Ask Stew: How to Get Started Again After COVID

Airman leads calisthenics exercise

If you’re recovering from a serious illness or situation that causes lung congestion or lung damage, consider a slow and steady rebuilding phase so you do not potentially overwork the heart or cause more lung-tissue irritation.

Here is an emailed question from a wildland forest firefighter who is having recovery issues with COVID-19 on top of a busy fire season.

Hello Mr. Smith, I am coming off a long season on a hotshot crew and a bad case of COVID and smoke inhalation. My illness caused me to lose 15 pounds that I did not need to lose and has just really worn down my body. I want to start putting long, slow miles on to improve my lungs and cardio base but also really want and need to regain weight and muscle to feel healthy. Any recommendations on how to move forward? Thanks, Steve

Steve, thanks for what you do to save communities by fighting fires. The double shot of COVID-19 and smoke inhalation is a substantial one-two punch to the gut after a tough season. There are a couple of options to prepare for the next fire season.

Both require steady, easy workouts to get back to where you need to be. Doing too much, too soon can affect progress, so patience and logical progressions are required. Do not just jump back into “training like you used to do” before you got sick.

1.Calisthenics and Easy Cardio

Consider this a rebuilding phase and focus on the basics of mobility, calisthenics and easy cardio in fresh air. Try to avoid any smoky regions, if possible, or stay inside on cardio machines, if necessary.

Basic calisthenics followed by easy cardio or walking, jogging, biking, elliptical, rowing or even swimming can help you rebuild the heart and lungs. Make sure you keep it on the lower intensity scale, with a lower heart rate in the 50%-60% max heart rate zone.

A base of calisthenics and stretching is a good way to get moving again and will make the transition into lifting weights a little easier. However, if you are wanting to deal with the weight loss first, there is a way to lift weights without overtaxing your rebuild phase.

2. Another Option: Lifting First

You also can choose to rebuild the body in the weight room first and work on mass building as the primary goal. You can finish each lift workout with easy cardio. I would especially recommend this option if your lungs are still beat up and you find it difficult to run or walk up hills or stairs.

No matter which option you pick, make sure you eat to gain weight by adding more calories of good food (carbs, protein, fats). You still can gain muscle weight with calisthenics.

I would start off with walking or biking on upper-body days. On leg days, add weight via backpack or weight vest and walk. Over a few weeks, build up to walking hills to get your legs back under you for the next fire season.

Especially after prolonged serious illness, a basic bodybuilding and hypertrophy cycle is a good rebuilding option in a gym where you can focus on body parts like chest, shoulders, triceps, back and biceps, legs, core or grip each day of the week.

This is a good way to help the recovery process and spread out the intensity over the week, instead of going for high-intensity, full-body workouts while trying to rebuild your foundation of fitness.

Either route will help you. I just happen to prefer to rebuild my fitness foundation with a short four- to six-week cycle of calisthenics and progressive cardio. I follow that with a weightlifting cycle, and that would be a good next step for you.

You eventually can adjust to more of a powerlifting cycle, versus a bodybuilding cycle, once you feel you can go heavier and reduce repetitions. Regardless, I would still warm up with some calisthenics, followed by a lift and then end the daily workout with an easy cardio option that builds up to 30-45 minutes under a load like a backpack.

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Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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