Back Under the Bar: Getting Back to Training After a Long Break

The first step in returning to training is to realize that that you are not starting over to do all the same things over again. A return to training is a continuation of your training history, written in your log, and etched in the musculoskeletal structure of your body. Everything you do now adds to what you have done before.

Back Under the Bar: What to Expect with a Return to Training and How to Adapt

When you return to lifter after significant time off—say, from illness, injury, vacation, or a global pandemic—you may feel a little bit at war with yourself. You have the memory of recent training, perhaps recent milestone PRs, and the physical know-how to lift heavy weights. If your layoff was not too extended, you probably still have the physical ability to lift heavy. But the first time you train will feel heavy, you may get sore, and the thought of trying to push yourself back to your old training numbers may seem intimidating. You may contrast your new starting weights with your old PRs and, having climbed the mountain once before, wonder if you can again muster the time, energy, and grit to do so again.

The first step in returning to training is to realize that that you are not starting over to do all the same things over again. A return to training is a continuation of your training history, written in your log, and etched in the musculoskeletal structure of your body. Everything you do now adds to what you have done before.

Do Not Pass Go

Training is not like a board game, though it may feel like it at times. Each training day, you roll the dice or spin of the spinner, and you get to move forward a few spaces. At some point, you hit an obstacle, getting sick, taking a vacation, or having your gym shut down indefinitely, forcing you back a few squares, where you start the same process all over again (Sorry!). We organize our training around steady progress so that it takes on a linear shape. So, having a setback can feel as though you have moved backward and need to re-cover the same ground. That’s not what is actually happening, however.

When we train, our bodies go through many changes, the most important of which are not easily undone. Many lifters start barbell training at or around mid-life, carrying some kind of former glory in their back pockets. They were high school or college athletes and are looking to get back in shape after years of little to no structured training. Where these people had significant strength training in their youth, we often find that they take to barbell training quickly, making fast, steady progress during the novice phase and often getting quite strong in a relatively short time. Athletic backgrounds and former strength training matter, even decades later, because muscle, bone density, and the memory of hard training tend to stick around. Even for relatively new lifters, forced to take time off, the skills and knowledge you gained in your first several hundred or repetitions carry forward.

Your current state—trained or untrained—is a collection of set points, and training is the process of moving those set points in a specific direction. When something in your environment disrupts your daily normal, your body reacts with short- and long-term adaptations, either bringing your body back into balance or updating it to survive in the new environment, changing your set point for certain systems. New set points may produce beneficial changes, harmful changes, or neutral changes. Anyone who has ever lived at a high altitude, moved to a lower altitude long enough to acclimate to it, then returned to the high-altitude environment will realize that changes to your environment last only as long as they are necessary. (We discussed the changes that occur when you move from sea-level to altitude, resulting in a change in your blood oxygen level here.) You are at the mercy of your new normal until you change it.

Readiness and Work Capacity

You can think of two set points related to training as readiness and capacity. When you are in the midst of a consistent training cycle, your body is building in ways that improve strength: your intrinsic ability to exert force. Strength is the result, mostly, of the size and contractile capacity of your muscles, but it is also tied to the practice of lifting and your perception under the bar. (Read More: why it is important that you “Don’t Fear the Barbell.”) When you are away from training for an extended period, you cannot maintain the practice to produce force with the same intensity and confidence that you are used to. Also, absent the regular loading of your system, your sensory receptors may become less accustomed to the feeling of carrying weights on your back or in your hands. A barbell may represent a shock to your system the first few times you get back to training. Your work capacity with respect to barbells is a trained state—a constant environment, like living at altitude—to which you will have to reacclimate.

While practice and perception fade quickly, muscle and bone do not, under the right conditions. The older you are, the more susceptible you are to muscle and bone loss, which can is exacerbated by a low-protein or unnecessarily restrictive diet. (Read more: Protein as We Age.) If you are still stuck without heavy loading in your life, it behooves you to stay active, eat enough protein, and exercise in a way that holds onto muscle mass as much as possible: any type of external loading and training for muscular endurance and hypertrophy. (More on how to do that without equipment here: Free Home Training Guide.)

That which is quickly lost is also quickly regained. There is a concept of muscle activation related to the preparedness of a person to exert force and react to external stimuli. Some sources refer to this preparedness as muscle tone, though what muscle tone is, how it is measured, and whether it tells us anything about the person’s ability to lift weights is ambiguous. (Latash and Zatsiorsky) What has been observed is a conditioned response to action and a state of readiness that affects a persons’ reaction time. It takes no effort to observe a loss of readiness in the gym. A short, relaxing vacation away from the rigors of barbell training for even one week will often leave lifters feeling weak and sluggish in their first workout or two when they return. This may be caused by a physiological decrease in readiness or one that is purely mental. Either way, time off from training yields some loss of the ability or willingness to fight with the barbell over heavy weights. You might think of it as losing momentum.

This loss of momentum may be related to how the CNS works to regulate performance during exercise. There is a theory of central fatigue known as the Central Governor Theory. “The Central Governor Model of Exercise Regulation proposes that the brain regulates exercise performance by continuously modifying the number of motor units that are recruited in the exercising limbs.” (Noakes). According to this theory, your built-in ability to handle a load or perform a task is only one of many types of input that affects how your brain regulates force production. Your emotional state, mental fatigue, the amount of sleep you had, motivation, and your prior experience—even self-belief and superstitious beliefs—also play a role. When you are in the throes of hard training or a long unbroken cycle, you will usually experience fewer fluctuations in your ability to lift from these factors.

