The prospect of returning to training in a gym again has become a reality for increasingly more people. Or, perhaps, you will be back within a few short weeks and are reflecting on your training and how to optimize it going forward. One thing that I think is important to understand is that you should not merely go back in and pick up where you left off. That is likely to lead to frustration, disappointment, and injury.
Even worse would be going back and unleashing the pent-up energy and excitement you have with a brutal training blitz. From an objective perspective, that’s probably pretty obvious, but most of us struggle to maintain an objective approach to our training.
Transforming your physique is often goal-driven by powerful emotions. Many of us set out using the gym to:
- Deal with inner demons
- Build a body of armor to protect ourselves from childhood bullies
- Other highly emotive incentives
When emotion rules, the logic goes out of the window. Don’t let the emotional desire to crush yourself with insane workouts win. If you do, you’ll most likely end up having to take more time off from the gym because of burnout or injury.
Your Return to the Gym
Two-three months is just a tiny blip in your training career.
You probably haven’t lost much (if any) muscle mass and strength.
Your body is likely re-sensitized to the effects of regular training – making gains temporarily easier to come by.
Your overload threshold will be lower – when you’ve been doing nothing, just doing something is effective.
It’s better to do too little and have an increase than do too much.
Your need for volume and your tolerance for volume will be lower.
Using the percentages of previous maxes to base weight amounts is a bad idea.
Managing intensity using RIR, (Reps In Reserve) is wiser.
Muscle damage, fatigue, and DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) will be more significant.
Taking a lower frequency approach, at first, allows for DOMS to subside before a muscle is trained again.
Higher skill movements will have the most significant performance drop.
You will be able to add weight to the bar from session to session without the effort level climbing, as the skill of complex lifts is regained.
Do not start based on what you were doing pre-lockdown – begin with what you have been doing and gradually bridge the gap.
With that bullet point list out of the way, you should be starting to see some common trends and signposts for how you approach your return to the gym. I will cover each element in detail to give you a complete overview to help guide your exact training plan for when the gym doors open. I will also outline an example program to illustrate how to put these principles into action.
Get Things in Perspective
In my opinion, it takes at least five years for even a genetically gifted lifter to build a truly impressive physique. For mere mortals, it’s more like a decade-plus.
The benefits of exercise last a lifetime so, while progress may be slow as you approach 15, 20, 25, or more years of working out, there is still an excellent reason to be training. Today is a stark and visible reminder of the importance that exercise and diet can play in need of resilience to viruses. So, given that you should view training as a multi-year, probably a multi-decade pursuit, these past three months are just a drop in the ocean.
Fingers crossed, the scientists, doctors, nurses, and powers that be, can gain control of the pandemic and make vaccines. The chances are this will be a once in a lifetime event. It might help if you recognize and capitalize on the opportunities it has presented.
First of all, let me just give you some positive news from scientific research on taking a layoff from training. This research will help to confirm my advice, but it will, hopefully, put your mind at ease that you haven’t lost all your gains in the lockdown, and that any loss of strength or size is only temporary and can be regained quickly.
As I covered in my article at the start of the lockdown, multiple studies have analyzed the effect of detraining on muscle mass and strength levels. Several studies have shown zero muscle or strength loss with three weeks off training. But what about three months?
Well, Blazevich et al., 2007, found that with three months off training, there was a non-significant difference of reduction in muscle mass. Participants did lose some muscle, but not much. They also suffered some strength loss. This strength loss was roughly equivalent to five week’s worth of training.
The good news is that this can be regained quickly as a significant component of strength as a skill. For example, a study by Staron et al., 1991, found that participants regained strength levels in only six weeks after a 30-week layoff.
Remember, you’ve probably been injured or busy before, and you didn’t lose all your gains.
- The world didn’t end.
- Your muscles didn’t fall off.
- Your value to humanity didn’t evaporate.
- You didn’t wake up looking like your 11-year-old-self.
Instead, the chances are, nobody else noticed any difference in your physique, and you rediscovered your best strength and muscle levels remarkably quickly once you got back in the gym. The same will happen now.
Long story short, both muscle mass and strength levels are pretty resistant to decay even when you do nothing. Thus, I firmly believe that if you have done zero exercises during a lockdown, you can relatively quickly return to your pre-lockdown baseline and very soon surpass those levels.
That’s if you have been doing zero training. If you have been able to do some workouts using bodyweight, light weights, or resistance bands, then, the news is even better.
I summarize, if you’ve been able to do a couple of workouts a week, working close to failure with sets of 30 or fewer reps, then the chances are that you haven’t lost any muscle. Any strength you’ve lost is also purely the technical skill of handling and coordinating heavy loads and will return.
