Written by Jesse Irizarry
Almost all of us have gone through it. Training is going great and we’re the strongest and in the best shape we’ve ever been. Then life happens. Professional or personal obligations begin to take precedence over training. Without realizing, it’s been months since we’ve trained hard and consistently. Suddenly a training session that was routine a few months earlier kicks our ass. .
When we finally return to a consistent training schedule, we very mistakenly believe that we were able to sustain the level of strength and fitness with our sporadic training schedule and quickly get discouraged when we find the opposite is true. But still we plow ahead, banging ourselves up until we get hurt or completely regress. Sometimes returning after training
Even if we pretend like it’ll never happen to us, at some point career or family will distract us completely from our training. But instead of jumping back in it and using the same intensities and volumes we were working with before the break, you need to have a plan on how to build the strength and fitness you lost back. So here are some guidelines to help you evaluate yourself, guidelines to keep you safe, and a plan to build yourself back in a much more effective and practical way from either a long hiatus or from just a week of missed training sessions.
Lower The Volume More Than You Think Necessary
First we’ll tackle how to handle training after an extended period off. After returning from some time off, sometimes you can feel just as strong as before. You may think you can exhibit the same levels of strength with the same volume, and maybe you can. But that doesn’t mean you should. Just because you feel strong doesn’t mean you’re body is prepared to handle the same workloads. Your body, the musculature and connective tissues, are de-conditioned. It’s not used to handling the same stress of those kinds of loads with the same frequency you were just a few months earlier. You need to admit this to yourself.
Anytime, as a college strength coach, I had an individual athlete returning from an injury or personal time off, I’d tell them to do half the volume of work I had planned for the rest of the team.
You haven’t been practicing the skill of lifting weights and you most likely will have less than optimal movement patterns initially, despite your extensive background. The deficiency in technique will put more stress on the working musculature and connective tissue especially as you try to work with the heavier loads that were once routine for you. The more unnecessary fatigue and stress you put yourself through, the great chance of an overuse or acute injury soon after returning to training.
Try this instead: Consider how much total volume you feel you should start with and then cut it in half. Even if you choose to use the same weights you were using before your break, outline a plan on how you’re going to progressively increase volume from this starting point. Write this down before you begin training so you’re not winging it each week. You may think you’re increasing volume by the same amount each week but we’re all very good at lying to ourselves and without this concrete plan in place we’ll probably over or underestimate what we’re actually doing.
Keep To Submaximal Training
Forget about what training style you prefer or what methods you believe are best for training. You’re rebuilding and the safest and most effective way to increase strength potential and prepare yourself to hit maximal weights is through increasing workload with submaximal weights.
Just find an adequate program within those guidelines and do it, there’s definitely enough of them out there. Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 method is great to start after a long time away from training. But if you choose to program for yourself, take Wendler’s advice of only using the minimum dose of volume needed to affect change and focus on quality sets and reps with submaximal weights. Too much too soon is what you’re trying to avoid.
Not only is a good idea to plan for your work sets to include lower loads, but basing your percentages and goal weights off of 90% of what you think you’re capable of doing in the main lifts is a sure way not to overestimate yourself. If you’ve lost weight, consider dropping that to 85%.
You may feel like the weights are too light but that’s ok. Just focus on the practice and refinement of the movements. By delaying yourself from hitting your top weights, you can increase work capacity and build greater levels of strength potential that can help push you to new levels of strength once you remove the greater volumes that you’re first working to.
Gauge Your Training With a Simple Scale
Even with a solid plan in place, you may hit some snags in your training. Even with the guideline, you may have planned for more volume than you can recover from with your current fitness.
Rather than pushing through and possibly risking setbacks and injuries that could force more time off, record how you feel after each training session and week. You can use a simple 1-5 rating scale. Record a 1-2 rating if training was easy and you felt as if you could have done more than three extra reps than what was planned on every main lift. Record a 3-4 rating if the work was more challenging but still doable and you felt as if you could have done one to three more reps on every set of every main lift without pissing blood. Finally, record a 5 rating if you felt like you were pushing max weights when you were supposed when you had lower loads prescribed.
At the end of the week, look over your training log and the scores of each day. If you’re hitting 5s on a daily basis you may have overestimated how much strength and fitness you really had starting out and need to adjust your volume and intensity accordingly. But if you’re consistently at a 1-2 rating than you’re in the clear to increase the volume and/or intensity within reason.
Recover Like It’s Your Job
Pretend like it’s the first time you fell in love with lifting during this rebuilding period. Just like you did then, take every measure to eliminate distractions and do all the mundane tasks needed to improve. Eat more frequently and eat better. Focus on picking the quality whole foods you know you need to recover and grow. Do everything you can to get enough sleep. Consistently getting eight hours of sleep will help you build back muscle and strength more than almost anything else.
Take some extra TLC during the first couple of weeks back. Block out some time later in the day after your training session for some SMR and mobility. Your body will get stiff and sore pretty fast and if you haven’t lost much strength you’ll be producing forces with tissues that aren’t very pliable anymore. You need to address this as soon as possible to make sure you don’t injure yourself or throw your mechanics off.
Pick a problem area, some particular area of soft tissue or capsular restriction, and address it every day with some form of SMR. Schedule it into your day like it was your second training session.
Increase General Strength and Fitness Qualities First
Even if you you’re an advanced lifter, any length of time off will reduce the level of specificity you need to become stronger in your preferred group of lifts. You probably don’t need to start with an intensive four time a week squat progression, even if you are a competitive powerlifter. In fact, a specialized training cycle with no room for accessory exercises or general work capacity drills can hurt more than help a lifter returning from time off.
Be safe and smart and instead focus on developing general strength and fitness qualities. Pull sleds and push prowlers. No need to plan anything too complex or intense, just a few sets of Famers walks for twenty yards at the end of training will do fine.
Remember that tissues need to be conditioned for the work load you want to sustain and lower stress activities that not only make you stronger but condition connective tissues, build muscle, and increase aerobic capacity like these do just that. With dedicated time towards these activities, you can improve general fitness specific to your goal of building size and strength so you can support the demands of specialized strength training. You don’t need to run the NYC marathon, just pick up some heavy shit and walk a little before you head to the chinese super buffet.
Learn How To Easily Come Back From A Week Off of Training
While all these tips are great to keep in mind, a lifter who’s only taken a week off from training doesn’t need to overhaul their entire program. But many people are even more confused on how to pick up again after missing only a week of training.
I’ve heard some pretty complicated ideas on how to reduce total volume or intensity based on how many days you’ve missed from some strength coaches but I’ve never seen them work for real people. After coaching my share of athletes and lifters, I found that if you tell them to repeat the previous week of training (assuming it’s a fairly linear progression) they can progress through the rest of their training cycle without a hiccup.
So if they complete week three of an eight week training cycle and they missed week four, I would have them repeat week three again before moving through the remaining weeks of training. If they missed two weeks I would send them back two weeks in their training cycle.
It’s also important to make sure you don’t go from sitting in a cubicle for a week at work to squatting five sets of five reps without a day to restore range of motion and function. Spend a day doing some mobility drills before you begin training again.
Remember You’re In This For the Long Haul, Again
Just as when you begin training, training needs to be focused on building general strength safely during the acclimation period after time off. If you ignore this and jump back into highly specific training, you may be able to reach your former working weights sooner but it will probably be at a cost. Even if it takes longer, build the base wider again so that you can build yourself up again higher than before.