By Connor King, SSC
So you finally started lifting. You joined a gym, set up your garage, or started lifting with a neighbor. You’re fired up, you’re training and you’re getting stronger every session. You did it, you got into a routine and you’re making progress under the barbell. And then it happens. You were supposed to lift Wednesday, but got tied up at work, Friday you had dinner with friends, Monday you were tired from the weekend.
You got the flu, you went on vacation, a global pandemic hit — or maybe you haven’t worked out in years. You get the idea, something came up and kept you from training. But now you’re back, and ready to get back under the bar.
But how much to lift? Same as last time? Go down? Am I detrained? These are common questions for the lifter coming off a layoff… and while it can seem complex, with a few basic principles in place you can come back losing as little progress as possible.
All is Not Lost
The hard yet obvious truth is that any significant amount of time without the stimulus of training will result in a regression of your strength. Now for the good news. Regardless of the layoff, you are not the same person you were when you picked up a barbell for the first time.
If you have put in the necessary work under the bar then you have built new tissue, denser bones, and forged new neurological pathways. While you may have lost some strength due to a layoff, you have not gone all the way back to “weak”. And thankfully, your journey back to your previous records will happen quicker this time, and dare I say “easier”.
It is my responsibility as a coach (and hopefully your priority as a lifter) to get you back to previous training records in the safest yet efficient manner possible. An overzealous approach upon your return can lead to injury or at least some debilitating muscle soreness that will affect the quality and outcome of your subsequent sessions. An overly cautious approach of dialing it too far back or even to the empty bar will be an incredible waste of your finite time and energy.
Whatever the reason for your layoff, let’s discuss some of the factors that determine where you should pick back up after a break in training as well as some general guidelines.
Factor 1: How long has it been?
Missing 1-2 Sessions
Having to miss 1-2 sessions will not make or break you assuming your training has been consistent up to that point. Upon your return you should simply complete the session that would have been done had you not missed.
For example, if you squatted 250 on Monday, missed your training on Wednesday, then picking back up on Friday with 255 should be doable although more difficult than if you had not missed a day. After a good stretch of consistent and intense training, you may find that you feel stronger and fully recovered after missing a couple sessions.
This is assuming it was just scheduling, if you missed 1-2 sessions due to a stressful event or illness you may need to repeat your last session completed prior to your absence.
Missing 1-2 weeks
For most novice or early intermediate lifters who have missed 1-2 weeks things get a little different. The bigger lifits like the squat and the deadlift respond differently than the press and the bench press.
For the squat and the deadlift, somewhere around 10% probably needs to come off the bar. Work up to your first set with about 10% off from your last session and see what happens. Maybe it’s an all out grinder and you need to take more weight off, or maybe it was a breeze and you need to do ascending sets your first day back.
It really pays to train under the eyes of a coach after a layoff so they can help guide adjustments based on form breakdown and bar speed. However, remember the goal: to disrupt homeostasis and drive adaptation. So while you shouldn’t kill yourself the first workout back, it should be difficult to get you back on your way to gains in strength. For most lifters the reset weight feels heavier than anticipated — be ready for that.
The press and the bench press are slightly different, and probably won’t need as big a deload as the squat and the deadlift. Again, having a coach watch your sets to figure out how heavy you can be taken is helpful, but if on your own simply go as heavy as you can for sets of five. With both of these lifts, reductions in weight of around 5-15 lbs will probably be enough.
Don’t sandbag it. Make sure it’s hard and heavy, just probably a little bit lighter than last time — but not too heavy that you cannot complete sets of five.
Missing 2+ weeks
If you missed two or more weeks then it is probably not a simple math calculation to find out where to start. Remember, not only have you not been increasing the stress during your layoff, but your body has also become no longer accustomed to the range of motion of the big lifts.
