How To Get Back To Lifting With The Gym Reopening

June 16, 2020

About the Author: Eric Bach

Guest post by Dave Vargo

The great gym reopening of 2020: I know you’ve been waiting for it.

You’ve practically been foaming at the mouth as you anxiously await the click of the gym door unlocking.

And the time for the gym reopening is just about here. The time when the squat racks will be rushed harder than the toilet paper aisle.

One-rep maxes will be tested.The gym bros will be eager to go hard to make up for lost time. 

But you won’t be one of those people. You’re smarter than that.

With the tools in this guide, you’ll be primed to finish the second half of 2020 strong while the rest of the “go hard or go home” crowd is icing their lower backs and duct-taping their hamstrings back to the bone.

In fact, this process doesn’t just apply to returning after the COVID-19 lockdown; it can be followed after any extended training hiatus or prolonged drop in intensity.

So, if you haven’t been able to train at all, or have had to train at a much lower intensity during quarantine, this guide is for you.

It all begins with the proper mindset. It’s the anchor that forces you to pace yourself, check your ego, and not get pissed off when you don’t hit your numbers right away.  

Gym Reopening Mindset Tool #1: Find the Silver Linings  

Changing your perspective starts with placing a positive frame on a shitty situation by searching for its silver linings.

Here are just a few: 

  • Taking time away from your normal routine allows you to step back and “audit” your program and your results so that you can decide if you want to switch things up.
  • If you trained at home and didn’t have a full setup, you were forced to adapt and get creative with exercises using minimal equipment that you wouldn’t have used before. Now, you’re a hell of a lot more educated when you need a workout in a pinch at home or on the road.
  • When you return, you’ll initially make progress doing much less than what you did before. Kinda like when a newbie can still gain strength and build muscle with very little stimulus. But, to save your ego, we’ll just call it an “extended involuntary deload.” Yeah, that sounds better. 

Above all, it’s important to realize that the past few months away from the gym is just a blip on the timeline of your training career.  

And, it’s time to start taking the long view.  

Gym Reopening Mindset Tool #2: Focus on Actions, Not Outcomes

In order to take the long view, you’ll need to shift your focus from an outcome-based approach to a process-based approach.

With an outcome-based approach, the focus is placed on a result, such as “losing X pounds,” or “lifting X weight.” 

The issue with this, however, is that you have no control over an outcome. Especially given the uncertainty of how your body will respond when you return. There are so many variables that can derail and frustrate you if you only focus on the outcome.

For example, let’s say you return to the gym and hyper-focus on getting that deadlift back up over 400 pounds and that’s all that matters to you. 

What are the odds that you’ll get frustrated and push it a little too hard if the weight on the bar your first week back is lower than you’d expected it would be?

A better way: Focus on the process.

Instead of chasing performance numbers, set a process goal for yourself to get in at least three workouts a week at a certain intensity.

Then, hold yourself accountable.

By setting a goal of consistently doing the work in front of you without worrying about the numbers, you place control back in your hands while building yourself back up.

The sweetest part?

If you stick to these process goals with enough consistency over a long enough period, the outcome will end up taking care of itself.

Trust the process, not your ego.

Gym Reopening Mindset Tool #3: Have Patience 

You’ve gotta realize that there’ll be a breaking-in period when you return.

With proper training and no setbacks, you can expect to be back to your pre-lockdown strength and sexiness in roughly the same time that you were away.

This will vary, though, depending on how long you’ve been training and how active you were during the layoff.

If you were away from the gym for three months, but had years of training experience under your belt and found ways to workout at home, you’ll likely bounce back more quickly than others.

If you did nothing but binge Netflix and pound tacos, you can expect to take at least three months to get back to form. But, probably more than three months. 

In either case, recognize this is gonna take some time. It will save you from trying to be a hero when the dude one rack over is shitting himself while maxing out his squat.

Which leads us to…

Don’t Train Like A Noob

Alright, I’ll come right out with the elephant in the room:

Chances are good that you lost some size and strength as well as endurance and inter/intramuscular coordination over the past few months.

With that said, don’t drown yourself in your protein shake just yet.

Yes, you likely lost some of your progress training at home (or not training at all. However, it won’t be as much as you think.

Research indicates that if you have at least some training experience (around 6 months or more), you will not lose a significant amount of strength and size. And once you get back to the gym, size and strength come back pretty quickly.

But you still have to…

Manage Injury Risk

Step one to stepping back into the gym: Don’t get hurt.

I know, I know: an original, groundbreaking insight you never would have thought of yourself, right? 

There are a handful of things you need to check yourself on as you get back into the groove:

(1) The faster you increase your workload, the greater your risk of injury. It’ll be tempting to pile on the volume and intensity the first week or two back, but pump the brakes. Remember, it’s going to take much less work initially to stimulate size and strength, so take advantage of it.

