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How To Get Your Gains Back After A Training Break

By May 29, 2020 No Comments

Key Points:

  • After you stop lifting, research shows that strength can be retained for up to three weeks before noticeable decreases begin to occur.
  • As a general rule of thumb, it will take about half as much time as you took off to fully regain your strength (e.g. it should take about one month to regain the strength lost from a two month break).
  • Research suggests that it should not take much to regain strength when starting out, so keep training intensity relatively low, avoid excessive soreness, and keep the programming simple.
  • Most importantly, when returning back to training, have a plan!

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Key Terms:

RPE: Rating of Perceived Exertion is a measure of effort based on repetitions from failure (e.g. RPE 10 = 0 reps from failure, RPE 9 = 1 rep from failure, RPE 8 = 2 reps from failure, etc.)

Compound Lifts: An exercise that works more than one muscle group (e.g. squats, presses)

Isolation Exercises: An exercise that only works one muscle group (e.g. bicep curls, calf raises)

Detraining: When you stop training and lose gains

Retraining: Returning back from a period of detraining by beginning to train again

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I’m sure that by now you’ve been away from the gym long enough and are pumped to get back at it. Transitions sometimes feel awkward and there is a vagueness in fitness circles when it comes to getting back on track. I want to help you with this goal by laying out four steps for getting back to the gym after a layoff. The idea is to strategically rebuild all the muscle and strength you lost as quickly as possible, without setting yourself up for injury or overtraining. 

I’ve found that after a training break, most people just don’t want to hear the standard ‘slow and steady’ advice. Chances are, you want to know, “How do I get my gains back quickly? – and I don’t want it to take another year before I’m back to where I left off.”

I think that desire is understandable and it seems there’s nothing necessarily wrong with thinking that way, as long as you set up the comeback plan in a structured, intelligent manner. Before we think about how exactly to do that, consider how many lifters approach this objective. 

Not wanting to “waste time” they jack their volume up to levels they were handling before the layoff.  If, for example, they were doing 20 sets per week, in their first week back in the gym, they pick up where they left off and hit that 20 sets per week marker. Not wanting to skimp on intensity, some will attempt to “make up for lost workouts” or “shock their system” by taking most sets all the way to failure.

No matter the intentions or pseudo-rationale at play here, approaching your post-break training like this is almost guaranteed to fail because it only considers the stimulus side of the muscle building equation, without any consideration of recovery. 

Remember, in order to build strength and size we need to present a stimulus (in our case, lifting weights) to cause some amount of stress. Then it is the recovery from that stress that induces a positive adaptation (that is, we get more jacked). 

It’s a big problem however, when the stimulus aspect gets too high too quickly, overwhelming the ability to recover and slowing the rate of progress, DESPITE doing more work and working harder.

If you want to get your gains back as quickly as possible, as tempting as it may be, you shouldn’t just crank the stimulus to the max! Instead, you should try to find an appropriate balance of stimulus and recovery to maximize positive adaptation. As you’ll see, that balance is a bit tricker to find after a training break because your ability to recover has taken a significant hit.

With an understanding of what NOT to do, let’s lay out the four comeback principles: the things you should be focusing on. For the record, in my next post, I’m going to cover how to leverage your nutrition to maximize the comeback plan, but for now, we’re just going to focus on what you need to do in the gym. 

 

  1. You can expect to grow like a new lifter (if you have a plan)

Other than taking steroids, which I don’t recommend, the only other way to experience newbie gains twice, is to stop lifting for a while and then start again. Keep in mind, you’ll experience newbie gains again in the sense that you’ll quickly get back to where you were, not in the sense that it’ll somehow “slingshot” you past where you were before (although, given the motivation that comes with speedy progress that may be something to speculate on, but not in this article). 

This is because of the very powerful muscle memory effect that I talked about in my last blog post: research repeatedly shows that it’s much easier to rebuild lost muscle than it is to build new muscle from scratch.1,2 So, in this sense, you might even consider yourself more supercharged than a newbie, depending on just how much muscle you lost.  

Considering the need for a plan, it’s fair to say that your comeback begins before you even walk through the gym doors. If you want to get your gains back as fast as possible, it’s absolutely imperative that you have a structured comeback plan written down, before you set foot in the gym. If you freestyle it, you will be very tempted to overdo it and, as a result, throw off the delicate balance between stimulus and recovery. 

