Pre-COVID-19, I was a huge gym person. I wanted to be in the gym every day, or at least a minimum of 6 times a week. It was my priority over most things. No matter what, I had to get to the gym.
Then the coronavirus happened, and the gyms closed. Initially, I did daily workouts with the few pieces of equipment I had and I tried to keep to my same gym schedule.
As the weeks went by, I was doing more and more of my exercise outside and with my roommates. Sometimes we’d set up a circuit and it would involve running barefoot through the grass. Or we’d walk down the road to a long flight of stairs that go down to the ocean, and we’d race back up. Exercise became more about being outside and socializing while moving my body, than hitting the gym with it’s artificial lights and the smell of rubber and sweat.
Finally, the gyms opened up again and I was back as soon as I could be. I was one of those people that got in there the day it reopened. I went through my usual routine and finished with a HIIT session.
As I was driving home, I had the sense of my soul being suffocated. What had I just achieved in that stuffy room where everything is artificial? I felt like I had been robbed of my freedom. Was this where I was going to be spending my mornings and evenings again? Was this the experience I was going to organize my whole life around? Needless to say, I went home feeling uninspired.
In the four weeks since lockdown was lifted and the gyms reopened, I have realized a lot about exercise and what is really important.
1. Focus on movement, not exercise.
Although this is a story about exercise, the most important thing I found during the lockdown was that moving my body was more important than doing exercise.
Moving the body at a low intensity throughout the day achieves more than completing a high intensity workout once during the day. In fact, sitting all day and then performing an intense workout can actually be dangerous and can lead to an increased risk of stroke and large amounts of sedentary time increases risk of diabetes, obesity, and premature death, among other things.
However, moving for 60–75 minutes a day (this includes everything from formal exercise to household chores) negates the effects of sitting for prolonged periods. Rather than go to the gym every day, my daily goal is now to do 6000 steps. This ensures that I am moving throughout the day, and allows me to focus on movement rather than reps, weights, and burning calories.
“While it’s tempting to think of exercise as something to cross off your to-do list, it actually needs to be integrated into your daily schedule. It offers an emotional reset. It improves energy and mood. It cleanses the body.” — Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar
2. Always finish feeling better than when you started.
If you aren’t feeling up for an intense cardio or weightlifting session, don’t do it. It’s likely your body is trying to tell you something, and listening to this is probably the most important thing you can do in regard to exercise.
For example, today I was supposed to go to the gym for an intense VO2 max improving workout, but instead I am going to go do some flights of stairs by the beach, out in the fresh air, while listening to a podcast. You need to do what is going to serve you in that moment.
If you aren’t going to be leaving the gym or finishing your workout feeling more energized than when you started, don’t do it. Listen to what your body is asking of you. You may think if you follow this advice that you’ll never do weights or high intensity workouts, but there will be days when that’s what your body wants. I aim for two HIIT sessions a week, which gives me plenty of time to fit these in.
“If you are not gaining all of the physical and emotional benefits from the exercise you are doing, then it’s not working for you. If your exercise routine doesn’t help you sleep at night, if it’s not changing your mood for the better or giving you more energy, then you need to adjust something…While it’s tempting to think of exercise solely as a means to fitness or weight loss, it’s really much more about making you feel alive in your body.” — Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar
3. Be patient and forgiving with yourself when exercise doesn’t happen.
It’s not going to serve you if you beat yourself up or stress about not getting to the gym. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, due to prior commitments, things coming up, or just not feeling it. If possible, go for a walk or do some mobility work or yoga instead. But the world will not end, and you will not lose your muscle mass or fitness if you sometimes can’t get to the gym. Furthermore, you need sufficient rest to ensure your body is recovering and making gains anyway.
“To enjoy the advantages gained through resistance training, you want those advantages present for several days, rather than just for a few hours of one day. Otherwise, what exactly is the benefit? What, for instance, would be the point of taking six steps backwards in order to take one step forward?” — Dr. Doug McGuff
4. Just move the weight.
I used to obsess about my form, thinking that if it was perfect I would see the best results. I focused on form so much that I couldn’t lift heavy weights.
While form is important and you need to move the weight safely, you will see more progress from lifting heavier and focusing on just moving the weight. This has been my focus since the gyms reopened, and I have made more gains in the last month than in the six years prior.
5. If you do go to the gym, get in and get out.
Do your compound lifts, lift heavy, do your HIIT or max effort session, then get out. You’ll only tire yourself out and lose motivation if you stay longer, and you’ll be less likely to want to go back.
If you’re getting close to 45 minutes in the gym, start prioritizing what you do. For example, if I need to do a HIIT session that day I will do that and will skip core because my core has been hit with the compound lifts anyway.
I focus on getting my main lifts (the big 5 — barbell row, overhead press, deadlift, bench press, and squat, fitting these into my 3 day push, pull, legs split) and then either a HIIT session, plyometric workout, or VO2 max workout. This takes well under 45 minutes, 3 times a week.
6. Hitting each muscle group once a week is enough.
Unless you’re trying to be a huge bodybuilder, you don’t need to hit each muscle group more than once a week. As previously stated, I have found the most muscle growth in the last month where I’ve just been working each muscle group once a week, than in the previous 6 years where I would target each muscle group twice a week.
Dr. Doug McGuff explains that once every seven days is sufficient; if you’re working hard and at a high volume, your body needs at least 7 days to recover before you hit it again. Anything less than this means your body hasn’t full recovered, and you will remain in an energy deficit.
“Some ebb and flow (in your training schedule) is probably desirable, because while some components may be quick in recovering, there may be small components that are not so quick and that can benefit from periods of extended laying off from the training stress.” — Doug McGuff
To wrap up, in order to make exercise more efficient and enjoyable, remember the following steps:
- Focus on movement rather than reps, weights, and calories.
- Move in a way that serves you and leaves you feeling better than before.
- Be gentle with yourself when you miss a workout.
- Just focus on moving the weight.
- Get in and get out as fast as you can.
- Hit each muscle group once per week.