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  • Tara Albright DPT

Transitioning to the gym

Updated: May 5, 2021

Picture this: you’re now 12 weeks out from your new total knee replacement. You’ve been working hard in PT and as a result, are coming to the end of your episode of care. You feel great about your strength and movement but want to continue to exercise now that your knee is healed. You’ve frequented the gym here and there in the past but for the most part, the gym seems to you like mysterious iron jungle full of confusing machines and equally confusing outfits. Where do you even begin?

You are not alone. Utilizing the gym can be a daunting idea to folks of any age and fitness level. What is the difference between a barbell and a dumbbell? Why are there so many machines that seem to do the same things? In this multipart series we will tackle these topics and much more to help you gain a better understanding of how to use the gym for your personal health and fitness goals, with a particular emphasis on transitioning from PT to the gym. Our aim is to arm you with the knowledge that allows you to walk into the gym and make sense of what is in front of you. As you turn the virtual pages of this instructional odyssey, we hope you begin to develop a better understanding of the who’s, what’s, why’s and how’s of transitioning from physical therapy to regularly exercising at the gym.

So … what is the gym exactly? Is it a social club where the most muscular and fit people in town go to revel in one another’s beauty? Is it an exclusive club where the strongest people out there go to lift increasingly heavier weights and grunt louder than the next person? Could it be that the gym is actually a power plant that harnesses the movement of people on machines to generate power for the Grand Valley? Well, not really. There is a large degree of variance in the reasons why people choose to go to the gym and it can encompass a wide range of motivations. What the gym “is” directly relates to the fitness goals of those individuals using it, and so it should be with someone looking to begin using the gym after concluding physical therapy. Fitness and health are deeply personal constructs that should always reflect what each individual’s goals for themselves are.

Generally speaking, here are a few ways to consider the gym from the perspective of individual goals. This is not an exhaustive list, nor are they mutually exclusive, but are some general categories to consider in identifying where your goals may lie:

  • Aesthetics: it is not uncommon for folks to frequent the gym religiously in the pursuit of building the most beautiful body they can with what they’ve got. These are people who seek full, defined muscles and low body fat. There is only one way to achieve this – consistency with diet and regular exercise that is tailored to your body’s unique anatomy and physiology. This is a noble and ancient pursuit dating back to the earliest periods of recorded history. Consider when Socrates claimed, “What a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” For aesthetically-minded people, fitness is both a lifelong pursuit and a goal in and of itself.

  • Competition: competitive demonstrations of strength and physical ability likewise date back to our ancient ancestors and are well documented throughout recoded history. The Olympics have their roots in this idea, as well as modern day sports and cultural displays of physical prowess. In the modern era, the sports of powerlifting and Olympic lifting come to mind. These are weight lifting competitions that focus on a rigidly defined set of movements. Powerlifting encompasses the bench press, the deadlift and the barbell squat. Olympic lifting encompasses the clean and jerk, and the snatch. There are rules that govern proper form and what qualifies as a “successful lift” (I won’t bore you with the specifics) but you can find much more information on these sports via a quick Google search. There is a portion of the gym crowd who frequent the establishment simply to train for these competitions and be as strong as possible.

  • Sport-specific: it is no secret that in order to be a high level athlete, one must work as hard (or harder) in the gym as on the field. An athlete’s sport-specific skills are not limited to ball handling or throwing form; strength is absolutely essential for top level athletic performance. Along with a meticulously curated diet, resistance training (ie lifting weights in the gym) is foundational to delivering the highest level of athletic performance. By building maximum strength, the athlete can make significant improvements in other aspects of their game – linear speed, acceleration, lateral quickness, balance and the ability to take contact, just to name a few. There is a large portion of the gym population that have their eyes set on becoming the best athlete they can be by grinding it out in the weight room.

  • Health-based fitness: this is the category the majority of us fall into. For a large amount of people, their attendance at the gym is a reflection of their desire to lead a healthy lifestyle. The plentiful health benefits associated with regular exercise are well known (ask your physical therapist for more specifics!) and go beyond physical fitness. It is useful for casually-interested individuals to frame regular physical activity as another facet of a balanced and healthy lifestyle, alongside other important aspects like mental health, proper diet, and personal hygiene. Folks who engage in regular exercise at the gym through a health-based perspective make up a significant portion of all gym-goers and tend to tailor their modes of exercise to their health goals. This oftentimes has some crossover with the above mentioned categories but unlike competition or sport-based fitness, health-based fitness has much more room for variability and individual preference.

As you have no doubt surmised by now, exercise can mean very different things to very different people. There is no single way to define it that would resonate with everyone; exercise is a unique practice that should reflect the wants and needs of the individual. It is not limited to people recovering from surgery, such as with our hypothetical total knee replacement patient, nor to the people making the most noise and taking up the most space in the gym.

In our next segment, we will tackle some of the finer points relating to exercise – how to choose equipment and exercises, ways to monitor your progress and much more! We will also highlight the basic principles of exercise so you can not only understand the “what” but the “why” and “how” associated with engaging in an exercise program. Until then – stay healthy, safe and happy!

- Dorian Campisi, PT, DPT

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