Getting Back In The Gym: How to Safety Restart Your Workout Regimen

As more people get vaccinated, gyms increase capacity and we slowly return to the “new normal,” it may be tempting to jump right back into your workout where you left off. But if your past year consisted of mostly “rest days,” you may need to ease back into things. We spoke to the pros at OrthoCarolina for tips on how to get back into a good workout routine — in a way that won’t cause your joints to hate you.

Take it slow at first

Dr. Virginia F. Casey recommends slowly ramping up your fitness level rather than trying to pick up where you left off last March.

“People will have a tendency to think they can start where they were when they left off and that’s a recipe for (injuries like) bicep and rotator cuff tears,” she says. “Even with running and the elliptical … if you go too hard with one activity and you haven’t done it (in awhile), your body will talk to you.”

Set small, achievable goals to slowly get back to your prior fitness level if you got lax with your workouts during quarantine.

For example, try jogging a mile on a flat treadmill and once you’re comfortable with that, increase the tempo or incline. Or make quantifiable goals like working out three times a week, drinking eight glasses of water a day, etc. to make getting fit feel more manageable.

Don’t skip the warm-up or cool-down

Now more than ever, less conditioned muscles and joints need both a warm-up and a cool-down to avoid injury.

“It’s always good to warm up and utilize dynamic stretching to help stretch the muscle in preparation for a workout,” says OrthoCarolina Licensed Athletic Trainer Gregory Loeser. “After a workout, it’s smart to incorporate a cooldown and, if you have time, utilize longer-duration, static stretching.”

Doing an outdoor class in the heat? Hydration and cool-down are even more important.

“In warmer weather, it is safer to spend more time on a cool-down to safely drop your body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate to resting levels,” Gregory says.

Work out smarter (not harder) to avoid injuries

If you haven’t even touched a weight since last year and are hoping to throw around the same weighted kettlebells you used last February, think again.

PT Zachary Woodley says overuse injuries like tendonitis in the shoulder can be common from at-home strength training workouts.

“One of the most common causes of pain is exercising too aggressively too early on,” he says. “We need to set a foundation of exercise to prepare our bodies for higher-level activities which will handle the stresses properly and avoid (injuries).”

Form is important as well — lifting even a light weight the wrong way can cause inflammation and injury to muscles and joints.

For example, when doing squats, try using a hip-dominant strategy to help alleviate knee pain. And always stay aware of your core.

“When a part of your body is moving, something has to be stationary to stabilize and offset the force,” Zachary says. “If we aren’t conscious of our ‘core’ or trunk, then the risk of injury significantly increases. Be mindful: never sacrifice form for repetitions.” 

Here are a few other common injuries he sees from overzealous or ill-informed strength trainers:

  • Shoulder pain: This could be tendonitis, or irritation of a tendon, from overuse and/or poor mechanics. It can affect your rotator cuff muscles or biceps tendon.
  • Knee pain: Also known as “patellofemoral pain,” pain surrounding your kneecap can be from a variety of factors like quad weakness, hip weakness or overuse.
  • Lower back pain: Zachary says almost everyone experiences lower back pain at one point in their life. There are lots of causes including core weakness, poor form with exercise or lifting too much weight.

Feeling pain? Know when to call a pro

Since quarantine began, Physical Therapist Matthew Erbe says he’s seeing patients on both ends of the spectrum: those complaining with inflammation like tendonitis because they’re working out too hard, and those who are dealing with knee and back pain from decreased activity.

“We have noticed during Covid that more people are either not working or working from home, they have extra time on their hands and some people have ramped up their activities too quickly and are trying exercises they are not ready for,” he says. “If you have questions on how to increase exercise appropriately it would be valuable to talk with a sports medicine doctor or physical therapist to help guide you through the process.”  

A good general rule is that if pain is interfering with your daily life, call a professional.

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