15 Lessons Learned for Lifters From the Great Lockdown

Before the Great Lockdown, many of us refused to take time away from the gym. The forced absence might have been a blessing in disguise for you. At the very least, it will have forced you to take some rest and let nagging injuries heal.

It may also have affected you on a more fundamental level. Perhaps you have re-evaluated why you train and what your goals are. Hopefully, you have greater clarity on what you want to get out of the gym and how best to achieve that

Maybe a global pandemic that threatens the overweight, diabetic, and elderly to a higher degree has made you rethink your approach. Perhaps you have decided to include more conditioning work to supplement your weightlifting, or chose to come down from the superheavyweight class, and end your perma-bulk pursuit of becoming a 300 lb behemoth. 

Perhaps, in contrast, you realize your athletic pursuits contribute a great deal of meaning to your life. Lockdown has made you know that achieving those things is something you deeply desire, and you have sworn to double down on all your efforts to reach your potential. Whatever the outcome is, I hope you have taken the time to reflect, assess, and plan.

Time away from the gym means you can appreciate it more. You can re-assess your relationship with training: 

  • Was it a healthy relationship?
  • Did you enjoy the challenge and the process?
  • Did you train because you thought you had to prepare?
  • Did you train to burn off a few donuts?
  • Did you train to punish yourself or to reward yourself?

Do you view health and your approach to optimizing it differently now? Your goals might have shifted. Are our longevity and increased resilience more important than adding an inch to your arms? Or do you realize that gaining the extra muscle will not make you happier and more fulfilled?

The answers to these questions are yours and yours alone. Take the time to re-assess, gain clarity, and adjust. You may have just needed a rest or a change.

1. Do What You Want

Doing what you want is something I think is essential. Pre-lockdown many of you might have been following a path laid out for you, or at least heavily influenced by someone else. Their goals might have been projected on you and become your goals. Don’t train to make anyone else happy.

Train to make yourself happy. Set goals that mean something to you. Create a plan specific to those goals and then work hard to achieve them. This will fulfill you far more than going through the motions of chasing someone else’s dream.

It will also make the ride much more enjoyable. Have your mission and work towards that.

2. Maintain Muscle Mass

Over the lockdown:

  • I’ve done less training than at any point in the last decade.
  • I’ve had access to less equipment than I’ve had since I began lifting nearly 20 years ago.
  • I’ve had the stresses of trying to pivot and take much of my in-person business online to earn a sufficient income to support my family.

Despite all this, I haven’t lost any muscle. I think I’ve gained some. I haven’t worked miracles, but I certainly haven’t hemorrhaged muscle and reverted to the physique of my 11-year old self.

While I knew strength and muscle mass were resistant to decay from detraining, I’d never really had to put it to the test. While recognizing the theoretical framework and scientific research was comforting, it doesn’t make you immune to the anxiety that something you’ve worked so hard for could disappear.

I’m pretty sure lots of rational, well-read gym rats are feeling trapped between the competing thoughts of,

“It’ll be fine, I’ll maintain my muscle and strength doing bodyweight workouts” and “Oh crap, I’m going to lose all my gains – I won’t even look like I lifted after lockdown.”

Fortunately, the research was right. It turns out retaining muscle mass is a lot easier than building it. Once you’ve created a decent physique, you can keep it doing very little. 

3. The Value of Nutrition

A proper diet can: 

Your diet is vital to building an impressive physique. We all know this, yet many gym-junkies cut corners with their nutrition.

They fall into the trap of out-training a lousy diet, or at least, compensating for a less than ideal diet. It’s pretty apparent when a gym newbie is trying to lose fat by pounding away on the treadmill or signing up for a spin class that they will be destined to frustration.

They need to address their diet, specifically, their grande mocha-frappe-latte-cinno with syrup and muffin breakfast habits and the pizza and beer dinners.

Most of us gym rats, take a strange kind of moral superiority here. We mock them for their naivety. We think of them as ignorant and lazy.

Yet many of us fail to see that we too make similar mistakes. The difference is we love to exercise and use this to cover up for some of our nutrition faux pas.