Hopefully, that reduces the anxiety you have about all your hard before the lockdown being wiped out. Once you know you’re not starting from scratch and haven’t lost too much ground, then; you can resist the urge to go in, all guns blazing, hoping to recapture years of hard work in a few short weeks. You simply don’t need to. What has taken years to build does not take weeks to destroy when it comes to size and strength.
With that said, I think it is essential to manage your expectations. I am not suggesting you will walk back in the gym and be able to hit the same numbers, get the same reps, or do the same volume as you did before the lockdown.
Strength Is a Skill
To get good at a skill you need to practice. To display that skill, you need to practice it frequently. Sadly, these past few months have meant many of us have not touched a barbell. Consequently, your squat, deadlift, and bench press won’t be at all-time highs when you finally get your hands back on the bar. These lifts will probably feel a bit rusty. You won’t feel in the groove like you did before. Don’t worry – that’s normal with any skill. I can think of many examples, but here is one from my youth.
When I was a kid, I enjoyed playing tennis in the summer. Growing up in the UK, the summer isn’t long and is often interrupted with grey skies and heavy rainfall. As such, the window of opportunity for playing was relatively small. Each year I’d steadily improve throughout the summer, only to return the following year and feel like I was back at ground zero. Certainly, much worse than where I left off. That’s because I was out of practice.
The rate of improvement those first few weeks back was dramatic, though. Re-learning those movement patterns and skills was much quicker and easier than it had been to learn them for the first time. By the end of the summer, I was noticeably better than I had been at the end of the previous summer, but this progress had not been linear. Each year:
- The starting point was lower than my previous best.
- Then there was a rapid spike up to where I had been.
- Then a gradual improvement beyond how good I was the previous year.
The same will be true of you and your lifting.
This skill factor will display itself most in the more complex lifts in your program. Squats will take longer to get back in the groove than hack squats, which will take a little longer than leg presses. Leg extensions, however, will probably feel back to normal after just a couple of warm-ups sets.
The higher the skill component of a lift, the greater the drop off you’ll see in session one. The good news is this skill will come back fast. Pull-ups might take a bigger performance hit than pulldowns on your first session back because more stabilization and coordination is required. If you haven’t had access to a pull-up bar, then being a bit rusty on these is to be expected.
The Low Hanging Fruit
An opportunity created by the lockdown is the ability to get more from less. Time away from the gym will have re-sensitized you to the stimulus of lifting.
Many of us never take time off or even have an occasional deload. Continually doing the same thing allows adaptive resistance to set in. This is a by-product of the Repeated Bout Effect. Basically, the more you do something, the less adaptation you get in return. This is why progress slows as we become more advanced and better trained. Going from good to great is much more difficult than going from okay to good, which, in turn, is harder than the journey from terrible to okay.
On your return to the gym, you should do just enough to progress. When you’ve been doing nothing, just doing something is enough. What represents an overload after three months off the gym is much lower than it was when you had been operating on full throttle for years on end. Because of this, a larger window of opportunity for overloading training has opened.
The gap between your starting Minimum Effective Dose (MED) and maximal recoverable volume is now significantly more substantial than it was pre-lockdown. By incrementally closing this gap, you can extend the length of a valid training block.
More Effective Training = More Gains
Because of this heightened receptiveness to the stimulus of training, pick the low hanging fruit. The threshold to gains is now lower than it was pre-lockdown. This creates the potential for making new gains in the future. It also minimizes injury risk. By keeping recuperative capacity in reserve, you have a longer runway for effective training. This means your gains can take off and keep going for the long-haul if you’re smart.
The problem with common sense is that it isn’t that common.
I’ve made plenty of points so far about:
- Size and strength loss
- Regaining lost gains
- The bar is lower.
- Gradually build-up
All of that should make it fairly obvious that a gradual introduction to training with a methodical and incremental increase in workload will serve you best. Yet many of you will not be able to resist the temptation to do too much. Remember, in many ways, the lockdown has created an opportunity for you. Don’t waste it.
Don’t Beat Up Yourself
If you do go too hard too soon, then make adjustments. The chances are this is the longest time you’ve had off from serious training since you began serious training. Thus, this is a completely new situation for you. When something is new, it is unrealistic to expect perfection. If you get carried away and do too much, don’t beat yourself up. Learn the lesson. Course correct along the journey.
It is better to start too easy and leave room for progress than be excessive and need to regress. That’s pretty obvious. If you have gone too hard too soon, don’t be stubborn. Letting your pride get in the way is a mistake. Admit your error and back off.
Get Back in a Routine
While it is tempting to outline a super complex six-day per week routine from the comfort of your sofa, the reality of adhering to that plan might not be so simple. Before you prioritize optimizing your time in the gym, prioritize getting to the gym.
