How to START again at the GYM after the LOCK DOWN?

HEALTH is Your only WEALTH and it is high time you realize that.

A reminder: the best indicator for your fitness and chances to longevity is your VO2max.

If you do not know what that is, then you are TOTALLY on the wrong path.

Seek that answer ( ) before you embark in any training.

Many of you are asking this Question. You have involuntarily been locked down and have not lifted for 3 months. I hear you. You could have learned to do handstand pushups though, and/or ran outside to improve your cardiovascular (CV) fitness. Oh, but my knees…., yes, you could have bought a stationary bike or rower or skierg (uses least space like a crucifix [pun intended] on the wall), for the money you had saved from all other suspended activities, including personal training…but you chose to take a deload week that became a 3 month period. All heard and understood.

Now, back to your Question. Your muscle has a memory. Good memories about your consistent training and bad memories of your idleness and proneness to quitting. Then let us define what is “normal’ in muscle loss: sarcopenia, is a protracted muscle wasting disorder that typically begins after the age of 50 and involves a loss of about 1% of muscle mass per year. This means that by the age of 80, sarcopenic individuals have lost about 40% of their muscle mass, a key factor in falls, frailty, and nursing home admissions. This is what to expect if you contentedly reside on you couch and enjoy streaming services for the rest of your life.

Skeletal muscle is the largest tissue in the body and fairly unique in that the mature cells are syncytial (many cells fused together) and can contain hundreds of nuclei (control rooms of cells). Sartorius muscle cells, the muscle in front of your thigh can be exceptionally long more than 50 cm! Any muscle can undergo dramatic plasticity changes in mass (hypertrophy) and strength with resistance training (and exposure to anabolic steroids), and regress when those stimuli disappear. Starvation, loss of nerve connections, immobilization, sepsis (generalized infection), weight loss in cancer disease, heart failure, diabetes, kidney failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (lung condition resulting from chronic smoking), acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (end stage of HIV infection), and tuberculosis (albeit very rarely today), are all causes of muscle atrophy. When a muscle increases in mass and strength, new nuclei are added on via the so-called satellite stem cells that exist quiescent in your muscle tissue. Local damage as caused by resistance exercise and/or hormones will wake them up and coax an asymmetric stem cell division where one stem cell becomes a new muscle cell while that other part of the division re-creates the same stem cell to go back to quiescent stem cell pool. All this is fairly well defined. What is challenged is what happens when a muscle regress due to the above reasons. The current theory is that the newly added nuclei will go int to apoptosis (cell death= die and disappear) and the muscle will atrophy. But the theory is evolutionarily incorrect. Now, we know that the muscle cells we thought were dying were not muscle nuclei but other cells residing in the muscle tissue like resident white blood cells performing many other (immunological) functions. When the muscle gets to keep those “surplus” nuclei during atrophy, it would confer a distinct advantage for the individual since skeletal muscles frequently in human evolution would undergo cycles of atrophy and hypertrophy in response to environmental conditions such as food availability or immobilization (seasonal lock downs with less hunting and thus lower food availability, laziness, disease). The ability to recover quickly by utilizing pre-existing muscle nuclei is most probably what we call “muscle memory”. Beautiful isn’t it? Well, thank the researchers in for revealing all this wondrous information for us. This is the beauty of science.

We have all been there: it is far easier to get back a certain level of muscle fitness through a renewed training cycle than it was to get there in the first place, even if there has been a long lock down period of detraining/deloading. “Use it or lose it” said Hippocrates around 400 BC but modern science says now “use it or lose it, until you work at it again.” We know aged people cannot make new muscle easy due to a reduced and weakened satellite stem cell pool. The important (public health) implication here is that if you are clever and invest in banking some extra muscle nuclei while training when you are an adolescent or a younger adult with all those hormones raging in your blood, the right nutrition and that strong stem cell pool in your muscle, you could make some withdrawals later in life! That is your real “golden egg” and your “pension”. This is why I said earlier in the beginning of the article that “HEALTH is your ONLY WEALTH”. Maybe I should change it to “Adequate muscle and sufficient VO2max in equal proportion are your ONLY Wealth”!

So, yes do go back to your training with all that in mind but do start easy. Do not go to 100% immediately. You can’t. You’ve lost a lot. The first thing that happens when in extended immobilization or lock downs is that the muscle-nerve-central nervous system cross talk fades. The connective/ supportive muscle tissue is also weakened and stiffer. Pre-Covid I used to have connective tissue massages up to 3 times per week to relax the tightness from resistance training and also impart a general relaxation and wellbeing. So, you will be tighter with a stiffer back. Use some dynamic stretching and massages to regain that mobility.

Ideally, for resistance training, your first week should be to stay under 50% of your one Rep Max, then increase to 70% in week 2, 90% in week 3, deload in week 4 at 50% again, and restart as usual at above 90% in week 5. If you at any point experience sudden pain, stop and deload.

For CV training, it is more complicated as VO2max losses are quicker and steeper. It might take considerably more than 5 weeks to get back to your initial level but you will get there. Reduce the intensity, add long CV passes at 65-70% of your MHR and slowly add high intensity once weekly. In general, the high MHR levels should not be more than 3-5% of your total training time anyway, you remember, that right?

Good luck with the comeback. Do not worry, your “muscle memory” got you!