(2) Manage Sleep and Stress. When the world opens back up, chances are you’ll be hit with a surge of workload, policy changes, and other situations that could cause your stress levels to spike and your sleep quality to drop. High stress and poor sleep can both lead to elevated stress hormones – namely cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine – that will wreak havoc on your ability to build muscle, lose fat, and avoid injury. Nip this in the bud now by making sure to carve out time for decompressing at night as well as nailing down a manageable pre-sleep routine.

(3) Check. Your. Ego. Again, don’t expect to light the world on fire. I know it might seem like common sense, but you’ll notice how most lifters will jump right back into their pre-lockdown routines using the same loads they were using before. 

But, you’re not most lifters, right? You’re smart enough to…

Avoid Soul-Crushing Soreness

It’s well established that muscle soreness is not an accurate indicator of progress. 

In fact, your body will work to repair this damage before it shifts to building new muscle. So, initially avoiding or going lighter on exercises that induce excessive eccentric stress such as heavy RDLs, chest flys, and deep lunges is the best way to not screw yourself for your next workout.

Novelty can also lead to excessive soreness. So, if you’ve been eyeing up those BOSU ball pistol squats, now isn’t the time to try ‘em.

You’ll thank me when you don’t need a handrail for eight days to take a dump. It all begins with…

Extending Your Warmups

I’m not usually a fan of long drawn-out warmups, but this is a situation where I’m willing to bend (so to speak, ha-ha.)

This is the time to squeeze one or two extra sets in before your working weight, with the focus on feeling the target muscles and working to re-establish the mind muscle connection.

Use your warm ups as an opportunity to grease the groove on your movement patterns in order to fast track your body’s “relearning” process.

Now, Go Lift

“Okay, shut up and tell me how to train, dude.” 

Fair enough. I gotcha. 

Now, regardless of how often you were training before, or what type of split you were using, you’ll be starting back at 3x/week using a full body approach to maximize your body’s exposure to each movement. 

The volume will be kept intentionally low, and you’ll be selecting weights using the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale, where 1 is essentially nothing, to 10 being max effort. 

We’re using RPE over a percentage here because everyone will be coming back to this party differently, and how a weight feels is more important at this stage than what the absolute number is.

For the first week, work up to an RPE of 5 or 6 on each lift.

And, you read that right: just 2 sets of each. But, you’ll be surprised how little it’ll take to make you sore.

Remember, the initial focus should NOT be to annihilate yourself. It should be on grooving movement patterns and beginning to build the base of your foundation once again.

Day 1:

1A: Goblet Squat – 2 x 6-8

2A: Flat DB Bench Press – 2 x 8-12

3A: DB 3-Point Row – 2 x 8-12/side

4A: DB Biceps Curl – 2 x 8-12/side

5A: RKC Plank – 2 x :10 on/:10 off x 3

Day 2:

1A: BB RDL – 2 x 6 

2A: Pushup – 2 x 8-12

3A: DB Chest Supported Row – 2 x 8-12

4A: Cable or Banded Facepull – 2 x 12-15

5A: Deadbug – 2 x 3-6/side

Day 3:

1A: Split Squat – 2 x 6-8/side

2A: Incline DB Bench Press 2 x 6-8

3A: Lat Pulldown – 2 x 8-12

4A: Cable Triceps Pressdown – 2 x 8-12

5A: Side Plank – 2 x 30-60 sec/side


Increase load/RPE first, then add volume.

For example:

  • Week 2 will look identical in terms of sets and reps, but the loads will be slightly heavier to reflect an RPE of 6-7.
  • Your week 3 progression will be adding volume by jumping all exercises from 2 to 3 sets.
  • In week 4 and beyond, the goal should be to intelligently ramp up intensity to the desired level and RPE range. 

Monitor your recovery and soreness in the days after each adjustment. Tweak as needed. 

It ain’t rocket science, but there IS a process to ramping yourself back up after a training hiatus without pissing off your joints or enduring crippling soreness.

And it’s not throwing shit against the wall and seeing what sticks.

Follow the tools in this guide, and you’ll be on the fast track to packing on muscle, melting off body fat, and staying injury-free.

About The Author
Dave Vargo, CSCS, is a Baltimore-based trainer who likes bacon, medium-rare steaks, and the craft of a well-made Old Fashioned. 
He is the founder of Iron Phoenix Performance, where he specializes in helping high achievers lose fat, build muscle, and develop the superhuman levels of confidence they need to dominate life. 

Dave is the author of the must-read cheat sheet:
4 Simple Ways to Lose More Fat in the Next 4 Weeks Than You Ever Thought Possible

Download The Cheat Sheet For Free Here.

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