Stuck at home and unable to train for 90 minutes every day, many a gym-junkie has realized they aren’t quite so hard-core and disciplined with their diet as they thought

They now have access to a fully stocked kitchen only a few feet away. Many a lifter I know has begun to cave-in to cravings they never used to have. Suddenly, trips to the fridge or cookie jar during moments of boredom are happening on an hourly basis.

We aren’t so bulletproof when our routines and safety blankets are taken away. Not armed with some Tupperware filled with pre-prepped food, we are now making food choices when hungrily raiding the fridge; it’s given us a glimpse of how most ordinary people live.

I know I had a few weeks where I was dipping my hand into my kid’s stash of chocolate and biscuits more often than they were. Combined with my reduced activity levels, my weight started to climb.

The ease and accessibility of hyper-palatable treats in the next room became hard to resist. I began to develop a habit of having a chocolate bar after dinner.

I would take the one-for-you, one-for-me approach when dishing out the treats to the kids. All of this temptation meant I started to build bad habits and a bigger gut.

4. Eat Based On Activity Levels 

Perhaps you haven’t started helping yourself to treats. Maybe you’ve stuck to the same eating habits as before. Chances are you’ve still gained weight, though. Why? Because your activity levels are down, and you are denied access to your beloved gym.

All of this sounds negative, but in fact, it can be a real blessing in disguise. It will force you to develop a better understanding of how your diet needs to reflect your activity levels.

If you can stay lean or get lean when you can’t train regularly then, you’ll find it a breeze once you can get back to your beloved gym.

If you’re a coach, it is a valuable insight into the struggle regular people face. It should make you more empathetic and better at helping to solve their problems. You will be a more valuable resource and a better coach to your clients.

5. Slow Down 

These past few months might have been the first time in your adult life you’ve taken your foot off the throttle. Modern life demands so much of us. It moves incredibly fast, and we feel compelled to keep up by pounding the treadmill of life. 

I started the lockdown with a lengthy to-do list of all the things I would achieve. A hyper-productive machine was what I wanted to become. Then, I took a breath, slowed down, and realized these few months at home with my wife and kids were a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I’ve tried my best to appreciate and enjoy the experience.

  • I’ve shelved the plans to churn out multiple articles each week.
  • I decided not to interview a podcast guest every day.
  • I didn’t force myself to wake up at 5 am to get a few hours of work before the kids woke up.

 I still worked, and I have been relatively productive: 

  • Finished writing a book
  • Trained my clients online 
  • Recorded a series of educational videos
  • Helped with homeschooling the kids
  • Played football outside with the kids 
  • Remembered how much fun it is to play Monopoly 
  • Read several books
  • Did some sketching 

I also sat on the sofa, watching Netflix with my wife. I have generally been more present and less distracted. I have by no means been perfect – just better than I was.

The lockdown is, hopefully, a once in a lifetime thing. I might as well look back on it with fondness. I also hope to carry the ability to slow down and be present in-the-moment for the rest of my life

6. Love Local

You might have found that the big supermarkets near you struggled to cope with the demand in the early stages of the lockdown. Meanwhile, many local shops remained well-stocked and went above and beyond to support their local community.

They showed they cared, and we realized that we had taken them for granted.

In our time of need, we turned to them and found the last pack of loo rolls, a bar of soap, or a bag of flour. I’m confident this will lead to a real sense of loyalty to these stores. I certainly hope so. As the lockdown is lifted, and we transition to a new normal, these shops deserve our continued support

Supporting local businesses goes beyond just getting your groceries, though. It applies to your gym, too.

When the lockdown is over, your local independent gym will need you, because they have been hit hard. Unlike the Globo-gym chains: 

  • They don’t have mountains of private equity funding to pull them through.
  • They don’t have stockpiles of profit or substantial marketing budgets.
  • They are the place that lets you use chalk for your lifts.
  • They allow you to make plenty of noise as you cheer on your training partners PR attempt.
  • They provide you with genuine advice. 
  • They offer you a community of like-minded lifters. 

For some of you, these gyms are a home away from home. When they open back up, they will need your business. Unlike the faceless big chain gyms, they will greet you in-person and appreciate your help.