Simply re-ingraining the habit of training at the gym is a vital first step. If you used to schedule training at 6 am every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, do that again. Or if early morning workouts are a thing of the past with your new working from home schedule, pick another convenient time to train. Make training a priority again by scheduling it in your diary. Recognize potential barriers to training. Pick a time that removes these barriers and ring-fence that time. For example:
- I normally prefer to train in the middle of the afternoon when life is normal. While working from home, however, I’ve found that my motivation is lower and energy levels drained from trying to help with homeschooling the kids. As a result, getting in early morning workouts have been effective at making sure I get a high-quality, focused session.
- If you’re still working from home after the lockdown ends and gyms open, you might find that dragging yourself off the sofa for an evening workout is much harder than it was to leave the office and hit the gym. In that case, getting the workout in first thing might be the best option.
- On the other hand, if first thing in the morning you have the energy of a sloth, need to hit snooze five times, and need three double espressos to feel human, it makes no sense to schedule early morning workouts.
There is no right or wrong here. Just find what works for you and facilitates you getting your ass in the gym again.
Creating bad habits is all too easy. Kick-starting healthy ones can be much harder. If you’ve begun to develop a serious late-night Netflix addiction (I know I have since I watched The Last Dance), then planning training sessions for the evening might not be a good idea. The call of the sofa, the remote, and a tub of ice cream might win. Pick the path of least resistance when it comes to scheduling workouts – set yourself up for success.
The DOMS Will Be Epic
Let me get one thing clear – getting sore after a workout is not a great indicator of effectiveness. You certainly shouldn’t be chasing muscle soreness or using it to determine the merits of one workout versus another.
DOMS is a natural consequence of hard training. When you train hard, there is a degree of muscle damage and disruption caused. Lifting weights hard often causes DOMS. The best way to get DOMS is to expose the body to a novel stimulus – do a new exercise. Since the incentive is new, the body hasn’t adapted to it and, therefore, homeostasis is disrupted to a greater degree. Muscle damage and the subsequent repair processes (including DOMS) are ramped up.
Then, every time you repeat this same stimulus, the level of disruption is reduced, and the DOMS are less severe. That is a long preamble to this main point. If you’ve been out of the gym for three months, you’re going to get sore, really sore. Every exercise is new again. If you try and do the same workouts you did pre-lockdown, the chances are you’ll get cripplingly sore.
Being aware of this is important. It means you can scale your training back to minimize the DOMS, while also accepting there will be DOMS. To give you an example from my personal experience, let me tell you about the time I did a super-easy squat workout and was sore for a week.
The session was 3 sets of 5 on squats with 70% of my 1 = rep max. 3 x 5, with 70% isn’t particularly challenging. Especially when you consider that at the end of my previous training block, I’d been training legs twice a week and doing eight sets of squat variants per session. The devil is in the details.
This crippling DOMS was brought on in my first session back to the gym after a two-and-a-half-week break for a vacation. What’s more, despite doing a reasonable amount of leg work leading up the holiday, I had not been back squatting. Instead, I’d had a training block built around front squats and Bulgarian squats to develop structural balance.
I thought I’d been very conservative with my plan of 3 x 5 at 70%. The session felt like a breeze. When I woke up the next morning, got out of bed, and wobbled around like a baby giraffe as I tried to walk to the bathroom, I realized I’d underestimated things. Two weeks off training and six weeks without this specific exercise was enough for a relatively light workout to cause outrageous DOMS.
When returning to training, it is important to consider:
What have you been able to do in the lockdown?
What is your goal?
How can you bridge the gap between what you’ve been doing and what it takes to reach your goal?
When choosing your starting point – use what you have been doing to base it on not what you were doing. Then use common sense to bridge that gap. Planning your training on what you did pre-lockdown makes no sense. Planning your training to return to what you did pre-lockdown systematically makes much more sense.
Hopefully, you can take things to the next level and analyze what you did pre-lockdown to find fault with it, unearth what was unnecessary or sub-optimal and remove or replace it to refine your approach. Doing so means that you can reach your goals more efficiently.
Don’t Use Previous Maxes
Use the early phases of your return to the gym to ingrain the perfect technique. Your weights don’t matter much at this stage. Just having weights in your hand is enough of a stimulus at first. You should not be attached to hitting specific numbers so that you can focus on:
Think of this as a primer phase. Use the quality of your technique and execution of lifts as a method to overload and gradually build volume tolerance. Treat every rep as a growth opportunity and aim to maximize the tension on the muscle. Then you have created the platform to use volume as a way to progress.
Trying to base your training weights off the percentages of previous maxes is a bad idea. As I’ve said, your technique is likely to be off so, what was 70% of your 1 RM might feel more like 85% on your first session back. This will naturally limit the reps you can get or require you to train very close to failure to hit the reps you had planned. The fatigue created will be through the roof.
