How to Return to the Gym After A Long Break
At the time of writing, the world is just coming through the Coronavirus.
Gyms have been closed in most countries for about 3 months. This is a plan to return to the gym intelligently, without rushing, so you can get back to a normal routine as soon as possible, without injuring yourself. You can use this plan after any long layoff in the future – hopefully we won’t have another global pandemic!
If you didn’t have a home gym, you’ve had to get by, doing whatever you can to maintain strength (like using this home workout plan). If you were minimally equipped, you might have been able to do pullups and perhaps some work with rings like ring pushups or ring bodyweight rows. For most people, barbell work and heavier dumbell work has just not been possible. No overhead press, no heavy squats and no deadlifts. This would have been a big change from the usual routine.
Long Lay Offs Lead to Detraining
Your body will have detrained the adaptations it made during your previous training. If you stop providing a stimulus, the body will lose the adaptations it made to handle that stimulus. Simply put, you lose muscle and strength,
Strength goes first. You probably won’t have lost too much muscle, but you will have lost strength. Much of your strength comes from your nervous system and muscular system working well together. You can gain strength without gaining muscle. You can just get more efficient at recruiting motor units (a nerve and the surrounding muscle fibres it innervates). This is usually why you can increase the weights you use so quickly in the first 6-12 months of training.
In the same way, you can also lose strength without losing muscle. You lose the ability to recruit maximal motor units. This comes back pretty quickly, but you can’t rush the process of making those neural connections again.
Don’t rush your comeback and injure yourself
Even if you’ve been doing what you can to train at home and maintain most of your muscle and strength, you don’t want to rush back too quickly with movements you haven’t done in a long time under heavy load. You really don’t want to mess this up and give yourself an injury.
Even if you haven’t lost ANY visible mass if you’ve not been training lifts you used to lift heavy on, you WILL have lost strength on those lifts.
You need to ease back into it. You can’t rush the crucial ramping up period in acclimating your joints and nervous system to heavy loads again.
Here’s a 4 week plan of action to get back to full capacity intelligently
In week 1, you just want to get back into the groove of movements you haven’t done for a long time.
Your body has forgotten how to move loads through those movement patterns as efficiently as it used to be able to.
PICK LIGHT WEIGHTS. Go for 60% of your old 1RM and stop well before failure (3 reps or more).
Remember, we’re not trying to build muscle with these sessions. We’re just practising movements. DON’T be overeager to find out where you stand with your lifts. What good does it do to attempt to lift 90% of your previous 1RM “just to see where you are” and then fail at it? All you’re doing is putting stress on your joints and frying your capabilities for the rest of the workout and making it more difficult for yourself to recover for the next workout.
You’ll be needing to prioritise recovery in this stage, so don’t make it harder for yourself. 2 or 3 workouts per week will suffice. I’d go for full body. There’s no point in blasting every muscle group by dedicating a whole session to it. There’s no use in 25 sets of chest exercises in a session right now. Go for full body routines with 2 compound exercises per muscle group.
Don’t work yourself too hard (remember, light loads stopping well before failure) or you won’t be ready to do it again in a couple of days.
In the second week, you want to increase the intensity slightly. That means heavier loads and lower reps, going closer to failure. Err on the side of caution, you’re still a long way from ready to go back to your old training style. Use 70% of your 1RMs at most, and still keep about 3 reps away from failure. Stay with the full body routine for now. Don’t add more sessions, or if you do, the volume per session should drop.
We’re going to ramp things up just a little bit now by going slightly heavier and introducing some sets closer to failure. Work with 75% of your 1 rep max on your work sets and go about 2 reps away from failure. Add in some more isolation work if you feel like it, don’t go crazy with lots of sets to failure. Stay with 3x full body or switch to 4x per week upper/lower. Stay away from 5x per week or 6x per week push/pull/legs routines for now, unless the volume per session is very low – for example, 2 compound exercises of a few sets each.
This is the final week. It will be used to get you ready to return to normal training. Work with 80% of your 1RMs and add a couple of sets where you go 1-2 reps away from failure. Stick with a full body or upper/lower routine. If you respond OK, return to a cautious version of your normal routine the next week. Recovery Throughout all of this, make sure you are prioritising recovery. This is not a time to be in a calorie deficit. Eat food. Eat at maintenance. Get enough protein. Track your calories and protein to be sure you’re getting enough. Prioritise sleep. Don’t sacrifice your sleep to do something else. If you can get off devices and dim the lights a couple of hours before bed, and cut down on caffeine, that would be a good thing.
Once you’re back accustomed to regular training with more intense loads, you’ll want a sensible workout plan to continue progressing. You can get seven of mine for free here.
Want to dial in on your muscle gain?
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