If you jump right back into three sets of five you’re bound to be sore — delaying your next workout or making it harder than it has to be. Work up in sets of five on the squat until you do one moderately hard set, same for bench/press and deadlift. Then on your next session do that same weight for three sets of five and then go back to a standard progression.
Don’t get mad at yourself, or think about your previous numbers before the layoff. Just get a good workout in to lay a foundation for more training. Increases after a 2+ week layoff can be bigger session to session than your first time through novice linear progression.
For example, let’s say that you got your squat up to 275lbs for sets of five before your lay off. You probably got there through many difficult sessions adding five lbs each time. Your first session back you start to feel winded at 225. You’re gassed, tired, and do not feel the strength you had almost a month ago when you lifted last. That’s okay. Get the reps in and then make bigger jumps next time.
If the squat was at 275 prior to the layoff, the body will adapt to ten pound jumps from 225 to 275 better this time since it’s already been there. These concepts work well for the squat and deadlift, for the bench and press smaller increments will probably be required.
Skipping months or years
Once it becomes months or years you’re basically starting fresh. And that’s exciting. Along with a loss of strength over a long layoff, your technique has probably also gotten rusty. The combination of the two means it’s time to see a coach and start fresh. Find your baseline, and then start adding weight to the bar session to session.
If your layoff has been lengthy then it is important to rein in your expectations. Weights that previously were not challenging may feel very heavy and this can be upsetting to most lifters. It is important to remember that one workout is not important in and of itself.
Meaningful strength gains will be reacquired over the sum of many consistent training sessions. Leave your ego at the door and take it very conservative as to avoid injury and excessive soreness and pat yourself on the back for getting back under the bar. Particularly if you’re starting back after decades.
I’m serious, we see this all the time, men and women who haven’t lifted weights since the high school or college weight room. Don’t compare yourself to the young version of yourself, rather get ready to make a new version of yourself. We also commonly see men and women in their 50s and 60s who become literally stronger than they’ve ever been. Hard work and consistency will pay off, even if you’ve lost some of the pep you had in your teens and twenties.
Factor 2: Why did you miss?
It is important that you take into consideration the reason you missed your training when deciding where you will start back. If you are coming off of 2 weeks of illness your programming should reflect a larger reset than if you spent 2 weeks relaxing at an all-inclusive resort. Traveling for work will influence your regression differently than traveling for pleasure.
Be mindful of recovery factors that will determine how much of a reset you may need. Was your layoff stressful? How did you eat? How did you sleep? How active were you and what did you do? Keeping track of body weight is also helpful data when determining your starting point.
Factor 3 : Training Advancement
Where you are at in your training career will also influence your return after a layoff. Are you a novice who is adding weight to the bar every session? An intermediate hitting PRs every 1-2 weeks?
A Novice who is still adding weight to the bar every session will regress the quickest with missed training time. If you are a novice you will require a slight reset in weight on your first day back. You will work back up to previous personal records in similar but not identical increments to your original progression before your layoff (somewhere between 2.5 – 10lb jumps).
Advanced lifters and gifted athletes have the benefit of hanging on to their strength gains longer in the absence of training. A lifter who has gotten very strong will have a larger reset in weight but be able to take very large jumps each session to get back numbers they previously held prior to layoff.
Don’t Call it a Comeback
Don’t dig yourself into a hole by letting a couple missed sessions become many. The more you miss the easier it will be to miss. The road back can be humbling and training can suck when numbers are not what they once were.
Stay the course of a linear progression program but take the opportunity to focus on other things besides the weight. See how many sessions you can complete without missing.
Look back at old pages of your training log or old videos of your lifts. Throw a new movement in the mix that you haven’t mastered or even attempted (power cleans anyone?) You will likely surprise yourself with better form, less missed reps, and less programming changes needed this time around.
I will end with a commonly recited gym quote that I first heard from one of our coaches at The Strength Co. , Jeff Hairston, “Sometimes the heaviest weight you lift is the door to come inside”.
Touche’ Jeff. Time to go lift that door and get back to training!