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A customer at Answer is Fitness gym works out on a piece of exercise equipment on July 6, 2020 in Canton, Mass.Steven Senne/The Associated Press

If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the intervening lockdown months exploring a range of fitness options. With minimal access to traditional training equipment, I’ve had to be creative and open-minded with my workouts. I couldn’t even practice pull-ups without risking an evil eye or a hefty fine because all the playgrounds are, understandably, cordoned off with bright yellow caution tape.

For the most part, none of this has been an inconvenience. I love calisthenics, and it’s been a lot of fun learning techniques and skills that challenge my body in new ways. But I must say, I’m starting to miss my old cast-iron friends: the barbell, the dumbbell and the kettlebell. I miss heavy deadlifts and farmer’s walks, incline benches and Hammer Strength machines; and, let’s be honest here, I miss old-school bodybuilding staples like dumbbell curls and tricep skull-crushers.

This is why I’m stoked that, aside from a few regions in Ontario, gyms across Canada are now open for business. I won’t be lifting inside a big-box gym anytime soon, but when I get the green light, I’ll be visiting some of the many great private facilities here in Toronto (one of the perks of this job: I know lots of gym owners). And when I do, I’ll employ the following strategy to make sure the reintegration of weight training into my routine goes as smoothly as possible. If you’re a fellow gym rat in withdrawal, I suggest you do the same.

Empty your cup

Some call this beginner’s mind, others white-belt mentality: Drop whatever preconceived notions you may have regarding your abilities and approach your training with the fresh enthusiasm of a beginner. That’s because for most of us, after nearly five months on the shelf, that’s pretty much what we are.

I know, I know – you fancy yourself a genuine beast because back in March, you were pulling four plates. That was then. This is now. Soon enough, you’ll be back where you were, but if you’ve been laying off the heavy lifting since the lockdown, it’s time to restart from, if not quite square one, then perhaps square two. Otherwise, you run a real risk of hurting yourself.

Take it easy your first week back. Spend some time reacquainting your body with basic movement patterns under low-stress conditions. That means go easy on the weight, focus on excellence of execution and don’t push your sets too far. Your muscles will likely feel plenty sore the next day regardless; you want to be fresh for your next training session in 24 to 48 hours. Ramp things up slowly, and by week two or three you’ll be ready to shift into high gear.

Small steps = Sustained progress

As I’ve discussed in this column before, sustained progress over a prolonged period of time is the key to achieving anything in the weight room. And the key to sustaining progress? Small steps. We all have a ceiling on our physical abilities. For the genetically blessed and trustees of modern chemistry, that ceiling is higher than most, but it still exists. Why rush to get there?

Every training program should have a point, or a goal to work toward. For strength athletes, that could mean a maximum one-rep lift in the squat, deadlift and bench press. For performance goals, it could mean acing your first pull-up or blasting out a 10-second 100-metre sprint. The point is, your program has to have a point. Find your starting point, determine a goal, work toward it – that’s intelligent training in a nutshell.

Establish some metrics during the first week or so back at the gym. Don’t base your programming off what you were doing pre-coronavirus. Base it off what you can do now, today. Then strive to do a little more each workout. For the big barbell lifts, that could mean adding five to 10 pounds every week or two. For body weight exercises, a couple more reps each session. Small steps ensure that your progress and motivation won’t halt prematurely.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Toronto.

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