Returning to the gym in January after the Christmas break — or maybe after a 12-month gap since the last time you tried to do this, but discovered your resolutions were as weak as your New Year’s morning stools — can cause a degree of trepidation.
And it should: Your body, and the gym environment itself, has changed.
Here then are some things to ponder before you step back onto the gym floor and spend 20 minutes trying to rip off your muscle vest, like a pro wrestler made of parsnips.
“You can’t go straight in at the same intensity and volume you had before,” says personal trainer Zack Cahill of Evolve Fitness. “You have to check your ego.”
Heed his words! Sure, the last time you were here you were stacking weights on the machines with aplomb, and the good news is, some of that muscle memory will have remained. But expecting yourself to still be at your old level is like thinking you can still eat three helpings of dessert and go dangle upside-down from a tree in the backyard like you did when you were six.
“You’re not starting from zero — your strength hasn’t disappeared,” says Cahill. “But your work tolerance and your recovery capacity will have gone down. You can lift relatively heavy weight, but you can’t recover so quick, so stick to three sets of eight to ten reps, using moderate weights. Basically, consider yourself a novice for the first two to four weeks.”
Get Back in Balance
As it turns out, neither hunching over desks to stare at screens, nor reclining on a sofa to watch screens, does your body much good (we know, we were shocked, too). In fact, sitting down all day actively shortens your hamstrings, which is just one good reason Cahill believes that much of your initial training should be about reactivating these muscles and getting your body back in balance.
“Do single-arm dumbbell work and split squats to iron out any bodily imbalances,” he advises. “Emphasise the parts of your body that will have gone out-of-whack while you’ve been sitting around — your back, your hamstrings, your glutes. And emphasize more volume on your pulling exercises [cable rows, chin-ups, etc.], not your pushing [bench presses, lateral raises, etc.], which will tackle these muscle areas that have ‘switched-off.’”
Go Easy on the Cardio
“Remember, running is an advanced sport, so it’s a quick way to get injured if you haven’t got a good range of movements,” says Cahill. Again, the emphasis is on switching your muscles back on, rather than marking sloppy miles on the treadmill. Cahill is, in fact, down on any cardio at all: “You could go for low impact cardio, like the rower or cross-trainer. But quite honestly, a weight training program with short reps and moderate weights will get your heart rate up — that’s cardio.”
Don’t Get the Gym Shakes
We’ve all been there: One minute, you’re powering through a workout with the Rocky III soundtrack pounding in your earbuds, the next, you’re feeling like you’ve had your drink spiked, fingers tingling, pale skin sweating like a sickly alien, running to the locker room to dry heave into a trashcan. Such behavior pains Cahill: “That’s just lack of preparation! It’s because of low blood sugar, when you haven’t considered nutrition, your fuel. You have to have a proper meal an hour and a half beforehand.”
Make Sure You Can Walk the Next Day
As we keep saying, go easy on the first sessions, which includes not over-stretching yourself for the first few weeks. Cahill also recommends some aftercare: “Do some light activity the day after — go for a brisk walk, a cycle or a swim to flush out the muscles. Then it’s nutrition again, a mix of protein and carbs, to feed the muscles.”
Don’t Be Embarrassed
You may well be feeling nervous about your appearance when you reenter the gym, but try not think about people watching you and laughing, because really, they’re not. “Get into the mindset where you’re not concerned with others,” says Cahill. “If it’s getting to you, wear headphones and create a bit of a barrier between yourself and others.”
Of course, one quick route to feeling self-conscious is getting the workout gear wrong, so ditch that try-hard gym regular look for something more casual. “You don’t need all the fancy technical gear to train in, just relaxed shorts and T-shirts,” says Cahill. “That’s about it, plus a good pair of comfortable sneakers.”
Don’t Be A Jerk
Should you scream and shout while lifting, to prove you deserve your spot at the weight bench? Obviously not. “It’s just about having consideration for people around you,” says Cahill. “Take a towel to mop up your sweat, for example.”
And what of other annoying people at the gym — how do you deal with them? “You do get the hoarders, those Monday night bench-pressers who hoard all the weights and chat for hours between sets,” laughs Cahill. “Or the selfie crowd! But they’re harmless idiots. With all these people, you simply have to be polite and hope they’re respectful in turn. If they’re really not showing consideration for others, speak to the staff.”
And when it comes to trying to pick up someone at the gym, there’s only one rule: Don’t do it. “The lecherous types, well, they’re morons,” says Cahill. “Don’t be one of those. Women aren’t there to be picked up, they’re there to train. It’s basic empathy.”
Amen to that, and good luck. Here’s hoping you continue your training all the way into February this year.