With this consideration, I decided to make a free four week bridge program for you guys that covers all the comeback principles in this article. It’s designed to get you from doing either no training or high rep bodyweight training, back to standard, progressive training in two to four weeks, depending on how long your break was. 

 

2. Expect to have lost some strength.

If you took more than two weeks off, chances are you will be a bit weaker on return, and the more time you took off, the more strength you’ll have lost.

In 2013, McMaster and colleagues performed a systematic review of 27 studies that looked at changes in strength and power in elite rugby and American football players.3 They found that when training ceased for about seven weeks, there was an average decrease in strength of about 15 percent, although there appears to be quite a lot of variability in this number among the various studies investigating this same question. At the end of the review, the authors made a final conclusion that strength could likely be retained for up to three weeks before significantly dropping.

Putting these strength losses into a clearer perspective, let’s look at a 2007 study from Blazevich and colleagues.4 Here, they put subjects on a 10 week training program, performing only leg extensions in the four to six rep range, and then had them abruptly stop lifting for three months. The participants in this study gained significant strength in those 10 weeks, but after three months (about 13 weeks) of detraining, their strength decreased back to about where they were at five weeks. In other words, they lost roughly half of the strength gains they had made. This is on the high end for observed strength loss during similar periods of time in other studies. From this analysis, it is most likely that while you won’t be as strong as before, you won’t have lost anything close to all your strength gains, even after taking several months off.

Because gaining strength is a skill, you can think of it like playing a sport. For example, if you take months off from shooting hoops, chances are your stroke is going to look and feel a little off the first time you touch a ball again. The same goes for lifting heavy weights in the gym. Knowing this, you need to check your ego and adjust your expectations to set wherever you are now as your new starting place. Forget your old numbers: they do not matter anymore. Start keeping a log of the weights you lift in those first few weeks, and you’ll quickly start seeing your numbers increase rapidly.

When it comes to strength regain, as a general rule, you can expect it to take roughly half the time you took off to get most of it back. So, if you took two months off, it might take you about one month to get your strength back, assuming you do everything right. If you took six months off, you might need up to three months to build it back, but good programming or genetic blessings can make that process faster. Since it’s just meant to ballpark near-term layoffs, the “half-the-time rule” starts to break down if your lay off was longer than six months.

To validate this rule of thumb, let’s take a look at a few studies, starting with a 2018 study from Seaborne and colleagues.1 In this study, they had seven participants complete seven weeks of lower body training, followed by seven weeks of detraining, and ending with seven weeks of retraining. They found that quadriceps strength increased by about nine percent with training. With detraining, this fell by about eight percent back towards baseline. After retraining, however, strength increased by 18 percent, twice as much as the initial training period! This implies that the participants had probably regained all of their strength in about three and a half weeks, with the subsequent weeks resulting in new strength above baseline. This timeframe of regaining strength aligns perfectly with our “half-the-time” rule.

 

The graph on the left shows how strength increased with training, decreased back towards baseline with detraining, then surpassed post-training strength levels with retraining. Since strength did not decrease fully back down to baseline with detraining, the graph on the right accounts for this by comparing the strength levels at the end of retraining to that seen at the end of detraining, rather than baseline. Even still, retraining increased strength to a greater extent than the initial training. Seaborne et al., 2018 [PubMed]

 

Another study by Sakugawa and colleagues had ten older men and women undergo 12 weeks of resistance training, then a 16 week detraining period, and finally an eight week retraining period.5 This 2019 investigation found that 1RM strength in the leg press was able to fully recover in eight weeks of retraining, after the 16 week detraining period. Once again, the “half-the-time” rule held up.

An older 1997 study by Taaffe and Marcus had eleven older men train for 24 weeks, detrain for 12 weeks, then retrain for eight weeks.6 They discovered that average muscle strength across 10 exercises increased by more than 40 percent with training. Detraining significantly reduced these gains in strength by about 30 percent, but the eight weeks of retraining fully recovered them. Eight weeks to recover from 12 weeks of detraining is a little off from the “half-the-time” rule, but it’s still in the same general ballpark.

