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Returning to Training After a Layoff

Question:

After a long time of not working out (months), I started lifting again.  The problem is that most times when I come back from lifting I end up injuring myself by starting where I left off.  I’m smarter now but perhaps not smart enough.  What strategies do you suggest for returning to training after a layoff?

What I decided to do  is to cut back in sets and weight for some time. I decided to start with 1 set of each exercise and start at 50% of the weight I left off at when I was last lifting.   I’ve done 2 days thus far, major DOMs, but no injuries. Then each week I’m going to bump the weight up by 10% until I get back to the 100% weight. Then I will start adding sets each week until I get to where I was lifting before. Is there a better way to do this?

Answer:

The situation you’re describing is actually quite common.  For whatever reason, be it injury, sickness or just life, trainees often have to take rather prolonged layoffs from the weight room or other types of training.  In this case, returning to training properly is critical.

In that context, there is actually quite a bit of data on detraining (e.g. how rapidly you lose adaptations from training when you quit).  I can’t honestly say I’ve looked at it in detail recently and much of what I’m going to write below is based as much on personal experience training and coaching as anything in the literature.

Returning to Training After a Few Days Off

In general, there tend to be a fairly small loss of gains in the short-term.   So over a few days off, very little if nothing is lost.  For very technical activities (such as Olympic lifting) often ‘groove’ is lost quickly which can manifest itself as a performance loss.  This is especially true for the snatch compared to the clean and jerk.  For less technical movements, this is much less of an issue.

Quite in fact, in the case of sickness or a very short layoff, often no time is lost when returning to training.  Due to training poorly (too hard or too often), many come back stronger after 3-5 days off.  They may hit PR’s quickly because the time off acts as a short taper/peaking phase.

At the most, it may take no more than a single workout to get back into the groove.   Some will find that their groove is back partway into that first workout, or after a few warm-up sets.  Let me mention that this is highly variable.  I’ve seen a 3-5 day layoff leave some trainees completely flat and unable to perform.  They usually feel their best within 2-3 days of returning to training with only light workouts at first.  One trainee I had would look terrible on their first day back to the gym, better on the second and hit PR’s on the third.  Again this is highly variable.

Returning to Training After 5-7 Days Off

Once more than 5-7 days have passed, performance will typically decrease.  I’d note that most of the loss here is in neural adaptations more than muscle mass per se.    It’s just a reversal of the original adaptations.  Neural gains occur first and are lost first.  For layoffs of perhaps 1-2 weeks in duration, my rule of thumb is that it will take roughly twice as long to get back to where you left off.

So if a trainee is forced to take a 2 week layoff, they can expect it to take 4 weeks to get back to their previous level of performance.  The basic idea would be to backcycle their training poundages by about 2 weeks and then build up to where they were by week 4.

Returning to Training After a Month or More

When layoffs get much longer, a month or more, the rules change as both neural adaptations and muscle mass are often lost.  This means that my “twice as long to return” rule of thumb starts to become less and less useful.  As the training layoff extends longer and longer it becomes absolutely meaningless.   The trainee will return over some times toward their untrained/newbie status.   And this has major implications for returning to training.  It also describes the situation you asked me about.

What Not do Do

Since I’ve long found it better to put warnings before suggestions, let me start by describing what not to do.  Basically it’s what you described yourself as having done in the past: attempting to start where you left off.  I saw this a lot when I worked in commercial gyms.  Trainees (almost always males) would return to training after literally years.

Usually they were in the mid-30’s and hadn’t trained since high school or maybe college.  And their thought process seemed to be “Well, the last time I benched I put up 275 so I’ll start there.”  And one of two things would happen.  Either they would get outright injured or they would be so wrecked with soreness that they never returned to the gym.  Just like you did in your past.

So don’t do that.

What To Do

What should be done when returning from a layoff is what you described in the second half of your question.  Beyond a certain point away from training, you should consider yourself a beginner again.  That means training as a beginner.

Specifically you should start with a low volume and intensity of training.  This might mean 1 or a maximum of 2 fairly light sets of perhaps 8-10 exercises.  Use a full body routine and just go shake out the cobwebs.  Don’t do a split routine, don’t do a bunch of exercises for each muscle, don’t do a ton of sets.  You must put aside what you “used to do”.  Trying to match those performance right out of the gate will get you into trouble.

Put differently, it never ever hurts to start more slowly and build back up unless you are under some weird time pressure to be in shape rapidly.  That situation does arise, usually in competitive athletes.  Assuming you’re not one of those, there’s no rush.

Because there is a lot to lose by trying to do too much too fast.  You have to re-adapt to training.   The trainee needs to strengthen their connective tissue, rebuild their work capacity, etc.   Avoiding injury or quitting far outweighs any time “lost” by going more slowly initially.

This isn’t to say that you must go as slowly as you did when you were a rank beginner.   You might need a mere 2-3 months (if that) to achieve the same level of training it took you 6 months to reach as a true beginner.

What I Recommend

So far as I’m concerned, the approach you described in the second half of your question is more or less perfect. I tend towards full body routines in the first few weeks but a basic upper/lower split can also be appropriate so long as the initial training volume and intensity is kept in check.  Lifters returning to training don’t usually need quite as much practice on movements as when they were true beginners.  So I’m not as adamant about getting as frequent practice.

Intensity should be low in the first few workouts.  A load of 50-60% of previous maximum, or even less is fine.  But starting lighter is always preferable to starting heavier.  There’s always room to move weight up as you re-adapt.  But if you go too heavy and get hurt or what have you, you’ve already screwed the pooch.

