During the winter months, it seems rare to get through without catching a pesky head cold at least once. Although I rarely get sick personally, I’m still well acquainted with the scratchy throat and low energy levels associated with the inevitable onset of an annoying cold/flu. Being sick is a real inconvenience in today’s busy world, especially when it gets in the way of any health & fitness goals you may have. It’s not unusual at this time of year for clients of mine to be on a massive roll and gaining some real momentum with their training and lifestyle habits, only to be stopped in their tracks by an unexpected flu.

I am often asked by friends and clients about training while sick. Is it safe? Will it make the cold worse? Is it ok to have a week off? As I get asked these questions fairly often, in this article I’ll give my take on what to do with your training when you are burdened with a cold.

Please note, I am only talking about common colds in this article. As common sense should dictate, if you are seriously ill with a life threatening condition, there are many other factors to consider. That being said, let’s move on.

Is it Safe to Exercise when Sick?

The answer to this question depends on two main factors; the severity of the cold, and the intensity of the exercise. If you are feeling run down with congested sinuses and a throbbing headache, it’s probably not wise to bust out a high-volume squat session or attempt a new Personal Best for deadlift.

Generally, it is perfectly safe to train while sick, as long as the workout is kept to a light/moderate intensity and a relatively low volume (less sets/reps than normal.) You’ll be unlikely to make any gains while sick, due to the body working hard to fight the infection. However, it’s certainly not a waste of time, and there’s even a major benefit. The lymphatic system, which is a network of vessels and nodes under the skin, plays a major part in transporting and removing waste products, toxins and infections from the body. Interestingly, unlike other body systems, the lymphatic system is not passive, and must be stimulated by body movement and muscle contraction. This is a big reason why I’m an advocate of light exercise when sick. It actually helps move the infection out of the body faster!

Should I Take a Week Off Training when Sick?

Again, to properly answer this question, we need to take into account the severity of the cold. If you’re bed-ridden, don’t try to pump out a session of Advanced German Volume Training. As a rule of thumb, if you can’t go to work, don’t go to the gym. Sometimes you just need to rest. However, if you’re only suffering a standard cold or flu, some light exercise will do you good. You’ll release endorphins and increase circulation to make you feel better, as well as helping to clear the infection more efficiently (mentioned above.)

Unnecessarily taking time off from the gym will only serve to break the good habits you’ve worked so hard to form, and it will make coming back the following week that much harder. If you find yourself under the weather with a cold, stick to your guns and still go to the gym. Just modify what you’re doing to accommodate how you’re feeling.

Let’s use an example. Say you were supposed to complete 4 sets 10 of squats, alternating with 4 sets of 10 lat pulldowns. If you’re run down with a cold, I would suggest instead doing 3 sets of 12 squats (on their own) at about 70% intensity (70% of the weight you’d normally use for 12 reps), and taking as much rest as you need between sets as opposed to the usual specified rest periods. Once 3 sets of squats have been completed, I would then use the same formula for the lat pulldown. So you would still be completing the same movements, and training the same muscle groups, just at a lower intensity and with greater rest time than normal.

I hope this article helps to silent those inner voices urging you to skip the gym because of a pesky winter cold. Give my tips a try! Your body will thank you for it.

Until next time!