When a muscle feels tight — whether it’s because you’ve charged into a new activity, performed repetitive movement patterns, or settled into sedentary postures — you instinctively stretch it out. This might feel great in the moment, but the effect is usually fleeting. To get the most out of each stretch, it’s important to stay with it long enough to convince your brain and nervous system to release the tension.
Certain structures in your muscles and tendons, including muscle spindles and the Golgi tendon organ (GTO), send signals to adjust course when a muscle stretches too far or too fast, in order to protect the joint from injury. It’s important to hold the stretch for more than about 30 seconds — or move in and out of the stretch position repeatedly — to encourage these structures to release their hold, explains fitness coach and Kinstretch instructor Beth Lewis, FRC.
With practice, proper stretching raises the body’s tolerance for larger ranges of motion, and the effects of stretching become more sustained. But if you stop stretching, the muscles will return to their shortened state. “It’s a use-it-or-lose-it proposition,” says Lewis.
Long, sustained stretches — lasting up to several minutes — may over time elongate muscles and tendons. But short of that, stretching is less a matter of mechanically increasing a muscle’s length, and more about teaching your brain and nervous system that you’re safe at larger joint angles.
“You’re not only stretching tissue,” explains trainer and injury-prevention expert John Rusin, DPT, CSCS, PPSC. “You’re educating your joints.”
Stretching, then, is a form of movement practice that involves all of you: brain, nervous system, and supporting joints — as well as the tissues you’re stretching. Its effects, Rusin cautions, will be significantly reduced if you perform the movements while distracted. “If you’re not focusing and breathing deeply as you perform these stretches, they become almost useless.”
This was excerpted from “Stretch Your Fitness” which was published in Experience Life magazine.
Have you tried this NEW workout plan that everyone is talking about?
5 Ways to Get Your Fitness Routine Back on Track
Two days before Amanda Thebe noticed her first COVID-19 symptoms in March 2020, she did a 25-minute barbell workout and ran six miles. It was the last time she would exercise for almost 10 weeks.
Although she kicked the virus and tested negative after five weeks, residual symptoms flared up every time she even tried to take a walk.
“I was in a pity party for a good six weeks,” says Thebe, a personal trainer in Houston with more than 20 years of strength training under her belt. “Then one morning I woke up and thought, I can’t let this virus keep me down. I have to find the small wins every day.”
Over the next several months, Thebe rebuilt her health and fitness. Through patience and consistency, she regained her pre-COVID conditioning by October 2020.
Illness is just one reason you might fall off the fitness wagon. Injury; surgery; postpartum recovery; a major life event, such as a divorce or death; a consuming work project; or simply losing interest in an exercise routine can all disrupt your trajectory.
And while the world may be chanting, “No excuses!” the reality is that life is full of ups and downs and pauses and resets.
Getting Back on Track
When priorities need shifting, the key to getting back on track isn’t trying to climb back on a moving wagon. It’s carefully considering what you want from a fitness routine and developing a realistic plan to help you get there. Successful reentry into a workout regimen requires strategy, adaptability, and plenty of support.
Our experts discuss what happens physically and mentally when we take a break and suggest five steps for easing back into exercise.
1. Set Realistic Expectations
Imagine you’re a seasoned runner training for a marathon PR when you injure your knee. You start seeing a physical therapist, who tells you it will be six to eight weeks before your knee heals. Your race is in eight weeks, so your goal stands. But is it attainable?
“The problem starts when people have unrealistic expectations,” says Shanté Cofield, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS, a physical therapist and movement educator in San Diego.
Completing your PT sessions or recovering from a contagious illness is not necessarily a green light to resume your former fitness routine. Cofield says it’s crucial for healthcare providers and movement professionals to help patients manage expectations.
“The No. 1 thing is to realize the value of playing the long game,” Cofield explains. She advises setting goals over 18 months. The long-game mentality is vital whether your hiatus was prompted by injury, illness, or some other unforeseen life circumstance.
Setting realistic expectations allows your body and mind to get on the same page, says sport and exercise mental-skills coach Carrie Jackson Cheadle, MA, coauthor of Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries.
“It’s important to be able to define success in that moment and not define it based on what you could do before,” she says. “What we don’t realize is that our brain holds on to our original goal and expectations. We need to consciously redefine these.”