How to Get Back into Training

Whereas your ability to train—the work capacity that helps you survive heavy, hard workouts—is most closely tied to the volume of your training, readiness—your physical and mental ability to produce force under an external load—seems most affected by the intensity of your training. How you structure your training after a layoff may depend on the degree to which you have lost your work capacity or whether you are lacking some of the springiness in your lifting that denotes readiness. Likely, it’s both.

Start Back with the Novice Linear Progression

For significant layoffs, the starting point is usually going to be the same. The novice linear progression acts as a baseline program to gauge your current abilities and on-ramp you back to your previous training loads. (For more about the many uses of the novice linear progression, download the free ebook on the novice linear progression, “Why it Works and What to do When it Doesn’t.”) The simple, full-body structure lends itself well to rooting out work capacity issues—training three big lifts per day at moderate volumes and intensities will quickly bring your intra-workout recovery and your ability to adapt to training up to speed. If you start light enough, any soreness from a return to training is easily overcome without changing your schedule, and the ability to add weight at large or small intervals to suit your progress is key adjusting for your individual needs.

Unless your layoff occurred while you were in the middle of a novice progression, you would take a different tack than your first time through it. Experienced lifters will go through the linear progression more quickly and without the same dogged determination to push for PRs within its 3 x 5 structure. While you should let your performance in the gym dictate how you progress, you should expect more frequent changes to the program. A short run of a linear progression that morphs into a four-day split is a good strategy.

Play with Your Rep Ranges

One of your goals in returning to training is to re-up your readiness to lift heavy. While sets of five are more traditional for building muscle mass and strength, training with fewer reps per set is a useful strategy to improve your lifting readiness. Moving to sets of three, doubles, or singles will allow you to rapidly increase the weight on the bar, reacclimating your brain and body to the feel of a heavy barbell and the regular need to exert force quickly.

Whereas a more traditional end to a novice linear progression will employ a top set of five (1 x 5) followed by back-off sets for the squat and deadlift, you may consider using a range of fewer reps per set such as two sets of three or three sets of two (2 x 3 or 3 x 2). Running out the program and moving into a four-day split that uses 2 x 3 on intensity day to really ramp the weights back up.

The below example is not comprehensive, but it might give you an idea of a few steps to take from this mini linear progression to a sustained four-day split program.

Day 1: MondayDay 2: WednesdayDay 3: Friday
Squat 3×5Squat 3×5 @ 80% of Day 1Squat 3×5
Bench Press 5×3Press 5×3Bench Press 5×3
Deadlift 1×3Deadlift 2×5 @ 80% of MondayDeadlift 1×3

 

Moving toward volume and intensity work with less conventional rep ranges:

Day 1: MondayDay 2: WednesdayDay 3: Friday
Squat 4×4Squat 3×5 @80% of Day 1Squat 2×3
Bench Press 5×3Press 5×3Bench Press 3×3
Deadlift 1×3 (+2.5lbs from last Monday)Barbell Rows 3×8Deadlift 2×5 @ 85% of Monday

 

And, farther still toward a four-day split with clear intensity and volume days for each of the main lifts.

Day 1: LowerDay 2: UpperDay 3: LowerDay 4: Upper
Squat 2×3 (Intensity)Press 2×3 (Intensity)Deadlift 2×3 (Intensity)Bench Press 2×3 (Intensity)
Deadlift 2-3×5 (Volume)Bench Press 4×4 (Volume)Squat 4×4 (Volume)Press 4×4 (Volume)

 

Using less familiar rep ranges has an additional benefit. They give you the change to set new PRs that do not compare 1-to-1 with your pre-layoff personal bests. PRs in any rep range are good for your motivation. The above example employs sets of four for volume work. Depending on how you adapt to training, sets of four to six, tend to work well for strength volume and new volume PRs. Intensity work at this stage often lends themselves well to 2 x 3 or 3 x 2 setups. Perhaps it is semantics, but rather than chasing the herculean 5RM that you set last winter or your previous 1RM, chase PRs in lesser-used rep ranges. This can make training more accessible, more fun, and will give you a measure of your current progress.

Keep Going

A return to training is really no different than regular training. Focus on your form, be consistent, and follow a logical plan. Challenges come from the baggage you carry from your previous training and the knowledge that training is hard and that you may have a lot of work to do to get back to your best. (Or, you may not; many lifters hit new PRs during their mini-LP with a return to lifting.) That same baggage, though, is what will help you get farther than you were before. The strength is still there, you just need to keep pushing for a little while to realize it again.

Enthusiasm set you on the journey to build strength, patience helped you climb the mountain. When you stop, fall off, or fail, your reasons for lifting dive you forward on any path that presents itself. Just keep going.


References

Latash and Zatsiorsky, “Biomechanics and Motor Control,” Ch. 5 (Muscle Tone) (2016)

Noakes “Fatigue is a brain-derived emotion that regulates the exercise behavior to ensure the protection of whole-body homeostasis” Front. Physiol. 11, (April 2012).

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