man putting bumper plate weight on barbell in weight lifting gym

Getting back into fitness with achey muscles

I’m trying to get back into shape after the last three years of having a really sedentary job. My muscles feel ridiculously tight from lack of use combined with getting older,  and I think they hurt more than they should. 

I want to start lifting weights again. Is it best to do cardio or stretch for the next month to get my muscles loose before I start lifting?

Taking the time to prep your body is going to make a huge difference to getting back into lifting weights. Being too stiff and sore after a workout is one of the main reasons people don’t stick with exercise, and weight lifting in particular can leave you a bit tender. Probably 90% of my clients are in your situation when I start seeing them. There are two things we focus on in the first few weeks to get muscles loose and lifting well.

First, focus on self-massage techniques. Muscles get tight when we don’t move much, which is pretty normal for a work-from-home situation (and months-to-years of lockdown). Tight muscles aren’t able to contract or relax as well as they could. This can limit the movement you can get from any joint connected to that muscle. In turn this limits how effectively you can lift. 

Decrease muscle tension by using a trigger point ball, a foam roller, or massage stick or massage gun, or another self-massage tool. If you have the ability to get treatment, get massage. Finding a good remedial massage therapist (or in the US, an LMT or licensed massage therapist) can be very helpful. Hands-on work is more effective simply because your appointment will last longer than the amount of time you’ll spend doing it yourself. Plus, your therapist can get into tight sports way more easily than you can. If you can’t get hand-on treatment, don’t worry. The DIY options will work just as well, though they sometimes take a little longer. 

Second, once muscles are loose, you can stretch effectively and appropriately. The way we use our bodies everyday shortens the muscles on the front of our bodies more than the back, so I recommend focusing your stretching efforts there. The biggest bang-for-buck stretches will be your pecs, your lats, your quads, and your hip flexors. 

You can work on self-massage and stretching at the same time. I’d spend one to three weeks with this as your focus. Taking this time will decrease the stiffness and soreness you feel when you start doing the heavier stuff. It’s also a great way to decrease your risk of injury generally. And once you’re feeling good and loose, a little loosen and stretch time makes for a great warm-up. 

For best results, take one to three weeks focusing on the self-massage and stretching before you start adding any significant weight to your workout. This gives your body time to recognise that looser, longer muscles are what you’re working towards, and adapt accordingly. You can maintain this by continuing with the self-massage and stretching as a part of your workout. (Life demands are still going to trigger muscle tension and shortening.) I prefer to use the foam roller and dynamic stretching as a general warm-up, but adding these to a cool down or as a stand-alone session also works. In the end, you have to find what works with your body and weights routine. There’s no right or wrong as long as it keeps you moving.

What do you think?