Cheadle frequently works with athletes who want to push their bodies hard right away. “They’re excited and they think, That’s what I was able to do before, so I should be able to do it now. They want to see if they can get to the level they were at, so they put everything out there. And they don’t feel the effects until the next day.”
In these instances, trying to “listen to your body” may not be enough to guide a return to workouts. Experts recommend listing your goals and holding yourself accountable to gradual increases in load, speed, distance, or other variables.
“Where you were is not where you should start,” says Mark Schneider, a Minneapolis-based strength coach who specializes in injury rehab and pain management. “Having realistic expectations is starting at about 60 to 70 percent capacity of where you were before and doing a solid month there before slowly progressing your capacity.”
Cofield advises adding no more than 10 percent of any variable (volume, load, speed, distance, etc.) at a time.
She also notes that pain is a lagging indicator that you’ve been pushing too hard. It’s better to start slow, make incremental changes, and track markers other than pain. “If you wait until you have pain [before dialing back], you’ve waited too long.”
Tracking your training along with your overall physical and mental health can help you recognize patterns and determine whether your goals are appropriate. For instance, once Thebe started monitoring how she was feeling on a 1-to-10 scale each day, she found that she could only do about half of what she thought she could do without experiencing residual coronavirus symptoms.
“I looked at goals I could normally achieve in a month and set them for the end of three months. Since deciding that’s what I had to do, it was actually quite empowering. It gave me control,” she says.
“There’s so much pressure to be perfect in fitness. It’s OK to press the reset button and be a beginner again.”
2. Focus on Consistency
Some athletes assume that easing back into fitness means working out less frequently. But if your old schedule worked well for you, the comeback version doesn’t have to differ much. Using the overall structure of your former routine as an outline for your new one can be helpful, says Danny King, master personal trainer at Life Time.
“I want clients to come back with the routine that worked for them — that routine is part of what made them successful — but I want them to ease back into total volume and modify really aggressively,” he says.
For example, if you previously ran five days a week with your weekly mileage totaling 30 miles, you can still lace up your shoes Monday through Friday, but maybe you run or walk only one mile at a time.
Or if you were hitting the gym every other day at 6 a.m., set your alarm on those days and go lift weights, even if it’s just for 20 minutes.
“Your priority should be frequency and consistency,” says Schneider. “Getting back into the environment you were in before should take priority over what you were doing in that environment.”
Moreover, if a routine wasn’t working for you before, a break can offer the chance to create a training plan better suited to your goals and lifestyle.
“The stopping and restarting is an opportunity to highlight your desire and the goals surrounding it,” he says. “Maybe this time gave you the opportunity to run around and play on the playground or in nature. Maybe you’ve decided you don’t really want to continue hitting the same cardio machine and doing upper- and lower-body splits in the weight room like you’ve always done.”
It may be time to try a new group fitness class, activity, or sport.
Before resuming a workout regimen, ask yourself if you enjoy it and want to commit to doing it again. “What matters to you? What do you ultimately want to get back to doing?” says Cofield. “Movement is medicine. You don’t want to take it if it tastes bad.”
3. Program Smart
Whether you’re returning to an old routine or starting a new one, focusing on form and technique and considering different kinds of movement can help you avoid injury and keep you from getting discouraged.
For example, if you were following an advanced strength-training routine, King advises starting with big-muscle groups and movement patterns (squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull), and spending a month or two doing more general workouts. “You’ve got to treat your body like it’s a beginner again because, in some ways, it is one,” he says.
He also recommends deliberately training stabilizer muscles, including those of the core, glutes, and shoulders. These areas don’t get worked much in everyday movements and could weaken during a break. No matter what sport or activity you are resuming, strengthening these muscle groups will make you more resistant to injury.
Thebe’s reentry into strength training started with an emphasis on her core — not just the abs but all the muscles of the trunk. “Strength and mobility come from having a stable core. Having a strong core is the foundation of all movements,” she says.
If you’re feeling discouraged, incorporating a variety of movements and training can help you avoid getting caught up in what you could do previously. “Try something you’re less emotionally tied to — whether it’s a different exercise or running a different route,” says King.