As you can see, all of these studies involve detraining periods of about two to four months. This is partially why extrapolating this “half-the-time” rule out to cover periods longer than six months is more speculative. I’d also be remiss to not at least acknowledge a study that contradicts the rule.2 One 1991 paper by Staron and colleagues found that six study participants significantly increased strength in the leg press, squat, and knee extension with 20 weeks of training. This was then followed-up by about 30 weeks of detraining (that’s almost 7 months of no lifting!), where strength significantly decreased for all exercises, but still remained well above baseline. The surprising part is that it only took six weeks for strength to fully recover for two of the three exercises. While this definitely leaves some room for optimism, fully recovering strength gains in six weeks after a seven month detraining period doesn’t line up with our rule. Granted, like I mentioned, this study only had 6 subjects, so we don’t want to put too much weight on it. But to fully encompass all the data, we could simply soften the rule to be something like “you can realistically expect to regain most of your strength in at least half the time you took off.” And, again, we’ll just be using this as a general rule for breaks that that less than six months anyway.

 

  1. Choose exercises wisely. (Beware of muscle soreness – it is your enemy!)

With the first two principles stored securely in your knowledge banks, you now have your expectations in check and will need to choose what exercises to focus on. The main thing here is finding movements that won’t get you too sore. This is extremely important because soreness is the devil on a comeback program! It doesn’t do anything extra for hypertrophy, and reduces your ability to perform and recover. You’re probably going to get somewhat sore just by simply training again (and that’s okay) but your goal should be to minimize it as much as you reasonably can by prioritizing exercises that cause less muscle damage.

This means exercises that load their target muscles in a highly stretched position like walking lunges and Romanian deadlifts should be completely eliminated from the comeback program. That’s not because they’re inherently more dangerous or ineffective, but simply because other exercises can stimulate the glutes and hamstrings equally well, without the same recovery cost, at a time when your recovery is already low. Consider low step ups and leg curls as replacements, for example. 

To borrow a term from Dr Mike Israetel, we want to prioritize exercises that have a high stimulus to fatigue ratio in the comeback plan especially. In other words, focus on movements you can “feel” working the muscle well, without also having you feel completely wrecked and sore for several days after. With a bit of forethought, you can probably come up with a list of exercises that fit the below criteria for you.

 

Proxies of Stimulus

Proxies of Fatigue
High Mind-Muscle Connection 

(You feel the muscle working during the exercise)

Joint and Connective Tissue Disruption 

(Go to exercises that cause the least joint discomfort)

Good Pump 

Perceived Exertion 

(Is the exercise very systemically fatiguing?)

Muscle Disruption 

(It feels like the muscle has been worked after the workout and/or local weakness of the target muscle)

Spill-Over Fatigue 

(How much does it affect strength levels of an unrelated muscle group?)

This figure is a summary of a video by Dr Mike Israetel where he lists several proxies of both stimulus and fatigue. These can be used to approximate the stimulus to fatigue ratio of an exercise. [link to video]

 

This also means that machines and cables are your best friends right now because they tend to be lower impact and less damaging than their free weight counterparts. Of course, there is no need to shy away from compound exercises like squats, deadlifts and presses – it’s just important to re-introduce their loading more gradually. While these compound movements pack a high stimulus, they also pack a high fatigue, and so it is important to be more careful with loading them heavily at first, as we’ll see now in the fourth principle. 

 

  1. Set the re-training parameters just right (volume, intensity, frequency) 

Finally, after deciding on the types of exercises you want to focus on, it’s time to set up the re-training parameters to fit the comeback plan just right. Remember: we shouldn’t just jump into whatever program we were doing before, we need to build a bridge to get there. The bridge will last around two to four weeks. The longer your training break, the longer the bridge you’ll need to get back to normal training.

We can divide the bridge up into an “intro” phase (lasting one or two weeks), and a “transition” phase (also lasting one or two weeks).

 

This is a sketch of how the bridge program should be set up from my latest YouTube video [link to video

 

THE INTRO PHASE (Week 1-2 of the Bridge)

Let’s start with the intro side of the bridge. The main goal here is to work on the neural aspect of lifting: re-teaching your body and brain to work together again. This means that for compound exercises like squats, deadlifts and presses, you should focus exclusively on mastering good technique through the use of very light loads.