While your intensity thresholds are now lower and your strength is somewhat down, you are not a beginner all over again. You can probably handle much heavier loads than a beginner would, so you can cause a lot of muscle damage than a beginner can. When beginning, leave plenty of reps in the tank. It’s a luxury to be able to make progress this far from a failure. Enjoy it while you can.
Instead of measuring intensity as determined as a percentage of 1RM, use relative intensity. Relative intensity is a measure of how hard a set is based on its proximity to failure. It is tracked by recording (RIR) at the end of a set. You can gain strength and muscle mass with 4 RIR. This is particularly true as a beginner.
For a short period, you are closer to the beginner stages than you have been in a very long time. Take advantage of this. Use RIR as a critical metric and progression tool to guide your training. Start in week one by terminating sets at 4 RIR. Especially on higher-skill compound lifts. Over a series of weeks, you can push your intensity up by leaving fewer and fewer reps in reserve.
Using RIR allows you to gradually ramp the intensity of your training up and closely match your training efforts to your body’s ability to tolerate training. As you become acclimated to training again, you will need to push harder in training to get an effective workout. RIR allows you to do this. For example:
- Week 1 – 4 RIR
- Week 2 – 3 RIR
- Week 3 – 2 RIR
- Week 4 – 1 RIR
- Week 5 – 0 RIR
In reality, as you regain the skill of lifting, you will be able to add load without your relative intensity increasing. In week one, a set of 8 with 200 lbs on squats might be 4 RIR. The following week as you are finding your groove again, might mean that 205 lbs are still a 4 RIR. It’s possible that you can add 5 lbs a week for several weeks at a time with little to no change in RIR. This is most likely to happen on the higher skill lifts. On dumb exercises like machine-based, isolation work, this effect is unlikely to occur.
I’d suggest you begin with 4 RIR loads for compound lifts and gradually add load each week until you are 1 RIR. On isolation lifts, I’d begin at 3 RIR and add load until you hit 0 RIR.
Don’t overthink it – I’ve done that for you. This article is proof of that:)
To give you a framework to reference for your return to training, I think a practical example is useful. Below I have outlined a plan based on an Avatar. Let’s call him Bobby. Bobby is in his early thirties, has been lifting consistently for a decade.
He started strength training to improve sporting performance but has dabbled in bodybuilding and CrossFit throughout his lifting career. For the past year or so, he’s been training four days per week on an upper-lower split, hitting each muscle group twice per week. During the lockdown, he’s stayed active doing bodyweight workouts 3 x week. He’s managed to keep his bodyweight pretty stable – only gaining 2-3 lbs. He usually does:
- 5-8 sets per workout (10-16 sets per week) for major muscle groups (chest, back, quads, hamstrings)
- 3-6 sets per workout (6-12 sets per week) for smaller muscles (biceps, triceps, calves, delts).
To optimize Bobby’s return to the gym, I would suggest the following:
Three gym sessions, train each muscle group once using legs, push, pull, split. This will allow long recovery time for the DOMS that will follow even relatively easy gym sessions (legs are done first as they will probably require the longest recovery time).
- Volume – 50% of normal per workout (2-4 sets per workout muscle group)
- Frequency – 3 sessions a week but 1 x week per muscle group
- Intensity – 4 RIR on compound lifts, 3 RIR on isolation lifts
- Monday – Legs
- Wednesday – Push
- Friday – Pull
Three gym sessions, train each muscle group twice using a whole body, whole push, whole pull split.
- Volume – 50% of normal per workout, 2-4 sets per workout per muscle group
- Frequency – 3 sessions a week, but 2 x week per muscle group
- Intensity – 4 RIR on compound lifts, 2-3 RIR on isolation lifts
- Monday – Whole body
- Wednesday – Upper and Lower Body Push
- Friday – Upper and Lower Body Pull
*Include quads in Wednesday push and hamstrings in Friday pull session
Four gym sessions, train each muscle twice using an upper/lower split.
- Volume – 75% of normal per workout, 3-6 sets per workout per muscle group
- Frequency – 4 sessions a week, but 2 x week per muscle group
- Intensity – 2-3 RIR on compound lifts, 1-2 RIR on isolation lifts
- Monday – Upper
- Tuesday – Lower
- Thursday – Upper
- Friday – Lower
Four gym sessions, train each muscle twice using an upper/lower split.
- Volume – 90% of normal per workout, 4-7 sets per session for big muscle groups and 2-5 sets per session for small muscles
- Frequency – 4 sessions a week, but 2 x week per muscle group
- Intensity – 1-2 RIR on compound lifts, 0-1 RIR on isolation lifts
- Monday – Upper
- Tuesday – Lower
- Thursday – Upper
- Friday – Lower