By William J. Kraemer, Ph.D.
Over the many months trying to figure out how and where to exercise has been a challenge. Home gym equipment sales are at an all-time high. Commercial gyms and clubs are trying to figure out how to make it safe for their clients. Personal trainers are working overtime to deal with considerations for social distancing, testing, and asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19†. Overall the biggest challenges have been detraining and retraining the body in the hopes of not losing that hard-fought fitness gained before the whole pandemic started.
Detraining and retraining have been huge concerns. When the body stops getting that repeated exercise stimuli with a weekly training program, the body starts to regress. So what is that about, right? Exercise workouts can be designed to stimulate strength or endurance. Typically we use cardiovascular exercises to gain that aerobic fitness and weight training exercises to get stronger. The transition from the gym to home and back and forth again might have thrown a pretty big “wrench” into your program and way of life as we all adapt to a “new normal.”
Aerobic detraining happens the fastest as it is so dependent on “enzymes,” which are little proteins that allow reactions to occur that create energy. Thus, when you stop doing your aerobic workouts, endurance fitness levels can start to drop. The bad news is that the higher your fitness level is, the faster it drops from peak performance. The “good news” is that there are many ways to keep those aerobic workouts going outside the gym like walking, jogging, and doing in-place types of aerobic exercises in the home (e.g., step aerobics). However, remember when changing a kind of exercise from one to the other, progress slowing with intensity. For example, if you were a “gym rat” who really likes their ellipse workouts, going to step aerobics at home will challenge different muscles, and soreness can be dramatic despite getting your heart rate up to the needed levels of intensity.
While enzymes are essential with strength training, they are not a major mediating factor for strength fitness. It is your nervous system. Your motor nerves activate the muscle, and when activated, your muscles get bigger and stronger. Your workouts use specific exercises, resistance levels, and equipment that created a very specific workout stress. The gym and home will be different! When the pandemic hit, many of us found this was wiped out or when we went back and forth from home to the gym and then back again. We struggled to do what we could to recreate a weight training workout in our homes, ordered some basic equipment such as dumbbells, and in the end, it was not our gym. But “hey” we were not going to sit and do nothing, right?
The good news first this time. Detraining of strength is slow. In one classic study done decades ago, a six-week training program’s strength only lost 50% after a year. OK, then let us not get too excited as strength goes down, and again the more fit you are, the quicker the drop from peak performance. Now remember when you change an angle, you change the exercise (e.g., flat bench press vs. incline bench press) and affected muscles, though some muscles may be stimulated by both exercises. To maintain whole body fitness, use exercises that hit the different body parts, symmetrically: Chest-Back, Abs-Lower Back, Hamstrings-Quads, and Standing- Seated Calf Raisers.
For most of us, it will be difficult to use the same resistances as you did in the gym but can help keep the drop in strength from falling to the bottom. Be careful with high rep sets as again damage can occur. When you get back to the gym, go slow and progress carefully as “too much, too soon” can lead to trouble from excessive soreness or injury. If you do have the equipment at home, remember to be safe, and have spotters.
We will get back to the gyms, as they are working so hard to find ways to help us work out safely in this “new normal”. Be safe, be smart, and be kind. We can still focus on our health as we navigate these challenging times.
Dr. William Kraemer is a member of the AdvoCare Scientific & Medical Advisory Board, and is compensated for his role on the Scientific & Medical Advisory Board.
†AdvoCare products are not intended for prevention or treatment of COVID-19.