 

INTENSITY/LOAD

For the compound lifts, everything should be kept at an RPE of five or lower for the intro phase (meaning you should leave at least five reps in the tank.) To give you something more tangible, you’ll want to be somewhere in the 50 to 60 percent of your old one rep max zone for sets with moderate reps (something around four to six reps).

For example, if your bench press one rep max was 275 pounds before your two month break, you should start your intro week with just 135 to 165 pounds for two sets of 4-6.

Sure – that may SEEM laughably light, but, remember, you really don’t need heavy loads to rebuild strength and size at all. New lifters (and, by extension, detrained lifters) don’t need to go very close to failure to grow. In fact, a recent MASS research review covered a study by Lasevicius and colleagues from 2019 where a group training seven to eight reps shy of failure (RPE of two or three) still saw similar growth to a group going all the way to failure across eight weeks.7 Although this approach certainly wouldn’t be optimal for maximizing growth over the long term, it does exemplify that you can certainly still make solid gains leaving upwards of five reps in the tank after your training break. 

Granted, while there isn’t any other research I’m aware of showing that kind of growth training that far from failure, we can look to Pareja-Blanco and colleagues to further confirm that training relatively far from failure still results in muscle growth.8 In their 2017 study, they used a 20 percent bar velocity loss as the cut-off for a set, meaning that once the bar speed dropped by more than 20 percent on the concentric portion of the lift, the set ended. This protocol only involved squats and likely resulted in participants training on average about four reps shy of failure. Even so, quadriceps muscle volume assessed using MRI still showed a significant increase.

Looking at this from a strength perspective, we can turn to a 2002 study by Folland and colleagues in untrained lifters.9 Here, a group training leg extensions with 40 sets of one repetition at 75 percent 1RM with 30 seconds rest between sets, saw a similar increase in 1RM compared to a group performing four sets of 10 repetitions at 75 percent 1RM with 30 seconds rest between sets. This shows that you really don’t need to be all that close to failure at all to see increases in strength gains when starting out. 

For the isolation exercises, I think we can be more liberal and crank the RPE up to a seven or eight; but I still recommend avoiding failure. Instead, you want to use isolation exercises strictly for establishing a strong mind muscle connection and getting acquainted with what it feels like to get a good pump again. That’s it. 

 

VOLUME

When it comes to volume, I don’t think you need to be quite as restrictive. In my opinion, most people can start with something around 7-10 sets per bodypart per week, especially if you were doing bodyweight workouts or some other physical activity during your break. This is the same volume range Schoenfeld and Grgic gave in their 2017 paper outlining an intro phase for a one-year periodization scheme.10 Granted, thile there’s no need to go ultra low on volume, I still don’t recommend jumping right back to where your pre-break volume was. For example, if you were doing three or four sets per exercise before the break, you’ll still want to knock that down to two or three sets after your hiatus.

 

FREQUENCY

Finally, when it comes to frequency, I recommend hitting each muscle twice per week. Only training each body part once a week won’t be enough to rebuild strength quickly because you won’t be getting in enough “lifting practice” for motor learning. In addition, it won’t be enough for rebuilding size because the skewed weekly volume means you will be doing minimally hypertrophic sets on most days, and waiting far too long before stimulating hypertrophy again. 

Frequencies higher than two (or maybe three) can also be an issue at first because you probably won’t be able to recover fast enough between those sessions until the repeated bout effect ramps up (after the bridge).

So for the bridge, I recommend running either a push pull legs split done six days per week or an upper lower split done four days per week. This way, you get to hit each muscle twice a week with at least a few days of recovery in between. In my bridge program, I include both options, depending on your availability to train.

 

THE TRANSITION PHASE (Week 3-4 of the Bridge)

With the intro side of the bridge covered, let’s take a quick look at the transition side. This side is a bit easier in that the basic idea here is to just gradually start adding stuff.  At this point, we can start gradually loading more heavily. This means you can turn the intensity up on compound lifts to an RPE of six or seven by increasing the weight on the bar. You can turn up the intensity up on isolation exercises to an RPE of eight or nine, as long as soreness is decreasing and recovery is improving. When it comes to volume, as long as you find yourself recovering well, you can start slowly increasing the number of sets. For example, if you were doing two sets per exercise for the intro phase, you can increase your volume to three sets per exercise, especially for exercises you want to emphasize more.