Start with single-leg kettlebell deadlifts instead of barbell deadlifts, or dumbbell chest presses instead of bench presses. Or, King suggests, manipulate tempo and slow down the eccentric part of the lift, which can strengthen tendons and ligaments prone to injury. (For more on modifying your strength routine, read “Personalize Your Strength Routine”.)
The emphasis on form and technique isn’t limited to resistance training. Whether you’re a lifter, runner, swimmer, cyclist, dancer, gymnast, competitive athlete, or simply an avid exerciser who loves all sorts of activities, it’s critical to sharpen your awareness and focus on how you’re currently moving. Prioritizing form does double-duty by keeping you safe and injury-free while also giving your mind a place to settle without judgment.
On your next run, consider your gait. On your next bike ride, pay attention to your posture. Whatever you do, make sure you are breathing. (Learn more about building body awareness to improve your fitness at “How to Build Body Awareness to Improve Fitness”.)
4. Don’t Overlook Your Lifestyle
“For a lot of people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers a lot of other good habits, and when it’s removed, a lot of these other habits are, too,” says Schneider.
Think about lifestyle factors, such as diet, sleep, hydration, and stretching: Have any of these habits changed since your hiatus?
“A key in both fitness and fitness longevity is the ability to monitor and recover as needed,” he explains. “Your rituals around exercise may have to be reset for this to happen.”
Lifestyle becomes especially crucial after illness, injury, or a stressful life event. Adequate nutrition helps your body rebuild and restore tissue and makes you less likely to get injured or sick, or overtrain.
Incorporating mental-health practices, such as meditation and deep breathing, can reduce your overall stress and cortisol levels, which cause fatigue and interfere with muscle remodeling when elevated.
“It’s OK to slow down. Take the time to think about how much time you really have here and consider how you’re sleeping, your resting heart rate, your mood, your breath,” says Cofield. “Your nervous system doesn’t know the difference between your boss swearing at you and you lifting weights. If you want to recover, the answer is not more stress.” (Learn more about the importance of recovery at “Why Workout Recovery Days Are Essential for Optimal Fitness”.)
Thebe says that going out of her way to sit in silence and drink a cup of coffee has helped her start her days on the right track, both mentally and physically. She’s prioritized nutrition and movement outside of deliberate exercise, such as going for walks and swimming. “Recovery is holistic. I’m focusing on things I can control,” she says.
5. Surround Yourself With Support
We know that adequate support is key to coping with an injury or illness, but it can be equally valuable during a return to exercise, says Cheadle. She’s seen athletes who self-sabotage their return by pushing too hard too fast, as well as those whose fear and anxiety prevent them from moving forward.
“Sometimes in the moment that people need the most support, they are getting the least. People don’t realize that they need to recover mentally as well,” she says.
The Association for Applied Sports Psychology identifies three types of social support — educational, tangible, and emotional:
- Educational: Information gathered from specialists can help you make better choices about your recovery and comeback. For instance, your doctor or physical therapist telling you that glute strength is key to avoiding injury as a runner can help you choose appropriate exercises to supplement your return to running.
- Tangible: Practical assistance with your daily efforts. For example, a friend might offer you a ride to the gym.
- Emotional: Informal or formal counseling to help you cope with frustrations and negative emotions. For instance, a friend who’s dealt with a similar hiatus and comeback may encourage you and remind you to see the big picture.
Cheadle’s mindset for coaching often includes both educational and emotional support to athletes. For those who are resuming training after an injury, it’s common to feel anxious about reinjury.
“We become hyperaware of any sensation in that part of the body, even if it is normal,” says Cheadle. She employs mind–body techniques, including breath work and positive mantras, that athletes can use to reduce their stress response.
Cheadle also encourages her clients to connect with a physical therapist, who can help them improve mobility, increase their range of motion, or develop greater strength or cardiovascular capacity. Focusing on the “before” can make it difficult to see some of the subtler indications that you are on the right track to recovery.
Regardless of your reason for taking a break, Cheadle stresses the need to treat your-self with compassion.
“Whether you were taking care of a loved one, or you were just called to put more energy into your business, this is life. You don’t have to punish yourself because life pulls you in a different direction.”
