“I have been lying to myself for four months.” That’s what I texted my friend after my first workout back at my community’s local gym post pandemic. I have been lying to myself thinking that after four months of at-home workouts, I was maintaining the same level of fitness and strength that I had pre-pandemic. Yeah, right. Like I said, lies.
Upon entering the gym for the first time after four months away, I was instructed to grab a medium set of dumbbells. Before the pandemic, I had (with much dedication and effort), proudly worked my way up to a set of 20 pound dumbbells. Naturally, a medium set of weights for me would be 15 pounds, especially since I was continuing to work out at home five days a week during the pandemic, right?
Wrong! I picked up two 15 pound dumbbells and promptly almost dropped to the floor like a cartoon character after they’ve picked up something that was way too heavy for them in the first place.
Although this was quite shocking to me, I managed to maneuver the dumbbells to my individual station and prepare for my first in-studio workout in months—mask included. Despite working out consistently and quite diligently for four months on my own, I still struggled through class. I found myself frequently catching my breath outside the allotted breaks. Reps that I used to be able to bang out in minutes took what felt like forever to complete. Weights I used to lift with ease took extra effort, and my mental self-talk went from being my own personal cheerleader to my own worst critic: “What the heck happened to you!?”
When things get tough for me in the gym and my mind wants to give up before my body wants to give out, I usually look in the mirror. Sometimes to check my form, but more often times than not to search for the spot that hurts the most and seek out that teeny tiny muscle fighting its way to the surface. That baby muscle, though shaking at times, was always my motivation to push through a challenging move or set.
But now when I looked to the mirror for motivation, I saw the absence of hard-earned muscle that took months to develop. Talk about disappointing! I knew coming back to the gym after months spent in quarantine would simultaneously be a change and a challenge, but I didn’t think it would be this difficult.
Which begs the question, “Is there hope to regain muscle and strength post pandemic?” Asking for a friend, but really asking for myself here.
How “muscle memory” works after a long break
Right off the bat, my doubts and fears were completely quelled after speaking with Adam Kemp, ISSA Certified Personal Trainer and professional basketball player.
“I don’t think people have as much to worry about as far as regaining muscle and strength!” he assures me. “Muscle memory is a unique and amazing concept where your muscles have a built-in adaptation to grow back to their previous form, even after long periods of inactivity. If you have lost some amount of muscle mass and strength during the pandemic, don’t worry!”
K. Aleisha Fetters, CSCS, strength coach and co-author of Give Yourself MORE, seconds that promising sentiment.
“A silver lining to regaining muscle and strength after any fitness hiatus is that our bodies are always more efficient at the process of hypertrophy and strength gains the second time around,” she teaches us. “So while you might see and feel that your gains are gone, all of your past workouts were not in vain. Think where you would be right now, post-quarantine, if you hadn’t worked out so diligently beforehand!”
This is all well and good, but how long is this going to take? Coming from the most impatient person in the world, I am very anxious to get back to how I was performing post pandemic. Fetters answers this one as well.
“Within the first few weeks, you will likely feel a difference and notice yourself becoming stronger, but it will likely take a couple months until you see visible muscle gains,” she says honestly.
Tips for rebuilding strength
- Follow your same program with lighter weights to minimize risk of injury and let your muscles get into the groove again.
- If you were using a specific training program, don’t open your template back to where you left off pre-pandemic. Instead, go back to an earlier phase and get accustomed to lifting again.
- Include a proper warm-up and cooldown.
- The first week back is the hardest and the body will be sore due to the fact that most people haven’t lifted similar weights since the gyms closed, so make sure you give your body adequate time to recover in week two.
Regaining strength mentally and emotionally
If you have been back to the gym, then you know, firsthand, getting back to business can be just as challenging mentally and emotionally as it is physically.
“The mental and emotional challenges are always the biggest obstacle in navigating a return to the gym,” touts Fetters. “It can be easy to get down on yourself if you dwell over time missed in the gym or how little you can lift compared to five months ago. It makes exercising a pretty miserable and masochistic experience, and exercise is meant to be enjoyed! It’s important to focus on and celebrate what you are doing right now. And, if you must compare, compare it to quarantine! Look at it that way, and you’re doing a ton.”
Instead of focusing all of your attention on the physical gains (or lack thereof right now), Fetters has a great suggestion.
“Focus your attention on simply enjoying the fact that you’re back in the gym. I’m guessing you’ve missed it a lot in these past months, and not just for the physical results. For a lot of us, the gym is a mental safe haven. It’s where we take a break from everything that’s going on and focus on ourselves. We clear our heads. We connect with our bodies. We listen to our favorite pump-up songs. We feel like badasses. These are all things we need right now!”
And if you head back to the gym and realize “this is so not what it was before,” that’s okay too.
Tyler Read, Certified Personal Trainer and CEO of PTPioneer, says, “If you do head back to your normal routine, but it seems to have become a bit of a drag or you’re just not feeling as into the routine as you were before, that’s fine. The world has changed and so have you. This doesn’t mean you’re never going to work out again. A great way to reinvigorate your motivation and enjoyment of your workout regimen is to try something new. You might just fall in love with a new form of exercise.”
We may not feel or look like we once did four months ago, but as I was recently told, “You aren’t out of shape. You are just simply in a different shape than you were four months ago.” By using these expert tips, we can begin changing our muscle, and our shape, to regain the strength we once had and come back even stronger than ever before.