Following the transition phase, you’ve officially “bridged” yourself to a point where you can start training normally again, using the progression methods appropriate for your level of advancement. Most of you should be able to continue making great progress by using a simple linear progression for at least the next month or two after the bridge. This means you can add some weight increment (5 to 20 lbs) from week to week without needing to vary rep ranges or exercise selection. Just simple progressions should be enough to get you making size and strength gains again.

Using a simple periodization model when starting out is supported by research from Souza and colleagues.11 They divided 31 untrained male participants into three groups and examined changes in quadriceps size after six weeks of training: 1) non-periodized, 2) traditional periodization, 3) undulating periodization. Below is a summary of their training schedule from which you can get a better idea of what these programs entailed. The results showed that all three groups made similar gains in quadriceps size over the six weeks. This is despite the one group (NP) sticking with the same eight repetitions throughout the entire study. 

 

Notice how the non-periodized program kept the same sets and reps throughout the entire study. Compare this to the undulating-periodized program that had far more variety. Souza et al., 2014. [PubMed]

This simple approach that emphasizes linear strength progression will work for a good while, until you encounter a plateau. Once you plateau, you’ll need to start methodically tweaking variables like volume, intensity, frequency and exercise selection to keep driving progress forward. 

Now that you have a clear understanding of the four principles involved in getting back to the gym, and making some solid gains again, you can put all of this information together by scooping up my new free 2-4 week bridge program. Check it out and let me know what you think

Part two of this blog on how to set up your nutrition after a training break is on the way next, so don’t forget to check it out in the next weeks or so.  Good luck to you and your new beginnings. As always, I’ll be chatting with you guys here in the next one! 

 

References:

  1. Seaborne RA, Strauss J, Cocks M, et al. Human Skeletal Muscle Possesses an Epigenetic Memory of Hypertrophy. Sci Rep. 2018;891):1898. [PubMed]
  2. Staron RS, Leonardi MJ, Karapondo DL, et al. Strength and skeletal muscle adaptations in heavy-resistance-trained women after detraining and retraining. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1991;70(2):631‐640. [PubMed]
  3. McMaster DT, Gill N, Cronin J, McGuigan M. The development, retention and decay rates of strength and power in elite rugby union, rugby league and American football: a systematic review. Sports Med. 2013;43(5):367‐384. [PubMed]
  4. Blazevich AJ, Cannavan D, Coleman DR, Horne S. Influence of concentric and eccentric resistance training on architectural adaptation in human quadriceps muscles. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2007;103(5):1565‐1575. [ResearchGate]
  5. Sakugawa RL, Moura BM, Orssatto LBDR, Bezerra ES, Cadore EL, Diefenthaeler F. Effects of resistance training, detraining, and retraining on strength and functional capacity in elderly. Aging Clin Exp Res. 2019;31(1):31‐39. [PubMed]
  6. Taaffe DR, Marcus R. Dynamic muscle strength alterations to detraining and retraining in elderly men. Clin Physiol. 1997;17(3):311‐324. [PubMed]
  7. Lasevicius T, Schoenfeld BJ, Silva-Batista C, et al. Muscle Failure Promotes Greater Muscle Hypertrophy in Low-Load but Not in High-Load Resistance Training [published online ahead of print, 2019 Dec 27]. J Strength Cond Res. [PubMed]
  8. Pareja-Blanco F, Rodríguez-Rosell D, Sánchez-Medina L, et al. Effects of velocity loss during resistance training on athletic performance, strength gains and muscle adaptations. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2017;27(7):724‐735. [PubMed]
  9. Folland JP, Irish CS, Roberts JC, Tarr JE, Jones DA. Fatigue is not a necessary stimulus for strength gains during resistance training. Br J Sports Med. 2002;36(5):370‐374. [PubMed]
  10. Schoenfeld B, Grgic J. Evidence-Based Guidelines for Resistance Training Volume to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2017;40(4):1. [Researchgate]
  11. Souza EO, Ugrinowitsch C, Tricoli V, et al. Early adaptations to six weeks of non-periodized and periodized strength training regimens in recreational males. J Sports Sci Med. 2014;13(3):604‐609. [PubMed]

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