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How Much Strength Have I Lost After Months Away from the Gym?

Sure, you might be a little bit weaker when you get back to lifting full-time. But is that all you should worry about?

I know what you’re thinking: The gym? The GYM?? THE GYM??? In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a pandemic raging out there, and while some gyms have reopened this summer, many are still closed, and the ones that have opened are already closing back up (at least here in my home state of California). So who cares about lifting weights?

Well, allow me to explain. Two things are likely to happen at some point in the very near future: 1) You’ll decide that gyms are no longer a viable option for your exercise needs, and you’ll buy some free weights to set up your own weight room at home; or 2) you’ll become so anxious to get back in the gym that the minute one opens up (prematurely or otherwise), you’ll wear a full hazmat suit just for the privilege. 

Either way, you’re likely to push some weight sooner rather than later — weight that you most probably haven’t pushed since late March/early April. Sure, you’ve been using your bodyweight for dips, pushups, etc. and think you’ve been keeping up with your routine. But have you, really?

Because we all know the answer to that question, let me hit you with the good news first. “People [who were used to going to the gym pre-COVID] will lose some muscle tone thanks to quarantine,” explains bodybuilder Oliver Lee Bateman. “But that’s not most people — most people are novices. What they benefit from is ‘doing anything,’ and if they’re doing bodyweight work at home, that counts as ‘anything,’ so they won’t lose much.” 

Of course, if you’re a serious weightlifter like Bateman, and you go off the weights for a few months, you’re screwed — but that presumably doesn’t matter because if you’re a serious weightlifter, you don’t go off the weights, even in a pandemic. “If you’re used to strict-progression powerlifting, and you haven’t touched a barbell in six months, you’ll definitely have to build back up. But given how fitness equipment like power racks have sold out nationwide, even intermediate weightlifters have been training.”

So what does that mean for you? 

One takeaway is that if you’ve taken time off from the weights but are working out, don’t scale back too far once you get back in there — it’ll take you that much longer to realize any potential gains you’re training for, because you’re not lifting enough weight. But if you’ve been spending quarantine binging on frozen pizza and Netflix, “forget what you were doing before, and start over,” says Damien Brown, a personal trainer in L.A. “Pick an exercise, do three sets of 12 reps, and if you’re not dying by the last rep of the last set, add more weight in five-pound increments. Alternatively, if you can’t put up the weight by the second set, take five pounds off until you can get all the way to the end of the third.”

If you ignore that advice and try to be a hero, injury is probably the biggest risk. “If you’re over 30 and your body isn’t being put through physical stress/recovery on a regular basis, you’ll recover slowly and painfully from each workout,” Brown tells me.

“Then again,” he continues, “the real injuries we’ll see as gyms open back up are COVID infections. We’re far, far, far from the peak, and these places are petri dishes, much like the local bar.”

And so, maybe stick to the bodyweight work for the time being, yeah?