Back on the Horse: How to get back into the gym

Weightlifting.  I like weightlifting.  I enjoy it while I’m doing it.  I like the way it makes me feel both during and after the training sessions and I like the outcomes of it (increased strength and muscle mass).  And yet until about a month ago I had not done a single weight training session in calendar year 2014.

Why, or more accurately, why not?  For the same reasons we all don’t do something or anything.  Laziness, inertia, rationalization.  But for weightlifting there was another deterrent: not wanting to start over.  You see, at one point in my on-again, off-again training regimen I had gotten my strength in the core lifts up to a fairly respectable level, but after six months (more really) of detraining effect I suspected – reasonably enough – that most of that strength had atrophied.

Now a lot folks, particularly testosterone driven manly-men like myself would go back into the gym, pull out their workout log (you do have a workout log right?) and try to throw up the last weight they lifted, notwithstanding that they did that weight over six months ago.  And most of those guys would have hurt themselves, either acutely or by generating enough post workout soreness to derail whatever routine they planned to initiate.

But I’m smarter than that.  At least occasionally.  In this case I needed a multi-faceted solution.  Facet the first: I needed to overcome my general inertia and just get myself back in the gym.  Facet the second: I needed to do so without tempting myself to overreach, hurting myself and derailing my comeback.  Facet the third: I needed to establish a pattern that supported the eventual transition to my desired training frequency and pattern.

The problem with having a multi-faceted requirement is that admits of lots of excuses and overthinking which of course is the procrastinators bette noir.   So I approached it thusly: first, I committed to what the workouts would look like.  This eliminated concerns that I would try to do too much (i.e. too heavy on free weight barbell exercises) and also made my plan concrete (which makes it more tangible and more likely to be executed). I decided that I would start going back to the gym by doing a very mild machine-based workout.

This is something that I’ve done before and this is what it looked like:

–          Chest press machine supersetted with lat pull downs

–          Leg press machine supersetted with the shoulder press machine

–          Optional: sit-ups or other abdominal work between sets

–          All exercises done for 3 sets of 10 reps each

Pretty simple right?  Exactly.  Short, boring, simple, clear and yet, more strength training that I had been doing for the entire year.  This is one of the big mental hurdles I face: if I can’t or am not planning to do the “real deal” or the whole enchilada I tend to mentally scoff and say to myself “whatever, that’s not even worth doing”.  In other words I’m an optimizer and a completionist.  Which is another way of saying that I’ll take any excuse to pontificate on what right looks like but won’t go out and actually do a workout that would benefit me but isn’t optimal.  I would be that this is one of the most pervasive rationalizations used by people to NOT workout, especially those who “used to be in great shape”.

So how did my plan work out?  It got me back in the gym doing SOMETHING/ANYTHING which was better than the NOTHING I had been doing.  And I have to admit, it worked well.  As I’ve talked about here before it had the tremendously powerful effect of lowering the bar.  Instead of facing this tremendous wall of obstructions (inertia, indecision about what workout to do, frustration about how low I was going to have to restart on my lifts in my “real” lifting program) I had a very low barrier and no uncertainty/excuses.  I committed to going to the gym and executing a perfectly doable, reasonable program.  The fact that the workout was machine-based and low intensity didn’t matter.  All I was doing was going back to the gym and sweating.  Something/anything is better than nothing.

My goal with this program was to workout M-W-F (which is my normal routine when I’m doing a “real” program).  I never got to that level.  Doesn’t matter.  I did two workouts a week for three weeks (never on the same two days of the week in any of those weeks) and then went on a pre-planned two week vacation during which I didn’t lift once.  And then when I got home I didn’t go to the gym at all for a week.  But during those three weeks of working out I got back into the habit of going to the gym.  I got a “fix” of the enjoyment I get from working out and I began to transition back into a normal routine.  I never tried to use heavy weights but gradually as I worked out I began to replace the machine exercises with their barbell based equivalents; not all at once or even in a regular progression.  As I got comfortable or bored with the machine I would swap in the barbell exercise – always using a very light weight.  Presses for the shoulder press machine, bench press for the chest press and so on.  In this way, after my vacation and after the one week without working out I eased myself back into doing the old Starting Strength exercise program.

And so far I’m in my fifth straight week of it without missing a day.  And I feel great.

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