Every couple of workouts, you can add a little bit of weight back to the bar.  This is assuming you’re not getting wrecked by soreness or any sort of joint pain.  Realistically it may take 6-12 weeks to get even remotely close to your old training poundages.  Some of that will depend on where you left off and the rest will depend on how long of a layoff occurred.

As mentioned above, I would recommend lower rather than higher volumes in the first few workouts.  Work capacity has to be rebuilt and this take time.  That might mean 1-2 sets maximum per muscle group/per exercise.  You can add a set each week as you rebuild yourself to your previous volume.

Whether I would use higher or lower repetitions for someone returning from a layoff would depend on the situation.  Higher repetitions tend to force lighter weight but lower repetitions often allow better technique.  I’ve talked about this before, how best to teach or learn a new exercise.

If I were coaching someone hands on, I might allow them to do a few low repetition sets but with the caveat that the weights were very submaximal.  So they might do 3 or even 5 sets of 5 but only the 5th set would be even remotely challenging.  If you are training yourself and have poor impulse control, user higher reps in the first few workouts.

In terms of exercise selection, there are multiple ways to go about it.  I tend to use more movements for less sets while other coaches prefer more sets across fewer exercises.  Big picture it probably works out about the same.

But that would sum up how I suggest returning from a long layoff: train as a beginner.  You’ll make faster progress than you did as a true beginner and muscle memory is very real.   You can expect both strength and muscle mass to return faster than you gained it initially.

Even so, be patient and conservative.  The slowest adapting tissue are the connective tissues.  Even if your muscles can handle the loads, your joints, tendons, etc. have to re-adapt.  Going more slowly still takes less time than getting hurt by being macho

Returning from Injuries: Part 1

Let me finish by talking about injuries as the rules change a bit there.  Make no mistake, all of the above still holds but there is more to take into account.

The single most important question is this: Has the injury healed?

Injuries can be devastating both physically and psychologically.  Athletes may enter a severe depression and ensuring that the injury heals as quickly as possible is critical.  Driven individuals frequently try to return to training before the injury is fully healed, re-injuring it (or injuring it worse than before) and losing even more training time.

Years ago my mentor gave me a valuable rule that I follow to this day, both for myself and my trainees.

Wait until you think the injury has healed, then wait another week.

Sage advice indeed.

This particular “rule” exists for two reasons.  The first is that motivated trainees alwasy think they are healed sooner than they actually are.  They’ll convince themselves that what is residual joint or tendon pain is just stiffness and go back to training too early.  Often this leads to reinjury.

The other is a more practical one: you end up losing less training time by waiting longer initially.  Let me explain.  Say an injury occurs and you lose two weeks of training letting it heal.  But it really required 3 weeks.

If you wait that third week, you only “lose” three total weeks of training.

But let’s say that you go back to the gym after only two weeks and get hurt again.  Let’s also assume that you didn’t make the injury any worse.   At this point you’ve already lost 2 weeks.   Getting hurt again means losing the initial two weeks plus the third week you really needed in addition to the first two weeks.   You’ve now lost 5 total weeks of training.

By not waiting the third week initially, you lose an extra two weeks of training.  And as frustrating as it is being patient in the short term, it always pays dividends in the long-term.

Returning from Injuries: Part 2

But there is more than just being patient when returning from an injury.  Specifically, during the first workout it’s critical that you only do one set that works “through” the injured area.  So say you had a shoulder injury and needed 4 weeks off while it healed.  When you returned to training you did one set each of bench press, overhead press, rows and pulldowns.  Now it hurts again the next day.

But you have no idea what movement caused the problem.  It might be one, it might be another, or might be some combination.  If you did more than one set you don’t know if it’s the exercises themselves or the volume of training.

In contrast if you do a single set of bench press and nothing else that hits the shoulders you can determine the impact of that one exercise.  If it doesn’t hurt, great, you can do bench presses at least for a single set.  The next day you add a set of shoulder presses.  Shoulder hurts the next day.  So shoulder presses are still out.

But say you add shoulder presses and there is no pain.  Now you add a set of rows.  Pain?  Ok, no rows.  No pain?  Ok, rows are in.  I think you get the idea.

You will probably need specific rehab exercises as well.  Injured muscles often become inhibited and may not fire correctly. Specific exercises may be require to “fix” the issue before normal training can resume.  But this is far outside the scope of this article.

Yes, this makes it take that much longer coming back from an injury to get back to normal training levels.  But that’s just life in the big city.  If you reinjure the area you lose far more training time in the long-run.  Patience pays off (yeah, yeah, patience, how long is THAT going to take?)

Summing Up

When layoffs only last 3-5 days, trainees usually lose no time at all.  Quite in fact many come back stronger.

When layoffs extend to the 1-2 week mark, plan on it taking about double the time off to get back to where you left off.

Once a layoff has extended past a few months up to years, you must train as if you were a beginner again, at least for the first few weeks.  Start with a low volume, low intensity, and build back up over the next 4-6 weeks or longer.   Trying to pick up where you left off will either injure you or make you so sore you quit for another 10 years.

Yes, this is frustrating in the short-term but it pays off in the long-run.  Give your body time to re-adapt on every level and you’ll get back to where you were a lot faster than pushing it too hard from the get go.  Only competitive athletes have a time-frame to get back into shape rapidly.  And they usually have professional coaches ensuring that they do it correctly.  You don’t so err on the side of too conservative than not.

When you are recovering from an injury, you must let the injury heal fully.    Wait at least an extra week after you think it’s ok.  Start even more conservatively with no more than one set of one exercise “through” the injured area.  Assess the next day and you can add more one exercise or set at a time.  Nothing else works.

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