Written by Coach Austin Current
This time of year is notorious for folks returning back to resistance training after time away from the gym. Unfortunately, it’s accompanied by a lack of understanding or intuitive insight into how exactly to get started again. So, this article is going to breakdown the best ways to get yourself back into training after time away from the gym, and how to sustain it past the New Year hype.
The body is resilient. It’s great at adapting and following instructions to ensure mechanisms are in place to keep you from eliciting more damage than you can otherwise recover from at any one time. The systems in place would have evolved when we didn’t have unlimited availability to resistance. So, now portions of the industry extensively study methods of fatigue management, or pacing the damage you cause to keep you away from injury and keep you progressing.
Below, we are going to cover things to avoid, things to help, and evidence-based tools for managing fatigue to ensure you have a great start to your training and do not lose the motivation to keep training for years to come.
Things To Avoid
- Starting back up where you left off
- Remembering the glory days
- Punishing yourself for the time you have missed
- Setting expectations too high to start
Starting Back Up Where You Left Off
Whether you have been an experienced gym-goer in the past or just someone who enjoys the periodic release of endorphins that picking up heavy things gives you, it is important to remember that over time adaptations degrade. For example, your general tolerance to training volume, muscle damage, and aerobic conditioning will be reduced linearly with the amount of time you have spent away from strength training.
For example, if you were successfully training five to six days per week with a moderately high training volume and then you took three months off due to an injury, it is unlikely you will be in any condition to return back to the programming you were doing pre-injury.
Remembering The Glory Days
Remember those conversations you’ve had with your buddies about how much you used to bench in high school? Maybe you’ve gone on to mention how this year you are going to return back to squatting 3x your body weight as you did back in college. Well, I am sorry to say that is not going to go well for you. If you would like to use how you used to look and perform “back in the day” as part of your motivation for getting back in shape then I support it. But, I do not recommend setting out to match your previously set records. This is one of the fastest ways to cause injury and to set unrealistic expectations for yourself.
Punishing Yourself For Time You Have Missed
This is one of the most common mistakes made by people looking to return back to the gym after an extended period away. In this case, more is not better. Each one of us has a sweet spot. This sweet spot includes things such as training volume, intensity, proximity to failure, nutritional support, sleep quality, sleep quantity, stress management, and so on. As you can see, there is more to the equation than just “going hard”.
Going too hard at the onset is something we see year after year. In our one-on-one coaching, we work to set realistic goals and targets for the first 4-6 weeks. Then, we work to build the habits and consistency to ensure you are not going to fall into the trap most do: biting off more than you can chew and losing the motivation to continue.
Setting Expectations Too High To Start
Each one of us is guilty. Small goals are not as sexy. Lose 10 pounds in 12 weeks? Make 1 change successfully over the next 2 weeks? Hell no! I am motivated and ready to lose 30 pounds in 6 weeks. I want to change everything in my life right today. Sound familiar? Well, we have seen it happen more times than we can count.
The fundamental issue with this approach is that it is difficult. I mean very difficult. The probability that you will be able to change every single thing you set out to change all at once is extremely low. The likelihood that you will slip up and get discouraged is extremely high. We need to work to start small and find a middle ground.
Things To Help
- Using previous training experience and data as a reference
- Showing yourself compassion
- Setting achievable goals
- Starting with something you enjoy
Using Old Data As Reference
Knowing where you have been in the past can help to set goals and projections for where you can go in the future. Old training logs can come in handy. Pulling up old training programs can be useful in creating a better understanding of the training stress you have experienced. For on-coming clients, we always ask about the training they have been performing most recently. In the case of a client coming in after a long layoff, we will ask more specifics of the type of training they were doing before they stopped. We will also ask from that previous training, what did they enjoy most?
Previous training history and data can help with a more specific starting point. It can also help better project a realistic timeline and expectation.
Showing Yourself Compassion
This may be one of the hardest things to do for yourself. Often, we are our worst critics and do not cut ourselves and ounce of slack. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received related to self-compassion is to treat yourself as you would treat a friend in a similar situation.
Starting back after time off of anything is tough. There will always be that period of time where you will have to reestablish your foundations and reset old habits. You will mess up. You will forget important tasks. You will have periods of time where motivation is low. Instead of doing what you would normally do, think about a friend in a similar situation. If your friend were to come to you with these same frustrations and setbacks, what advice would you give them? I doubt you would be as hard on them as you are on yourself.
Setting Achievable Goals
As we have established, small goals are not as sexy as big goals. But, if there is one thing I know to be true, it’s that you will have periods of time where motivation is low. Your desire to achieve what you once set out to will be faint. This is like going to the grocery store when you are starving. Each item you see is going to look satiable and once you return back home from the store and have a snack, you are going to wonder why you bought so much food. This is the same trap you can fall into when you are in a heightened state of motivation. You know that feeling you get after you watch a well-edited motivational video on YouTube? It’s the feeling that you can now take over the world with your new sense of realization and adrenaline.
