Returning to Training After a Layoff – Q&A

Question: Well, after a long time of not working out (months) I started lifting again. Problem is that most times when I come back from not lifting for a while I end up injuring myself. I used to jump right back in where I’ve left off, I’ve gotten smarter, but perhaps not smart enough. What strategies would you recommend for folks returning from a long time off?

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 thus far. 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 training) and getting back into training can often cause problems.

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.

In general, there tend to be a fairly small loss of gains in the short-term.  That is, over a few days, very little is lost.  For very technical activities (such as Olympic lifting) often ‘groove’ is lost quickly (and more quickly for the snatch than clean and jerk) but for less complicated activities, even that’s usually a non-issue.

Quite in fact, in the case of sickness or a very short layoff, often no time is lost.  Frequently, given how often people train too much too hard too often, they may come back stronger after a layoff of 3-5 days.  They often hit PR’s quickly upon returning to the gym because the time off ends up acting as a taper/peaking period.  They finally get much needed rest to adapt and gain.

At most it may take a single workout or even the first part of their first workout back to get their groove on and then they’d put up big numbers after such a short ‘layoff’.  I should also note that this is highly variable, I’ve also seen folks for whom a 3-5 day period totally off left them completely flat and unable to perform; they usually did their best 2-3 days after returning to training with light workouts on the first day or two.  One trainee would look terrible on day 1 back to the gym after a 3-5 day break, look better on day 2 and then hit PR’s on day 3.

Once the break gets beyond the 5-7 day mark, it is possible to lose some progress although most of the losses in the short-term are more the neural training adaptations than muscle mass per se (a lot depends on what caused the layoff).  Basically, the first adaptations that trainees get (neural) are the first ones to go.  For layoffs of perhaps 1-2 weeks (sickness or what have you), my rule of thumb is that it takes about twice as long to get back to where you left off before getting sick or taking the time off.

So if you lose 2 weeks of training for some reason, expect it to take about 4 weeks to get back to where you left off.   With this type of short-term, the basic idea would be to backcycle about 2 weeks and ramp back up over the first 2 weeks of training before pushing to where you were by week 4.

Of course, when layoffs get much longer, a month or more, the rules change as both neural adaptations and muscle mass are often lost.  The ‘twice as long to return’ rule of thumb starts to become less and less useful; of course as the training break becomes longer and longer, it becomes even essentially meaningless.  Basically, the longer away from training you are, the more you return to your basically untrained/newbie status.  And that has major implications for how to return to training.


What Not to Do

First let’s talk about what not to do.  Back when I worked a lot in commercial gyms, what I commonly saw was trainees (almost exclusively males) who would start training after many years of not training (usually they were in their mid-30′s and hadn’t lifted since high school or maybe college) and just figured they’d start back where they left off.  I mean, they benched 275 in high-school, that’s probably a good place to start, right?  Err, no.

And invariably one of two things would happen: either they would get injured or they would cripple themselves with so much soreness that that they never returned to the gym.  It sounds like that’s what you were doing prior to ‘getting smarter’.    So don’t do that.

Which brings us to the question of what to do; how to best return to training after a layoff prolonged enough to require worrying about it.


What You Should Do

And essentially what you described in your question is how to approach it.  Beyond a certain point away from training (and note that returning after an injury is different than coming back from a long layoff for a non-injury related reason), you should basically train as if you were a complete beginner again.

That means starting with a low volume and low intensity and gradually working back up.  You have to put aside what you ‘used to do’ because if you try to match those old performances, you will get yourself into trouble.  Put a different way, in this situation it never hurts to start more slowly and build back up gradually unless you are under some weird time pressure to get back into shape fast.  That situation does arise sometimes, usually with competitive athletes.

For everyone else, I prefer going slower and taking the more conservative approach.  This gives the body time to re-adapt to training; connective tissues need to restrengthen, work capacity needs to be rebuilt, etc.  And, the way I look at it, anything ‘lost’ by going a bit slower initially is far more than outweighed by the trainee not getting hurt or being so sore that they quit after the first day.

What you wrote above in your question is pretty much perfect so far as I’m concerned.  I’d probably tend towards full body for at least the first few weeks but a basic upper/lower split can also be appropriate.  Usually trainees returning don’t need quite as much practice on movements to get the neural pathways and technique back online so I’m not as adamant about using a full body routine in this situation.

Intensity should start very low, 50-60% of previous maximum is probably fine but I see no problem starting lighter rather than heavier.  You can always adjust the weight on the bar up as you re-adapt .   Every couple of workouts, you can bump the load on the bar assuming you’re not getting massive soreness or anything resembling injury.  Again, there’s no real hurry and it may be 4-6 weeks before you even approaching particularly heavy weights.   Again, there’s no hurry and, as a generally tangential comment, trainees need to realise that training is a journey and not a race.

