Before You Go Back to the Gym, Read This

First, no judgment if you haven’t been partaking in Zoom Zumba or weight-lifting laundry detergent in the living room. We’re all doing the best we can with the gyms closed and routines thrown off.

Actively Northwest talked to physical therapists from Core Physical Therapy about how to get back to your regularly scheduled exercise routine safely and without injury. First, manage your expectations. You aren’t going to be able to perform at the same level you did in February.

“Understand that we’re all severely deconditioned,” said Jeremy Yuen doctor of physical therapy. “Unless you have a home weight room, everything is going to be at a much lower level.”

Keep Moving

If you can, don’t wait for the gyms to reopen to move your body. Go for a walk, ride your bike, stretch, do body weight exercises, dance around your living room or lift household items.

“Don’t stop working out right now,” said Jenny Iyo, doctor of physical therapy and clinic director at Columbia Center location. “That’s the no. 1 best way to avoid injury.”

She said everyone has weights at home, you just have to be creative and find them. Cans of soup or jars of jelly are about 1-2 pounds. You could also fill water jugs or load things inside a laundry basket or backpack to get some weight.

“I use a bag of rice,” she said. “It’s a little more awkward, but it gets the job done.”

She also uses resistance bands. These are great for home gym equipment because they’re small and can be used for a variety of exercises. If you don’t have one, they’re easily ordered online or can be picked up at some physical therapists’ offices.


Once the Gyms Reopen

If you’ve been away from the gym for a few weeks, don’t expect to walk through the doors and spin at the same intensity or lift the same amount on day 1. Ease back in.

“Start at decreased level, about 60 or 70% intensity or volume,” Iyo said. “Do that for a week or two. Slowly bump it up every week.”

She said the graded re-entry could apply to volume, intensity, reps, time spent, or resistance.

Yuen has a recommended formula for safely re-entering weight training. Remember, it might take several gym sessions to get to step 4.

  1. Load the barbell with half of your previous maximum weight for 12-15 reps. If that felt easy, go onto step 2. If you can’t do the reps, reduce the weight and work there.
  2. Take it up to 70-80% for 8-10 reps. If you can complete the reps, you can add on. Otherwise reduce the weight, so you can complete 8 reps and work there.
  3. Work your way to your target weight. If you can do 5 reps, you can add on.
  4. At your target weight, work to failure. If you can’t do 12 reps, decrease the weight. If you do more than 12, congratulations, you got a little stronger in the quarantine, go up 5-10 pounds.


Listen to Your Body

Some fitness classes can breed competition. The first couple sessions back are not the time to compete. Focus on how you’re feeling, not what the person next to you is doing or what color your square on the heart rate board is.

“When you return you have to be slow for a week and let your body figure it out. You’ll be back at it before you know it,” Yuen said.

Whether you’re running, spinning, lifting, or something else, listen to your body. You are the best judge of what is enough. Don’t be afraid to reach for lighter weights in a class and work your way up if it feels too light. Take adaptations if you need. Stop sooner than you usually would. Most importantly, don’t work through pain.

“Muscle soreness is OK,” Iyo said,” but if you are experiencing aches and pains during your exercise, cut it back.”

If that doesn’t help, or if pain or discomfort persists, see a physical therapist.


If your muscles haven’t been worked and your cardiovascular endurance hasn’t been challenged in a while, you might need an extended warm-up, too. Listen to your body and ease in as it needs. Yuen recommends some dynamic stretches, such as high knee steps, a brisk walk, or light jog.

Spend a little more time recovering post-workout, too. Stretch, foam roll your muscles, and give yourself adequate recovery time—which might be more days than you needed previously.

“For everybody, that amount of rest is different,” Iyo said.

Active recovery is also helpful. The day after a good workout, consider doing yoga, going for a walk or a light jog to keep your body moving.

“What you want to avoid is ‘I’m really stiff, I’m going to lay down and throw an ice pack on my back,’” Yuen said. “That’s not doing anything for you.”

The physical therapists understand that it can be frustrating not to perform at the same level, but stress that by easing back in, you’ll find yourself back at your previous level before you know it.

“Zero to 100 is when people get hurt,” Iyo said.

And getting hurt means more time out of the gym.

At the Gym

Actively Northwest Insiders who have already returned to the gym recommend arriving with patience. Many gyms are designating space for each member. Expect to spend extra time gathering what you need and cleaning it after. Try to go at off-peak hours since gyms have reduced capacity. Also remember to wear your face covering anytime you’re not in your designated space (or follow your specific gym’s rules).

Image by ciricvelibor


Candace Nelson

In the mountains or water debate, Candace Nelson, MS, CN chooses water every time. She is a licensed nutritionist and loves taking any fitness class that makes her forget she's working out. Read more at

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