Let's face it. Even the fittest among us has been there... stuck in that uncomfortable neverland of missed workouts, where resuming a weight training routine grows increasingly daunting with every missed day. For some, even a visit to the dentist holds more appeal than starting back at square one. There can be a variety of reasons -- from becoming busy with a new career or new business venture to starting a family. And years may go by before career and family life settles a bit.
Yet, thankfully, the desire to return to the gym leads many of us back to training. Whether it be fueled by added pounds on the scale, an upcoming physical event or another motivation (May is National Physical Fitness and Sports Month!), millions will head back to the gym after time spent away, but few of them realize there's a method that can save them from possible injury and disappointment.
The first few weeks back in the gym often seems to go much better than anticipated with regard to strength. Most people think they will be very weak and de-conditioned, which is true to some extent. Muscle soreness does occur as anticipated. However, their strength levels are better than expected and are always surprising. The lay-term for this is "muscle memory," which is actually a nervous system phenomenon. The strength comes back, but the rest of the body isn't ready for this level of training. The end result is predictable. An injury typically occurs within 3-4 weeks of initiating training and he/she has to stop training again, which leads to frustration. Some of the injuries require a visit to a health care provider.
I advise patients who are returning to the gym after a long layoff to follow a simple plan to avoid the injuries. I call this plan re-entry training. People returning to the gym must give their bodies the time to acclimate the changes of training. During the multiple years of layoff from training, their muscles, ligaments and tendons have tightened and muscles have atrophied. The various weight training movements and machines require ranges-of-motion that are no longer present in the joints and muscles of the returning gym member. The susceptibility of these structures to overstretch or partial tear is high. The atrophied muscles can strain too, especially if the nervous system ("muscle memory") allowed more weight to be lifted than should have been lifted.
The cardiopulmonary efficiency is much less than when their training stopped. The heart will not be able to meet the demand it once had, nor will the lungs. If a run, bike ride, hike, or aerobics class is pushed too hard by someone who is several years de-conditioned and likely a little overweight, this could lead to cardiac symptoms and possibly compromise their health.
The training effect produces the desired result if given a chance. The result is based on the improvement of recruitment of muscle fibers by the central nervous system, improved coordination, improved circulation, formation of more capillaries in the muscles and heart, improved efficiency in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs, improved range of motion throughout the body, increased protein formation in the muscles, and depending on the type of training, improved bone density. All of these changes take time. You need to be patient and allow the body to adapt. If you push the body too hard, it will break.
When people return to the gym, they often remember how they used to train and how much weight they lifted. They erroneously think they can perform the same number of exercises, for the same number of sets and repetitions and the same weight after their layoff. This is where the problem begins. A good question to ask yourself is "When did I last perform this exercise?" If the answer is months, years or 'I don't recall,' you need to either greatly reduce the weight, volume (sets and reps) or duration (stationary bike, treadmill, etc.) of the exercise, or simply start over at a beginner's level. Perform one set of very lightweight exercises to re-establish the needed ranges-of-motion and prepare your body for the work it will be performing in a month or two. Give your body at least one month of easy, re-entry training to get ready to train hard again. You will be much healthier and happier if you do so.
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