I would use a low volume of training in the first few workouts, as noted above, work capacity has to be rebuilt and this takes time.  This might mean a single set per exercise in the first workout.  Depending on the specifics, I might add a set per workout during the first week or I might wait a full week of training before raising volume.  That’s just a judgement call.

Whether I used high or low repetitions when returning would very much depend on the situation; I talk about this a bit in What’s the Best Way to Teach/Learn a New Exercise.  If I were coaching someone hands-on, I might very well use multiple sets of lower reps but with the caveat that the weight would be very sub-maximal.  If someone were training themselves or had poor impulse control, a single set of high reps might be most appropriate in the first workout.

In terms of exercise selection, there are many different opinions.  I tend to use a large number of movements (perhaps 8-10) for less sets per movement (as I am a bit obsessive about proper balance across body parts); other coaches use more sets per movement for fewer movements.  It all works out about the same so far as I’m concerned.

But that’s the basic approach when coming back from a long layoff: train as a beginner.  What you do usually find in this case is that progress is faster the second time around compared to a true beginner.  While the topic of muscle memory is a bit outside the scope of what I want to talk about, there is something to it.  Whether it’s neural, physiological or just a function of the person knowing better how to train themselves; folks always make faster progress when they return to training than they made as true beginners.

Even there, I’d caution trainees about pushing things too hard or too fast. The slowest adapting tissues are the connective tissues; even if your muscles can handle the loads, you may predispose yourself to an injury by getting into heavy loads too quickly.  As noted above, this isn’t a race and the time ‘lost’ to going slower is still a lot less than what you lose by getting hurt by being macho.

What About Injuries?

Which brings me to a final comment about returning to training after an injury, since the rules change a bit there.  While the above still holds in general, there is more to take into account.  The single most important question is this: Has the injury healed?

Most people try to return to training too quickly, before the injury is fully healed and they often do nothing but re-injure it again, losing even more training time.  Years ago, my mentor gave me a valuable rule that I follow to this day both in my own training and that of trainees in the case of injury:

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

Sage advice.

There are two reasons for this piece of advice.  The first is that motivated trainees and athletes always think that they are healed when they really aren’t.  They’ll convince themselves that what is actually joint pain is just a bit of stiffness and get back to training far too early.

The other is a more practical one: you lose less time by waiting longer initially.  Say you get hurt and you lose 2 weeks of training letting it heal.  But you really need a third week.  So if you followed the rule, you’d lose 3 weeks of training in total before getting back to things and being able to train effectively because the injury is actually healed.

But say that instead of waiting that week, you get back in the gym and get hurt again.  Now you lose another 2 weeks to the injury plus the extra week; that’s assuming that you didn’t make the injury much worse requiring even longer than 2 weeks to heal.   So by not waiting the third week initially, you actually lose 5 weeks (the original 2 weeks + 2 or more weeks for the re-injury + the extra week you should have taken).  As frustrating as it is, being patient in the short-term pays dividends in the long-term.

There’s more: when you return to training after an injury, it’s crucial that you only do a single set of a single exercise that works ‘through’ the injured area.  So say you had a shoulder injury that caused you to need 4 weeks off while it healed.  When you return to training, if you do 1 or more sets of bench press, overhead press, rows and pulldowns and it hurts the next day, you don’t know what movement caused the problem.  If you did multiple sets, you don’t know if it was the exercise per se or the volume that caused the problem or what to modify.

But if you do a single set of bench press and your shoulder doesn’t hurt the next day, you know that a single set of bench can be done.  If at the next workout you add a single set of shoulder presses and your shoulder hurts, you know that shoulder presses are still out.  If you add the shoulder press and it doesn’t hurt, you know that shoulder press is ok.  So you add rows.  Oops, now it hurts again.  Rows are out.  Get it?

Yes, this takes longer and certain injuries are relatively more or less problematic because of where they are (shoulders are always a bitch because so many movements work ‘through’ them).  As well, when returning after an injury, it’s often necessary to retrain muscles that may have becoming inhibited or what have you.  Which is far beyond the scope of this article.  I just wanted to make some general comments about returning after an injury.


Summing Up

When coming back off a layoff more than a month or two, I highly recommend training as if a beginner even if it’s just for the first few weeks.  Trying to go back right where you left off never works as strength, technique and muscle mass can deterioriate in relatively short time periods.  Trying to do that; jumping right back to where you left off or think you ‘should be’ either gets the person hurt or leaves them wrecked with soreness.

Taking a few weeks to ease back in gives everything time to re-adapt and, even if it’s frustrating in the short-term, works much better in the long-term.  Unless you are a competitive athlete with a fixed time frame to get back to high levels of training, there is almost nothing to be gained by pushing too hard too fast and everything to be gained by being more patient.