The temptation will be there. You’ll want to push past your limits and you’ll sacrifice anything to do it. Moving the weight by any means necessary is pointless. You’re not in a contest against anyone but yourself and what you need is to build muscle gradually, not look like a star today. Getting more reps done than you planned isn’t going to win you any medals. Stick to your plan and results will follow.
5. Focus on Form: Performing every rep accurately and allowing for rests in between your sets are key to any proper workout plan. These rules are here to help you build muscle and strength. Cutting them out will not create a shortcut. Instead, it’ll almost assure injury.
If you follow these rules, your chances of not derailing your comeback are way better. But surviving isn’t your goal. You want to be your best and see all the rewards from your hard work. Here are some tips to ensure you get the most out of your efforts:
6. Hire a trainer: I’ve never recommended using a personal trainer for a long period of time. I think of them as great resources to help you in the gym. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use them long term—just that you don’t have to. Think of them like your local mechanic—he knows your car really well and he can give you a lot of great insight, but you don’t need him in the car with you every time you go out. Sign up for some sessions with a trainer so he can help assess your weaknesses and give you some pointers on how to work to your strengths.
7. Use a training log: Just because you’re grunting through your sets doesn’t mean you get a free pass on using your brain. Take notes. Write down how many sets, reps and weight used on every exercise you do. Then, assess things at home. Look at how things are progressing, or not. And adapt your plans accordingly.
8. Change it up: Doing the same workout creates a kind of muscle redundancy where your body gets used to what you’re doing and won’t progress past a certain point. Every month to month and a half, you should change up your plan to ensure your muscles are constantly being stimulated.
9. Do less: Make sure you take days off and rest your body. Working out can be addictive and can lead to overtraining. Don’t overwork your body, just like you wouldn’t overwork your mind.
10. Do more: Being active doesn’t end at the gym. Get out and do something different with your newfound energy levels and strength. Try a recreational league, get on a bike or try some yoga. This type of active rest will keep you burning fat, building muscle strength and ultimately becoming healthier with each day.