Rethinking the Gym During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Your county has turned green and the world has started to feel somewhat normal again. You’re  free to get your hair cut, see some friends, and arguably most importantly: get back into the gym. And there is hope for it to be safe! A recent study tracked 4,000 gym-goers throughout May and into June. The protocol allowed them to work out at 5 gyms specifically reopened for the study (O’Grady, 2020). Out of the entire sample, only 1 person tested positive for the virus. So gyms, with stringent public health measures in place, are safe. Case closed, right?

Research Limits

Not so fast. Some epidemiologists have pointed out that the overall spread of the virus in the area where the study had taken place was low. Only 8309 cases were confirmed at this point out  of a population of almost 700k. Therefore, there was a significant chance no one in the sample had COVID-19 during the study. None of the participants were tested before participating. Until a study like this is replicated and improved upon, the jury is still out on how safe reopening gyms are.

The Scope of the Issue

So before you hit the elliptical or crush a set of deadlifts, it’s important to know that COVID-19 is still out there. It primarily spreads from person to person via respiratory droplets (CDC, 2020). We typically think of droplets coming from coughs or sneezes, but the virus can easily find a home in loud grunts and heavy breathing commonplace in commercial gyms. While it may not be spreading nearly as rapidly as it was in March & April for Northeast states like Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, the virus is still circulating in the community at some level all over the world. Therefore, we must do everything we can to protect our health and the health of our neighbors. Adhering to these tips on how to minimize your risk in the gym is imperative.

Weigh your Options

Not all gyms are created equal. Each boast different prices, class schedules, equipment, and amenities. Now, in this new normal, we must factor in the steps each gym is taking to minimize risk into our equation.  Look for gyms that take initiatives to best protect heir members. Some gyms, like Inspire South Bay Fitness in Redondo Beach, CA have their members work out in “gainz pods” (O’grady, 20). These cubicles are made of pvc pipe and clear shower curtains; separating gym members up 10 feet from each other.  Sure, working out in bubble squares seems a little extreme. But until we determine the safety of gyms scientifically, it could be a matter of life and death.


Keep Cardio Outside

While some of us still yearn for our favorite piece of cardio equipment at the gym, it may be best overall to run outside in the open air. You’ll burn more calories per hour during a run outside than you would on a bike indoors (Mayo Clinic ,2019). You’ll also minimize your risk of contracting COVID-19 . Gyms with large square footing are still capped by an enclosed space and a high volume of traffic. The risk is comparable to being in a grocery store but amplified with over half its patrons unmasked and out of breath; forcefully exhaling droplets all around you. Unless equipment is adequately spaced and mask wearing is enforced to some degree, it may be best to keep your cardio outside. Perhaps, it may be time to invest in your favorite treadmill or recumbent bike to have at home.

Keep Conversation to a Minimum

From the high school acquaintances catching up at the squat rack to the various forms of flirtation in the cardio section, we tend to stray from our workouts to socialize at the gym. In some ways, it’s an integral part of health & wellness culture. There’s nothing quite like getting cheered on by peers to get that 1 rep max deadlift up or spending a half an hour with a friend on the treadmill recapping the news, sports, and local gossip. With that being acknowledged, its best we keep all of it to a bare minimum until further notice. Talking can spread respiratory droplets up to (and sometimes further than) 6 feet; preventing us from efficient workouts (CDC, 2020) . I’ve had several of my own derailed from unexpectedly running into friends or catching up with a former coach or teacher. Sure, a certain range of rest between sets will help us achieve specific training adaptations like strength and muscle building (Thompson, 2019). I can assure you none of those times exceed 5 minutes. Chatting with friends can easily exceed 10.


Galen Rupp is an Olympic silver and bronze medalist distance runner who suffers from asthma and allergies. To protect himself as best he could, he wears an altitude training mask (a device more restrictive than your basic surgical mask or KN95). Not only did he compete in the USA Track and Field Championships while wearing it, he won the 10k in less than half an hour.  While the average gym-goer is not an elite athlete like Galen, the minor inconvenience of wearing a mask while performing triceps extensions or lat pull downs  far outweighs the risk of a severe outcome with this disease. Experts have agreed that mask wearing has drastically help mitigate the spread over the past few months(ScienceDaily,2020). Alone, it has prevented anywhere from 230,000-400,000 cases. Yes, the mask is uncomfortable. Yes, the mask is restrictive. No, it is not impossible to breathe in but breathing is near impossible on a ventilator.  So to avoid that at all costs, you can catch your breath (with your mask on) during your 1-2 minute phone scroll/rest period between sets.

Switch to a Full Body Workout Routine

If your routine features a chest workout on Monday, a back workout on Tuesday, a shoulder workout Wednesday, an arm workout Thursday, and a leg workout if you feel like it on Friday; it may need to change for the better. Full body routines are typically 2-3 times a week. They allow a day or two in between each session for adequate recovery (Thompson, 2019). This format works every major muscle group 3 times per week. Body part splits usually only allow for 1 time per week. Perhaps most importantly, it limits your time per week in the gym to only get in what you need to. A random person with a 5-6 day body part split routine is more likely to catch the virus in the gym as opposed to another random person who only works out 2-3 times per week. Utilizing compound exercises that recruit multiple muscle groups simultaneously is the most “bang for your buck” way to work out. It will let you maintain the same volume of work as you would perform during a split routine and cut your chances of exposure by more than a third.

Moving Forward

            Here is a full body workout you can try if you’re making the decision to go to the gym. Alternate each workout every time you attend the gym and allow for at least 48 hours in between each session. Determine your 1 Rep Max for each lift and use 70% of it to start for your working sets. Allow 2 minutes in between your sets. Look to increase the weight by 5lbs in upper body lifts and 10 lbs in lower body lifts.  You can add supplemental work like bicep curls and triceps extensions if you must. However, the exercises selected and intensity prescribed should be more than enough work for those secondary muscle groups. For example, reversing the grip on a bent over row engages the biceps more than the standard/pronated grip row would. As stated before, the goal of this program is for you to optimize the efficiency of the workout and the time you spend in the gym throughout the week.

Stay tuned for instructional videos on each of the exercises, stay healthy, and stay safe!

Workout A Workout B
High Bar Back Squat 3 sets x 5 reps Sumo Deadlift 3 sets x 5 reps
Dumbbell Bench Press 3 sets x 5 reps Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press 3sets x 5 reps
Reverse Grip Bent Over Row 3 sets x 5 reps Chin Ups ( Assisted if Necessary) 3 sets x 5 reps

“Exercise Prescription for the Apparently Healthy.” ACSM’s Clinical Exercise Physiology, by Walter R. Thompson, 19th ed., Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2019, pp. 109–109.

“Face Masks Critical in Preventing Spread of COVID-19.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 12 June 2020,

“How to Protect Yourself & Others.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 Apr. 2020,,are%20not%20showing%20symptoms

Mayo Clinic Staff. “Calculating Your Calories Burned.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 21 Nov. 2019,

O’Grady, Cathleen. “It’s Safe to Go Back to the Gym-If There’s Little COVID-19 around, Study Suggests.” Science, 26 June 2020,