How to ease your way back into training post-iso

Gyms are officially back in action across most states as of today, which have many of us pumped – but also just a little bit scared. Whether you’ve stuck to your at-home workouts or taken forced isolation as permission to relax your training schedule (or just abandon it completely – no judgement here!) it’s likely you are feeling in less than optimal condition right now.

Which begs the question – how do you re-establish your strength, fitness and body composition as quickly and as safely as possible?

For Head Coach of Perth-based strength and conditioning gym Athletic Revolution, Cam Carruthers, it’s about lowering expectations and getting back to basics. Not overly click-worthy advice, but effective.

‘To avoid disappointment, in the initial weeks you should leave the gym feeling like you could have done more. Going too hard and trying to lift the house down simply won’t work – you can’t build training momentum if you’re too sore or injured,’ says Carruthers.  

‘Don’t try to perform every single exercise in the toolbox – stick to the basics, build slowly and just appreciate being in the gym again.’

How to build an effective training program

For Carruthers, programming your workouts so you make progress without injuring yourself in the process requires three tools: 

1. Reduce intensity: There’s no way you should be lifting your post-COVID numbers straight from the get-go. Stick to achievable percentages that your body can handle and that you can build upon quickly. ‘I like to start with 50 per cent of your one rep max for eight repetitions and increase week on week. Fifty per cent is super conservative, which will be less fatiguing and allow you to maintain training frequency throughout the week,’ says Carruthers. ‘Remember, the goal is to build good training habits again – you can’t do that if you have to miss a session due to fatigue.’ 

2. Prescribe a tempo: Performing exercises with control, rather than excessive load, helps to build back proper movement mechanics and efficiency. Tempo – or the rhythm at which you move a weight – also makes lighter loads seem surprisingly heavy, helping you to raise a sweat and leave the gym feeling satisfied, without the same risk of injury. ‘I like to begin by prescribing exercises with a slow eccentric [where the muscle contracts while lengthening – think the downward phase of a squat] and pauses in different positions,’ explains Carruthers. ‘Tempo allows for greater time under tension [amount of time the muscle is under strain], which helps develop work capacity after time off training.’

3. Regress conditioning workouts: ‘The goal of conditioning workouts is simple – get moving again!’ says Carruthers. ‘Utilise movements that are easier to perform, using lighter loads, reduced time domains and planned rest periods. Just enough where you aren’t at complete exhaustion, but enough to have you craving more and enjoying the training experience.’ Ditch the complex workout and skill drills for now, says Carruthers, and make training as simple as possible for the time being.

Carruthers’ sample plan

Looking for workout inspo for your first weeks back in-gym? Carruthers likes to structure all of his workouts into three sections: a strength component utilising heavier loads for lower reps; a body composition component using higher rep ranges or supersets; and a conditioning component to get your heart rate sky high. 

Give this lower body training session a go:

A.1 high bar back squat
Tempo: 30X0
Percentage: 50 per cent
On the 0:00 – 8 Reps
On the 2:30 – 8 Reps
On the 5:00 – 8 Reps
On the 7:30 – 8 Reps

B.1 8 x heels elevated goblet squat, tempo: 41X0
B.2 8 x barbell glute bridge, tempo: 30X1
4 sets, rest 60–90 seconds between sets

Complete four rounds for time (aka. as quickly as possible)
21 wall balls
18 Russian swings
15 box jumps
12 alternating dumbbell snatches
Time cap: 15-minutes

For more of Carruthers’ workouts, follow Athletic Revolution on Instagram. 

How about getting back into endurance cardio?

No, the cardio bunnies have not been forgotten. Rachel Stanley has been a Global Sports Physiotherapist for over 25 years and specialises in the biomechanics of running. Founder of the Run180 program, Stanley has seen how easily doing too much, too soon can lead to injury. 
Whether it’s the previous kilometres achieved or speeds reached, a runner will want to get straight back to their previous achievements as quickly as possible,’ says Stanley.

‘But just as running leads to fitness and strength gains, not running also leads to fitness and strength losses. So, although a person may be feeling enthusiastic about their return, they’re usually not in a position to match their mind. 

‘The simple solution is to halve the previous workload (kilometres and speed) and build up from there. And cut down if you experience pain – pain is a sign your body is not adapting to exercise load.’

The same goes for training frequency, says Stanley. If you previously committed to three runs per week, don’t be afraid to scale back and build gradually.

‘Another common mistake that runners experience after a break in their running plan is the guilt of taking the break in the first place. Be kind to yourself and appreciate that training is not a straight line – periodic breaks in routine are normal,’ she adds. 

Stanley’s top tips for getting back to the treadmill

1. Get your head straight: Make it E.A.S.Y…. Enjoyable, Achievable, Simple and Yours,’ says Stanley. ‘This includes a thorough investigation of why you want to start the running program in the first place.’ Key message? Start small and tick off the mini goals so you actually enjoy the sweat.

2. Build gradually: Start slowly at a pace where you can have a conversation without breathlessness. Gradually build up running speed and distance, at no more than 10 per cent a week,’ says Stanley. Allow 24 to 48 hours rest and recovery between running sessions, she adds. Think cross training, cycling or swimming on your ‘rest’ days. 

3. Consider complimentary activities: Consider a solid strength and conditioning program (see above) to ensure your body can stand up to the challenges of a long run. ‘Weights, Pilates and yoga are all excellent adjuncts to the complete running program. A strong and flexible body is the secret weapon that all good runners benefit from,’ says Stanley.

Need a little help getting started? You can try level one of the Run180 program for free here

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About Katelyn Swallow 36 Articles
Katelyn Swallow is a journalist, editor and communications professional based in Perth. She is the Editor-in-Chief of STRONG Fitness Magazine Australia, the previous editor of Women's Health and Fitness magazine, and a regular contributor to STRONG in the US.