It happens sometimes. You have to take a break from training. The potential reasons for a long layoff are endless.
Anything from sickness and injury to increased workload and having kids can cause you to skip way more than the odd leg day.
It’s not fun missing out on training and sometimes it’s even less fun getting back into it. You feel weak and out of shape. Your pride and ego take a hammering as the weights you once warmed up with suddenly feel like max lifts.
Your body just isn’t the same after a long time away from training and you shouldn’t treat it like it is.
Trying to pick up where you left off is going to leave you disappointed, extremely sore and quite possibly injured. So you need to treat your return to the gym with care, intelligence and a little bit of common sense.
The first thing to decipher is the length of your time off. Not training for a few days or weeks is a lot different to being out of the gym for 6 months, so the approach to getting back into training should be different too.
If you’ve had a short break (anything up to 3-4 weeks) then the major de-training effect you will experience will be a reduction in the effectiveness of the neuromuscular system.
In layman’s term your nervous system and your muscles won’t work together as effectively as they did before meaning you won’t be able to generate as much force.
The reason this happens is the same reason why you gain strength before you build muscle when you first start hitting the gym.
The drastic progress or ‘newbie gains’ made in the first month or two of anyone’s strength training journey are down to neuromuscular adaptations rather than muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth).
Even if a newbie starts lifting with the sole intention of building muscle and getting big, they will always get strong first before muscle mass is increased.
This is because of increased motor unit synchronisation.
An un-trained individual can’t utilise a large number of motor units together, this means that their muscles aren’t working to their maximum capacity. The introduction of strength training will quickly combat this and cause an improvement in the ability to utilise lots of motor units in sync.
This results in big strength gains as the muscles are now working to their full effectiveness. Only when motor unit synchronisation is optimised will the body be forced to build muscle in order to get stronger.
Neuromuscular adaptation is the first thing to be ‘trained up’ and conversely when you have a layoff from training the first area of adaptation to de-train is also neuromuscular strength.
If your layoff has been less than 4 weeks then it’s likely that the only progress you’ve really lost is the ability to synchronise the use of a large number of motor units. This can be quickly re-trained by simply re-introducing strength training to your schedule.
The longer the layoff the more you revert to beginner status.
Anything over 6 months and you must treat yourself as a complete newbie on your return to the weights room. Your strength, muscle mass, technique and ability to recover will all have pretty much vanished so don’t expect to jump straight back on the proverbial horse.
So what should you do after a long layoff?
If you really need to classify it, the approach to be taken would come under General Physical Preparedness (GPP). It fit’s here because the aim of GPP is to develop technique, increase the body’s capacity to handle training of greater loads and intensities and improve quality of movement; this is exactly what we must aspire to when returning from a time off.
Here’s how to do it:
Start light and with low volume. Lift with loads that are far below any previous record you may have set, 50% of your old max lifts is a good starting point. Do this for a low number of sets and progress slowly.
Add just 2.5kg to the bar when you could’ve added 5kg, do 3 sets when you could’ve done 6. You may feel like you can handle more but your muscles would tell a different story in the following days through extreme soreness so lose the ego and err on the side of caution.
Your ability to recover from training controls the magnitude of your physical progress, too much too soon is recipe for tiredness, frustration, injury and intense, even crippling, DOMS.
You will still progress faster than a complete beginner but progress should remain slow to allow sufficient recovery. Remember all the magic happens whilst you are resting and recovering.
Perform full body sessions with lots of different movements. Yes squat, deadlift, presses and rows/pulls are your staple lifts but you also need to incorporate exercises that will improve make you mobile, flexible, stable and durable.
Lastly, you must eat and sleep well.
If the reason for your layoff was injury then this also needs to be taken into consideration.
The first question is; has the injury healed? If the answer is yes then proceed with training. If the answer is no then you must go through the appropriate rehabilitation process as prescribed by a physiotherapist.
General Physical Preparedness (GPP) Template
Here’s a basic template that you can use to ease back into training after a long layoff and improve your mobility, strength, durability and conditioning. Aim for 2-3 sessions per week but listen to your body and gradually progress the load, volume and frequency at a rate that you can recover effectively from.
The sessions are made up of 4 supersets covering all major movement patterns, injury prevention, conditioning and core stability & strength. Foam rolling, mobility and flexibility work should be built into the warm up and cool down.
1. Pulling Exercise / Knee Dominant Exercise 2-5 sets of 6-15 reps
Example: Inverted Row supersetted with Goblet Squats
2. Pushing Exercise / Hip Dominant Exercise 2-5 sets of 6-15 reps
Example: Bench Press supersetted with Romanian Deadlift
3. Upper / Lower Body Injury Prevention Exercises 3-6 sets of 12-20 reps
Example: Band Face Pulls supersetted with Terminal Knee Extensions
4. Loaded Conditioning / Core Exercise 2-5 sets of 60 seconds
Example: Prowler Push or Farmers Walk supersetted with Plank