The 5 Metrics you Should Focus on when you return to the Gym
If life was a game of Bingo, I'm pretty damn sure that no one has the combination of events that have transpired in 2020. I mean, really - no one.
Thankfully, it appears that sooner than later we will be finding ourselves back in the gym working towards our health, wellness and fitness goals. We'll be moving barbells, doing drop sets on the cables and machines, and all the other shenanigans that we've missed dearly.
It's going to be glorious.
But before we allow ourselves to get too excited and become blinded by our desire to recapture our glory -
We should accept that we won't be picking up where we left off. In fact, for the vast majority of us (read: those who don't have a fully equipped home gym and have been getting by with bands and body weight) - any attempt at recreating our previous training intensity, density, or volume is going to end poorly.
We have, whether we like it or not, accept the fact that we need to ease ourselves back into the driver's seat. We cannot expect to go from couch to Dominic Toretto just because we've watched Fast and Furious a few dozen times during our down-time.
Or to quote Jesse from that very movie: "You don't step into the ring with Ali just because you think you can box".
Now, I'm just joining a long list of other fitness professionals spreading a cautionary word about training intensity upon return. Through their own websites as well as their social media channels, people like #tonygentilcore , #johnrusin, #leeboyce, and #davidotey have clearly stated the importance of easing yourself back into your training program.
I wanted to go a step further and give you some metrics to focus on for your first 3-4 weeks back in the saddle. Because like you - I need a reason to train. I need to do more than just sweat or "go lighter than usual" to feel satisfied with my output. People like us need to feel like there is forward progress in some direction.
Each of the following 5 metrics (or efforts) are perfect endeavors to pursue as you work yourself back and still hold a ton of value as a part of your normal training programs.
Without further lede;
3D Core Stability
For the most part we can confidently say that the industry, and many who exercise, understand that the CORE and the ABS are different things (in terms of training intentions).
Starting with the latter, the abs rely on the overload principle to cause hypertrophy - just like any other muscle - as well as an appropriate dietary and recovery approach. The development in the abs and obliques allow the muscles to push forward through the skin when flexed while actions in the kitchen and bedroom burn the fat on top of and between the muscles to create that laser-etched look.
But for the core, the functional core as I like to call it, our protocols couldn't be more different.
Here is a absolute truth: The STRONGEST cores are often not very defined. The strongest cores belong to people who brace against heavy resistances and in challenging positions vs. gravity - not to those who do hundreds, if not thousands, of crunches.
Let's clear up our definition of "CORE" before we go any further:
I define the core as the following muscles:
Transverse and Rectus Abdominals
Pelvic Floor Grouping,
Internal and External Obliques
Serratus and Intercostals,
Lats, Glutes and Erector Spinae
We train these muscular units together by actively bracing the CORE against resistances created by load or by changing our body's position vs. gravity.
The act of bracing the core is to actively resist flexion, extension, rotation, and lateral flexion (AKA the functional movements of the spine). These 4 patterns effectively highlight the 3D component referenced in the title. We must actively resist forces that challenge us in the frontal, saggital, and transverse planes.
We must brace when we squat, deadlift or press heavy. We must also brace when we are doing a PROPER plank, chop or carry. At a highly advanced level - you'll see intense bracing in movements such as the Dragon Flag or Abdominal Rollout.
Building your training program to be able to "bite down" and maintain stability throughout the entirety of a challenging effort is a critical foundational block to unlocking your optimal-self. You can't be strong, powerful, explosive or resilient if your core (AKA the area that protects your spine) is weak.
A great sample pre-training circuit would be as follows:
1A - 100% BW Farmer's Carry x 30 seconds
1B - Copenhagan Side Planks x 20 seconds per side
1C - Band Resisted Glute Bridges x 20 Reps
1D - Full Kneeling Chop and Lifts x 10 Reps per side
Then you'll want to emphasize a tight, strong brace in your primary lifts, regardless of what they are. This brace will secure your spine, train your core musculature, and significantly improve force transfer to and from the limbs.
Training 3D Core Function is ALWAYS a smart training objective. Want more on it?
Check out this really intense training program I put together for the one and only T-Nation!
2. Unilateral Strength
Trust me, I get it. You want to get back in the gym and load up the barbell with enough plates to recharge your ego, verify that you are still in fact strong, and jump-start the next gainz train.
I do too.
But let's note make a Brian O' Connor mistake and slap 2 NOS tanks on our car without properly understanding the mechanics of double-clutching and street racing.
You owe it yourself to begin with those humbling weights and train unilaterally for the first few weeks. Beyond the "wiseness" of this recommendation - it is quite possibly the fastest way to get over those long-held plateaus and frustrating points in your lifting progression.
See, training unilaterally, especially with your lower body, increases the capacity of each individual part (AKA a leg). When those parts get to be reunited again after a long bout of being socially distanced from one another...
The results are astounding. You have quite literally improved the sum of the parts because you improved the parts themselves. Your totals on whatever lift you care about will be higher within a few sessions back under the bar.