Support them, and your training can thrive. Ignore them, and they will go under, and you’ll be stuck in a gym that cares more about your monthly direct debit than your results.

7. Community is Powerful

Times of crisis bring people together. Have you had the support you need from your community? Have you stepped up to do your part? If not, then maybe it is time you built a better community or joined one.

This follows my point above about local businesses. Perhaps now is the time for you to start your garage lifting club or to join the local independent gym and meet people who support and motivate you.

They say you are the average of the five people with which you spend the most time. You can choose who those people are. Maybe now is the time to search out some new people to bring into your community. The synergistic effect of good people coming together will push you all to new heights.

8. Do the First Rep

Motivation to train isn’t normally an issue for me. I enjoy the challenge and the results. I’ve been training consistently for years. 

I’d become so accustomed to training that sessions almost start on auto-pilot. Around 90 mins after eating my lunch, I’ll head to my favorite coffee shop without thinking about it. I am pre-programmed to grab a coffee, then, 30 minutes later, I’ll be doing my first set. That’s just the way it is. I’ve ingrained this habit so much that I don’t have to think about it.

In a lockdown, however, I often don’t feel like working out. I don’t have my routine. I don’t have the triggers in place, which start subconsciously gearing me up for training.

Instead, it is suddenly late afternoon, and I’m feeling low on energy and more interested in the sofa than squats. I’m often exasperated after a morning trying to help homeschool the kids, and hangry having not eaten anything in hours. The temptation to blow off the session is strong. I’ll admit it has been stronger than my willpower a few times during lockdown.

Overcoming this resistance to resistance training can be done quite quickly, though. Simply do the first rep. The hardest part is getting started. Once you’ve begun, everything gets easy.

Make a deal with yourself that you’re just going to do the first set. Nine times out of ten, you’ll wind up completing the whole workout. And if you’re like me, ten times out of ten, you’ll be glad you did.

One of my favorite authors, Ryan Holiday says, “The single best piece of advice I’ve heard about writing a book is to produce “… two crappy pages a day. It is by carving out a small win each and every day — getting words on the page — that a book is created.” 

Apply this lesson to your training even when you don’t feel like it. Just get the first sets done and see where it takes you.

9. The Importance of Routine

As I alluded to in my last point, a lack of routine can make good habits harder to keep. I suggest you fix this by establishing a routine

This can apply to your whole day. Set a time to be at your desk working. Have a designated lunchtime—schedule workouts into your diary.

If you are working from home for the foreseeable future, this routine might need to be adapted from your old pre-workout rituals. Perhaps you can simply substitute similar elements. For example: 

  • Make yourself a pre-workout cup of coffee and take your supplements 30-45 minutes before your scheduled training time to replace the usual espresso or pre-workout supplement you would normally have before heading to the gym.
  • Listen to your favorite workout playlist.

Whatever it takes to create some familiarity around the process and put you in the mood to train.

10. Bodyweight Workouts Can Be Brutal

Did you think bodyweight workouts would be a breeze? Too easy for you? Not enough of a challenge? Yeah, me too. Guess what? If you pick the right exercises for you and push them hard, bodyweight workouts can be brutal

In some respects, they are harder than my regular training:

  • Most of my training is done in the 6-15 rep range.
  • The majority of that is in the 8-12 rep range.

With bodyweight workouts, I knew I needed to push close to failure to make them effective.

  • This meant sets of 20+ reps on many exercises.
  • I was sometimes hitting 30 reps before failing.

These high rep sets challenged me in a different way to my regular training. The burn and pump generated were painful.

The mental challenge was also different. On many sets, I wanted to quit at rep 20 when the burning in my muscles started to become uncomfortable.

Despite this burning, I still had reps in the tank, and grinding these reps out was a profoundly unpleasant experience. It was also a shock to the system. After a few high-rep workouts, I had a new-found respect for bodyweight workouts.

My body adapted fast, and pretty soon, I was able to hit the rep ranges more efficiently. My body had become better at buffering the acidity in my muscles.

Then I tried to make the exercise more demanding by slowing the reps down, doing paused reps, or progressing to a more advanced variation of the movement. Sure enough, the pain train arrived again.