Setting goals in a heightened state of motivation can be insightful. You can see how ambitious you actually are at the moment. And, if you had endless motivation and self-discipline, all your dreams would come true. Now, before you set these as your final goals, sleep on it. Wake up the next day, review the 10 goals you wrote down, and start with 1-2.
Starting With Something You Enjoy
In MASS Research Review, Eric Helms reviewed a study (1) to determine how exercise preference and tolerance influence the perceived exertion, arousal, experience (more positive or negative), and enjoyment during and after high-intensity exercise, low-intensity exercise, and a control activity among a group of kinesiology students.
From this study, he found that people’s preference in type of exercise (high or low-intensity) should not be pigeon-holed into thinking one is neccessary better than the other. The goal is to adopt a lifelong habit of fitness and exercise into your life.
I mention the study above because it is common to get lost in “what type or style of training is best” — when in reality — you getting to the gym and enjoying it at all is a huge win. Starting yourself in a place where you think is “optimal” and you hating it is not helpful to you building this positive habit back into your life. After all, what you can enjoy and stick to over the long-haul is more optimal for you.
Tools for Fatigue Management
- Reps in Reserve (RIR)
- Training Volume
- Training Periodization
- Autoregulation & Deloads
Reps In Reserve (RIR)
This number range correlates with how many reps you have left in the tank until hitting failure. This is a researched-based way to manage fatigue and keep you progressing and away from injury. It is often represented in programming as a scale of 1-10 and correlating with a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)(2).
When starting back into strength training after a long layoff, it is wise to steer clear of failure and learn how to best manage fatigue and proximity to failure within your session(s). For example, maintaining a 3-4 RIR (note: this would mean stopping your set 3 to 4 reps shy of reaching failure) in the first couple of weeks back can be a great place to start. This will help you ease yourself back into the stress of training, allow for adequate recovery, and reduce the risk of injury.
The consensus among the evidence-based fitness community, when looking at training volume, tends to be somewhere in the ballpark of 10-20 sets per week per muscle group. In the context of this article, I would highly recommend that you stick closer to the 5-10 sets per muscle group per week your first week back from a layoff. I say this because digging yourself in a recovery hole in the beginning — ultimately, biting off more than you can chew — is not advisable. Also, sticking to lower training volume the first week back will allow you to work on reestablishing movement patterns under less overall fatigue.
Periodization more specifically refers to the organization and manipulation of training variables within your training. The most common periodization schemes you will see are linear, traditional, DUP, and WUP.
I mention training periodization in this section because it is an easy way to manipulate your training to ensure you are easing your way back into training. As mentioned above, with starting training volume around 5-10 sets per muscle group per week, through your planned periodization, you could progress sets closer to 10-15 sets per week throughout a 3-4 week period. Thus giving you more time to reacclimate yourself to training stress and decreasing your chance of injury.
Autoregulation & Deloads
A deload is often referred to as a light week or back-off week from training.
A deload needs to facilitate the recovery needed for you to return back to a state where you can do hard training again. The more damage that has been done from overstaying your welcome in a certain type of training, the longer the deload will need to be. So, implementing deloads more proactively when starting out after a long layover can be helpful.
Using the training periodization mentioned above, you could work up training volume over a 3 to 4 week period and then take a deload week. In a deload week, it is common to cut the volume in half from the previous week (note: if you worked up to doing 10-15 sets per week, your deload workouts could be closer 5 to 8 sets).
Autoregulation refers to the concept of adjusting your training based on the feel of the load on any given day.
Specific to how I would advise that you use it would be to adjust how hard a given workout is going to be based on how you are feeling that day. For example, if you not feeling great heading into the gym and the first couple of sets you do seem heavier and more fatiguing than normal, adjust and make that session a little easier.
The aim of autoregulating workouts allows you to have more individualized approach day-to-day with your training, hopefully keeping you motivated and healthy to continue training.
Let’s Tie It All Together
The aim of this article was to give you an effective way of returning back from a layoff from training. We talked about things to avoid, things that can help, and evidence-based tools for managing fatigue. If you would like to get into contact with us to help answer a more specific question you have, click here. If you would like to apply to work with us one-on-one, click here to learn more and apply.
Written by Coach Austin Current, BSc, CSCS, IFBB, Pn1
- Box AG, Petruzzello SJ. Why do they do it? Differences in high-intensity exercise-affect between those with higher and lower intensity preference and tolerance. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 2019 Apr 16.
- Zourdos MC, Klemp A, Dolan C, Quiles JM, Schau KA, Jo E, Helms E, Esgro B, Duncan S, Merino SG, Blanco R. Novel resistance training–specific rating of perceived exertion scale measuring repetitions in reserve. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2016 Jan 1;30(1):267-75.