I highly recommend emphasizing the following movements for lower body (not in any order):
A - Front Foot Elevated Split Squat (only need a 4-6 inch lift on front foot)
B- Standard Split Squat
C- Reverse Lunges with Active Hip Flexor Lift on Return
D - Single Leg Hip Thrust Isometrics
And for the upper body any unilateral push or pull will do, but please note that you will feel an intense desire to rotate with the resistance. Referencing our very first metric - let's own that core stability!
3. End-Range Position Ownership
In any given lift there is a "top" and a "bottom". If we look at the squat, for example, these positions are quite obvious.
What is less obvious though is the need to master these end-points. Many lifters, even those who train regularly, skip out on maximum tension and control in these points in an effort to just get their repetitions in.
Think of every lift as a rubber-band. There is a position where there is more slack (AKA - the resistance is not felt by working muscles yet) and a position where here is maximum tension (AKA the maximum stretch within the muscle).
Own end range at all costs...
The best in the world are capable of building incredible bracing and tension when the weight could be slacking (thus adding metabolic and muscular effect while simultaneously protecting the body).
What's potentially more important is their ability to own the position of maximum tension/stretch. This protects the body from injury and improves the training effect immensely.
Using our squat image from above - ask yourself right now...
Are you the person who bottoms out and bounces out of the bottom like you make your money with vertical poles attached to the ceiling?
Or are you the individual that can "sit" into the tension, own their brace, and exert controlled effort into the return trip?
Another great example would be the classic Romanian deadlift. Many people are going to be tight and tall at the top but often make one of the following mistakes at the bottom:
A - go too far down and begin adding spinal (lumbar) flexion
B - Go too short with emphasis on the toes and not really feel glutes or hamstrings
C - Go too heavy and need to slingshot themselves to the top
So as you return to the gym, do go lighter and begin mastering these end positions. Just imagine how much more impressive your lifting totals will be when they also look picture perfect!
And imagine how nice it will be to not deal with those nagging back, shoulder, or knee injuries...
4. Mind-Muscle Connection
If you love bodybuilding practices specifically, then you can probably skip past this one - it's been your jam all along.
For the rest of us, especially you CrossFitters out there...
We have a tendency to just get our repetitions in. It's starting line to finish line, a quarter-mile at a time.
And while workouts that focus on getting shit done quickly (see next point) have valid outcomes (metabolic output, power/density, endurance capacity) - they often leave us a little short on the muscular developmental front.
And that is because we are missing out on one of the most important variables for muscle growth - Time Under Tension (or King TuT as I like to call it).
Time-Under-Tension ensures that our muscles face significant stress for longer periods of time to create greater fiber breakdown and a greater production of chemical byproducts in the muscle tissue. While this sort of training is not necessarily beneficial for speed, power, or strength - it does wonders for shaping and developing the body.
So, as you dive back into your routine...and especially later in your training sessions...
Slow down and feel the contractions, tie-your-mind to the bones that move through the body and concentrate on moving through the entire range of motion (see the point above) with a high level of control and intention.
And once you've locked-in on slower, intentional contractions you'll find your muscles are developing and shaping into exactly what you'd hope they would.
5. Training Density
Our final variable in play is about the entirety of your training program. While many of the other tips apply specifically to an exercise, or a "ideal" behind the session - training density references your pace of play.
To be clear, this is not pointing to "go fast, just because". Regardless of how many Fast and Furious References I've put in this post - I do not advocate for speedy training sessions*.
* an exception always exists for those busy days, or a quick met-con on vacation.
As you return to the gym you are not going to be as ready for a high volume training session as you'd like (Volume is defined as sets x reps x load) Those 90-minute slaughter sessions we once did need to wait a few more weeks.
Instead, Volume/Time (AKA DENSITY) is an amazing metric to focus on for this first month. Instead of trying to do MORE in total - focus on doing MORE in a set amount of time.
This means limiting your Spotify searching and Social Media scrolling. It means not getting into conversations between sets and not following the book on rest periods. You'll see a decrease in force output by the end of the workout. You will have to lower weight (most likely).
You will sweat...
But it will emphasize total WORK output, a measure that ties the cardiovascular system to the muscles and metabolic pathways. Improving your work output in a 20 or 30 minute interval is a tremendous way to get back on track with your training while still drastically improving elements of your fitness level.
Here is one of my favorite "Get-in and BANG" Circuits:
1A - Trap Bar Deadlift (8 Rep Load) for Sets of 7 Reps
1B - Dumbbell Push Press (12 Rep Load for Sets of 10 Reps
1C - Foam Roller Plank Saws x 20 Saws
1D - Medicine Ball Rainbow Slams x 20 Slams
1E - TRX Row x 10 Rows
Set the timer to 20 minutes and get to work. You'll adjust your rest as you need it and may find you need to lower the deadlift weight in those last rounds.
The goal here is simple folks!
Let's get back to "normal" as fitness-nuts. Let's get back to chasing our goals and moving forward towards a stronger and healthier life.
But we need to remember that we must honor the time we've had off and recognize that no matter how much we believe in ourselves and want to willpower the shit out of this thing...we're better served to do things the right way.
These are your 5 metrics for doing just that. Thanks for reading and thanks for being on my site.
Remember, "it doesn't matter if you win by an inch or a mile...winning is winning."