OpEd: The Unspoken Danger of Going Back to the Gym

April 24, 2020 by
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People are going to get hurt when restrictions are lifted and everyone is allowed to return to the gym. The good news is that you can be back in your gym on day one, and you don’t have to be one of them.

You joined a gym to get in great shape so that you could live a long time, look great naked, be desirable, have self-confidence and feel amazing. When the gym got taken away from you, it’s likely that you realized you can still accomplish most of those things without the gym, and yet, we all want to get back to it as fast as possible. Why?

  • Because the gym, the CrossFit gym, in particular, delivers far more than all of those things. It offers a social outlet and membership to a tribe. It is important that you remember this when you go back. Here’s why:

Think back to your first CrossFit workout ever. You probably didn’t know how to work through the discomfort yet. You had no idea how hard you could push yourself, and you didn’t understand the value of putting yourself through all of that mental work just to finish 10% faster or do 10% more work. Even so, do you remember how sore you were?

  • Do you remember struggling to walk down the stairs? Up the stairs wasn’t so bad because you had the banister, but down the stairs was a nightmare that many of us had to do with a weird sideways shuffle. Getting on the toilet seat was an adventure in falling with accuracy, and getting in and out of a car was like an Olympic medaling accomplishment.

You didn’t care that you couldn’t do a muscle-up and a push jerk was wildly confusing, “So I’m supposed to jump, press, and land at the same time?”, and making snatch jokes was a special kind of grade school funny.

Now pushing through the discomfort in a workout is the easy part. Pulling you away from it is hard. You have push jerked and snatched thousands of times and think those jokes are dumb. You’re tired of pushups, lunges, and inverted rows under the kitchen table and you are ready to get back to the gym so you can clang and bang with heavy weights and start breathing that Fran lung again. I get it. Your normal has become your forbidden fruit, and like a kid who wants candy, you want a new PR.

And that’s the problem.

When you first started CrossFit, you had built-in brakes in your brain. You had self-regulation in the form of signals that told you to slow down when things got really difficult. And still, with all of that slowing down, doing workouts at half the speed and half the weight you can do them at now, you were sore as hell. Now you’re going to go back to the gym without the brakes, and whether you realize it or not, without the capacity.

You may be able to do the work, that’s not the question, the question is can you recover from it?

  • Remember, Active Life coach, Larry Gaier’s maxim: “the reason we work out is to earn the opportunity to recover.”

The likelihood of you having the capacity to hurt yourself in training without the wherewithal to slow yourself down is dangerously high. CrossFit gets a bad name for its association with rhabdomyolysis. Basically this is when your muscles break down past the point of recovery and get filtered through the kidneys (I’m oversimplifying, but it’s dangerous).

  • The shame is that CrossFit isn’t dangerous the way people make it out to be. It’s not dangerous for new people the same way that running isn’t dangerous for them. Who it is dangerous for is experienced athletes who took an extended break and then came back with the aims of doing what they used to do.

Check out this guide for gym owners: “Best Practices for Reopening.”

Even if you “ease” back into it, that may not be enough for most people. I don’t think that you need to worry about giving yourself rhabdomyolysis, that’s actually fairly difficult to do (just avoid doing 100 GHD Situps for time on your first day back). What I think you do need to be careful of is giving yourself tendinitis, tendinosis, and general joint pain.

So how do you do it?

Follow this simple set of two rules that we are going to give to every Active Life client who is going to eagerly return to the gym at first permission (we support your decision to do so and hope that you do).

First, some definitions:

Acute Workload – The amount of work you have done in the last week.

Chronic Workload – The average amount of work you have done in the last four weeks.

Rule 1: Establish a Chronic workload

  • Essentially an acute workload is the average amount of work that your body has done in the last week. That means that if you haven’t lifted anything heavier than a kettlebell in the last week, your acute workload is the weight of the kettlebell multiplied by the number of reps you moved it for.
  • You need to establish a consistent chronic workload with the new intensity and weight you will use in the gym. So, over the first four weeks, cut your weights and reps down to 40% of what you would have done prior to the gym shutting down. Yes, you read that correctly, 40% for the first four weeks. If your gym is already scaling back like this, just do everything as they write it.

Rule 2: Advance your Chronic workload

  • Each week after the first four weeks, assuming you experienced no injuries, advance your workload by 40%. This means that in week five, you will be working at 56%. I know that you will be estimating. So, estimate a little more than half of what you would have done prior to shutdown. Each week, provided that things go well, add 40% more work.
  • Week 5 – 56%; Week 6 – 77%; Week 7 – 100%
  • If you follow this plan, and by the way, it is an aggressive plan whether you realize it or not, you will be making intentional efforts to “ease back into things.” This is what it means to “ease back into it” scientifically, instead of haphazardly.

Check out this useful guide for athletes returning to CrossFit from the coaches at Active Life Rx.

The hardest part will be the first four weeks. You’re going to be all responsible, you’re going to show your friends this Op-Ed and they are going to make fun of you. They are going to go H.A.M. on day one and they aren’t going to get hurt. They are going to rip this article apart! In fact haters are going to rip it apart before it even has a chance to become reality.

Stay the course.

And when they do break down, show them this article again. We will help them get out of pain without going to the doctor or missing the gym. And we will teach them how to train smart like you.

For more information on Acute/Chronic workload, start with this simple study.

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