What to Expect in a Comeback
Expressions like “falling off the wagon” and “use it or lose it” can make it seem like we start from ground zero after we take a break from working out. Sometimes it may feel as if that’s the case, but does taking time off really send us back to the beginning?
“When you’re looking at loss of fitness during a break, the question is more like how long have you been training versus how long have you stopped,” says coach Mark Schneider. “The longer you’ve been training, the more your body has adapted to what you were doing, and the longer the break would have to be to affect you.”
Most of the time, any loss you incur within a week or two off is typically the extremes of which you’re capable, he says. For instance, your top running speed or one-rep-max bench press will decrease, but your foundational strength and endurance will remain.
“While peak ability does tend to drop quickly, it also increases quickly — it’s why athletes do a peaking cycle before a competition,” says Life Time master trainer Danny King. “What doesn’t drop quickly are the long-term aerobic-fitness adaptations the body builds over time.”
“This is why a person with a long history of aerobic exercise can train for a marathon much quicker than most people. These adaptations tend to stick around.”
Studies on endurance athletes have found that with inactivity, it takes as little as two weeks for cardiovascular adaptations, such as VO2 max and enzyme levels, to decrease. A study published in 2018 by the Journal of Applied Physiology found that after four weeks of relative inactivity, marathoners incurred significant changes to their heart, affecting how hard a certain pace would feel.
It’s important to recognize that these studies show a decrease in peak performance, as opposed to loss of endurance.
As for strength, research finds that it takes about three weeks for loss to occur. A 2017 study noted that men who did resistance training maintained their strength after two weeks of detraining. A 2013 study involving rugby and football players found that it took three weeks of inactivity before they started to lose muscle strength, which continued to decrease from that point.
Beginners may notice more significant losses than longtime exercisers, but that’s because their progress was likely more neurological and skill-based, explains Schneider. With a shorter training history, your body has less time to solidify fitness adaptations.
The good news is that what you lost will return much faster. Thanks to muscle memory and coordination of your nervous system, your body will find it much easier to perform a move, as compared with the first time you tried it.
It’s also worth noting that any muscle growth you achieved before taking a break gives you an advantage. When you first build muscle, part of the process involves creating additional nuclei for your muscle cells. When you lose muscle, you retain these nuclei. This greater number of nuclei allows you to build muscle faster the second time around.
Research shows that loss of fitness happens much more quickly and drastically if you’re bedridden and inactive, versus engaging in day-to-day physical activity. If you know you’re going to be taking some time off from deliberate exercise, don’t beat yourself up over it. And if you have the chance to keep moving, remember that every little bit counts and will make your comeback much easier.
This article originally appeared as “Your Comeback Story” in the January/February 2021 issue of Experience Life.
Have you tried this NEW workout plan that everyone is talking about?
One Trainer’s 4 Favorite Digital Workout Programs
Digital workout programs have taken center stage over the past year, as millions of people found new and creative ways to stay committed to their fitness during the early days of the pandemic. The phenomenon is here to stay, as well-designed digital workout programs have proven to be an effective method for helping many maintain their routines and reach their fitness goals.
As just one example, throughout the pandemic, I’ve been training a friend one-on-one via video sessions twice per week. In just two months, she lost 14 pounds, simply by following a plan comprised of bodyweight exercises she completed in her living room. (Her plan also included some nutrition shifts and a goal of reaching 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day.)
So you don’t have to skip a beat in sticking with your healthy way of life amidst ongoing pandemic obstacles and restrictions, our trainers created a library of workout programs available to anyone with the Life Time digital app. These are my four favorites.
1. Foundational Program
Requiring just two workouts per week, this program is geared toward beginners. It’s perfect if you’re new to training because it will introduce you to and help you gain experience in perfecting foundational movement patterns such as pushes, pulls, squats, hinges, gaits, and rotations.
2. Transformation Program
This beginner-friendly program calls for performing four workouts per week, alternating between upper- and lower-body days, so you work your full body over the course of the week and length of the program. It’s a great option for anyone seeking a weight-loss transformation, or for those who are either new to working out or haven’t been in a consistent routine for a while.
3. Fat Loss Program
This intermediate-level program provides four workouts each week, with the exercises focused on consistently increasing your energy output, or calories burned.