So, bodyweight exercises are not too easy and can be very effective if you program them properly and prepare for the work required. This will increase your:

It might also make you long for the safety of heavier weights and sets of 8-12 again. I know it’s done that for me.

11. Kettlebells Are Cool

I’m not a kettlebell guy. I use them in my training and to train clients, but they are not at the forefront of what I do. They are just another tool and, if I’m honest, not a tool that I use that much. However, since the lockdown, I have been reminded of just how versatile a kettlebell can be.

I ordered one for myself at the start of the lockdown because it was one of the few bits of a kit that I was able to get. I’m happy I did. I managed to get hold of an 80 pounder, and it’s been used for:

With just one bit of kit, my training has been fun, varied, and effective. I have only just scratched the surface of what I could do with the KB. When it comes to having just one piece of kit, I now think a heavy(ish) KB would rank very highly on my list of choices.

12. Walking is Good for You – Duh

Getting outside for a walk has been one of the few activities allowed in lockdown, but with nowhere to go, I didn’t take advantage of this at the beginning.

The overwhelming workload of homeschooling tended to take over and meant we frantically tried to teach our five and seven-year-olds about math, English, the Great Fire of London, and random facts about Tokyo (I don’t make the syllabus up). 

I usually walk to and from work. It’s about 25-minutes each way. I knew this was good for me, but it wasn’t until I stopped walking each day that I realized how good.

I’m not an expert on the specific physiological benefits of walking, although I am aware that there are many proponents of its benefits in both physiological and psychological health.

Some say that “the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, changes your internal chemistry to close the spiraling stress cycles.” 

Anecdotally, I can say that going for a walk does wonders for me. Getting the body moving, the blood flowing, some fresh air, and letting your mind wander always seems to result in finding solutions and having greater clarity. It seems to me that walking makes me a more effective, efficient, and productive person.

If you are struggling with stress, anxiety, or find yourself procrastinating, get out for a 30-minute walk. When you get back home, you’ll almost certainly feel better and be ready to tackle whatever tasks you were putting off.

13. Fitness Matters  

Indeed, you don’t miss something until it’s gone. For many gym-junkies, the lockdown has been a challenge. People that were not previously dedicated to a strict training routine have also found themselves wanting to exercise more.

When day-to-day activities were taken away, lots of people were clamoring for ways to get their fitness fix- Whether it be:

People instinctively knew they needed to move their bodies. Physical activity is one of the best medicines. It will also help to make you more robust in the face of serious illnesses. The stats show that younger, fitter individuals tend to have fewer symptoms and quicker recovery times.

While the benefits of exercise are not a new lesson for us, it is impressive to see the creative ways people have found to get their fitness fix. This has taught me that while I have my personal preferences for training, the discipline of physical practice trumps this. I would rather do something than nothing.

14. You Are Stronger Than You Think

Adversity forces you to adapt. Tough times develop resilience. They also inspire innovation. You have almost certainly found creative, clever ways to get things done.

Perhaps what you saw was a way to engage a kid in homeschooling or a way to diversify your business to keep earning money. Maybe, you found a way to keep progressing towards your fitness goals using a backpack, tins of beans, water bottles, a heavy plant pot, and a boatload of ingenuity.

Whatever it was, I’m sure you found a way to learn and adapt. Whether it was through inspired innovation or utterly relentless brute-forcing your way past a problem, I am sure there are many examples of you overcoming.

You are showing untapped strength. You might not have given yourself credit for these achievements. You should. And when this is all over, you will have new skills and greater strength to keep getting better.

15. Every Day is a School Day

Last lesson – School is always in session. For parents of school-age kids, that has been true both literally and figuratively. Did I mention homeschooling your kids is hard?

The horrors of homeschooling aside, lessons can be found in every situation. The lessons listed above and the lessons you will personally have learned during lockdown will serve you forever. They are universal, and not just limited to times of crisis. 

Remind yourself that you will get through this, and if you apply the lessons, you will be better for it. We might well need to learn a new way of living, learn the lessons of the lockdown, and keep on learning. One of our greatest assets is the ability to keep learning.

Think of the lockdown as a fast-paced crash course in life lessons and resolve to be a lifelong learner.