Over the course of 12 weeks, you’ll experience an increase in work capacity, including sets and reps, as well as nonexercise activity thermogenesis, which comes from low-intensity activities such as walking or stretching. In the last three weeks, cardio days are added to increase your energy output as you near the end of the program.
4. Comeback Program, Part One
Each week, this program features three strength-training sessions and one recreational workout day, where you have the freedom to choose an activity that you enjoy, such as going for a bike ride or playing basketball, frisbee golf, soccer, or pickleball. Designed for experienced exercisers, this is crafted to help you ease back into a routine after some time away, whether due to injury, illness, or other circumstances (i.e. a pandemic).
For your strength efforts, workouts will alternate between push-movement days, where you’ll complete exercises such as squats and chest and shoulder presses, and pull-movement days, where you’ll do moves such as rowing and lat pulldowns.
There are a number of workouts, programs, and training offerings in the Life Time digital app for you to explore. If you’re interested in trying one of these four specifically, reach out to one of our fitness professionals. They can help tailor the length of the program to fit your goals, adjust the workouts to include more or less equipment or bodyweight exercises based on what you have access to, and get you set up and ready to go in your app.
Have you tried this NEW workout plan that everyone is talking about?
This HIIT Core Workout Will Really Make You Sweat
If you're looking for a great HIIT core workout, you want to choose one that targets all parts of your core—not just your rectus abdominis, the muscles that run vertically along the front of your abdomen.
To do this, you should focus on exercises that work your core through movement and anti-movement, Alicia Jamison, C.P.T., trainer at Bodyspace Fitness in New York City, tells SELF. That's because to really challenge your core, your muscles have to go through a range of motion as well as resist motion, which helps build stabilizing strength. Examples of anti-movement include anti-extension (where your core has to fire to resist the hyperextending of your lower back) and anti-lateral flexion (where you resist bending at the side), whereas flexion, or bending, is an example of movement.
By using various movement and anti-movement patterns, you'll challenge your transverse abdominis (the deep muscles on the front and side of your abdomen) and your internal and external obliques (the sides of your abdomen), as well as your rectus abdominis. This gives your core a 360-degree workout that you'll feel everywhere.
And training these muscles is super important, both in everyday life and during your workouts. After all, the main function of your core is to protect your spine. That's what helps you stay aligned when you're walking, twisting or rotating, carrying or lifting things, and sitting down, says Jamison. A strong core also helps improve your fitness and training, as it allows for a bigger transfer of energy from your upper body to your lower body and vice versa.
When it comes to core training, though, it can be tough to know whether your core is actually engaged—meaning, the core muscles you want to be firing (and which should be firing) are the ones that are actually working, rather than other muscles, like ones in your back (which you don't want to take over).
One tip: If you're doing a move where you're lying on your back, like flutter kicks or reverse crunches, push your lower back into the floor to eliminate the space underneath, which ensures the transverse abdominis and the rectus abdominis are engaged. If you're not lying on the ground, connecting to your breath is the easiest way to engage your core. “When you inhale, your ribcage opens up, and when you exhale, you can close the ribcage, engage the diaphragm, and pull those central tendons down into the core,” says Jamison. Essentially, you're contracting the muscles in your core as you exhale.
In this HIIT core workout created by Jamison, you'll be utilizing smaller moves for a big burn. And because it's HIIT-based, be ready to work hard with max efforts interspersed between your rest intervals.
Like with any HIIT-based workout, a proper warm-up is key: You definitely don't want to get into intense moves cold. Jamison loves doing low lunge twists—she calls them the “world's greatest stretch”—to dynamically warm up your whole body. To do this, reach down toward your toes and walk your hands out to a high plank. From there, step through with your right foot and place it outside your right palm, so you feel a big stretch in your hip. Then open up your chest, taking your right hand off the ground and reaching it up toward the ceiling for big T-spine mobility. Then do the other side.
Ready to hit the mat? Here's what you'll need for this short and sweet HIIT core workout.
The WorkoutWhat you'll need: An exercise mat for extra cushioning.
The ExercisesFlutter kickForearm side plank crunchReverse crunchRussian twistDirectionsPerform each exercise for 40 seconds, resting for 20 seconds after each move. Complete three times total.Demoing the moves below is Amanda Wheeler, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-founder of Formation Strength.
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