We’re sure that after a period of a break from the gym, and especially when summer approaches, no one wants to hear the words “slow and steady”. The desire to quickly rejoin the weights is completely understandable. Really, there is nothing wrong with this thinking, except that you should act smartly and with a clear plan in mind.
Approaching your recovery as if nothing happened is a pretty risky bet. As respectful and understandable as your intentions are, going to start with 20 sets per session, at an intensity close to the weights you left when you stopped, almost mathematically leads to the opposite results.
The philosophy for proper reintegration into the weights that we will list has to do with 4 strategic steps to recover the muscularity and strength you had before your break. And we will do it in such a way that balances the concepts of “speed of result” and “security”.
So, in order to get back all the gain and strength you lost with so many months of abstinence, two very important factors must play in perfect harmony with each other: The ” muscle stimulation ” factor and the ” muscle recovery ” factor.
When the “muscle arousal” factor gets out of whack, too quickly, it will undermine the body’s ability to adequately recover, thus putting a damper on any progress you want to make. As contradictory as it may sound,
What you should do is find a golden ratio between training intensity and rest in order to maximize what is called ” positive adaptation “. As you’ll see below, this golden ratio is a little hard to find at first as your body’s ability to recover from an intense workout is drastically reduced.
Let’s examine the 4 main principles for a smoother transition back to weights in light of what you should expect when you start working out again:
1. Expect your progress to be at beginner levels
We start with something pleasant – not that it will take you back in time to when you used to put on muscle just by lifting a water bottle… But muscle memory will help you get back to where you left off in a lot faster time than you think [1, 2] provided of course you have a proper plan.
The need for a well-structured plan also lies in the fact that it will help you not to “overdo it” with sets and weights – especially in the first few weeks, and as a consequence prevent your own body from regaining those lost muscles.
That’s exactly why we’ve designed a special 4-day muscle conditioning program that covers all of the recovery principles we cover in this article. The program will take you to the point where you left it in the fastest, most efficient and above all safe way within 2-4 weeks depending on the abstinence period.
2. Expect to lose a lot of your strength
If you’ve been lifting weights for 2-3 weeks, chances are you’ll have lost some strength. Expect around a 15% loss according to a 2007 survey .
In another study  in which exercisers were absent from the weights for 3 whole months, there was a drop of 50%.
As a general rule, it will typically take about half the time it took you to build up your strength initially to regain it after a period of abstinence. So, if you have been absent from the gym for 3 months, expect a realistic regain of your old kilos in 1.5 months.
This particular rule is proven by 2 very interesting studies conducted in 1997 and 2019 [5,6] and dealing with abstinence periods of 2-4 months.
3. Expect to be caught quite a bit
With the previous two principles in place, it’s time to talk about exercises. It’s natural to feel tight the next day just after lifting any weight. Therefore, your primary goal for the first weeks of adaptation is to find those exercises that will cause the least possible “muscle catch”. It is extremely important as this is what will set the pace for a proper return to the weights
Exercises that you should avoid at first are those that overstretch a muscle group. And especially on the legs, where the grip is the most… brutal and can last up to 3 days after training.
Exercises such as lunges and Romanian deadlifts are exercises that you will definitely need to eliminate. There are other alternatives without such high recovery costs.
As a general rule at this start remember that machines and pulleys are your friends during this period as they tend to have a lower impact and muscle damage than free weights. This does not mean that you will not perform any “big” exercises, such as chest presses or deep squats. You will simply try to re-introduce them to your system gradually.
As effective as free weight movements are, they are also demanding on your central nervous system. That’s why you should be careful not to load them suddenly.
4. Expect that you will not be able to exercise with the same volume of training
Once you’ve decided which exercises you’ll prefer for the first few weeks of adaptation, it’s time to focus on the quantitative aspects of your program. More specifically in the number of sets, the intensity, and the density of your training.
Remember: You cannot continue a program from where you left it 3 months ago, you must “bridge” it with an adaptation program for proper reintegration into the weights. Ideally, if you’ve been away from the gym for 2-3 months, you can do a 2-week adaptation program and then a transition program for another 2 weeks. It goes without saying that longer downtime equals longer recovery intervals.
During this period, all compound exercises should be kept in a rep range of 5 or less (this means leaving at least 5 reps to spare), in a weight range around 50%-60% of your old 1RM. Example: If you did chest with 100 kg for 10 repetitions now you will do 55 kg for 4-6 repetitions.
Ok, you’re sure to laugh reading this, but remember that you don’t need any heavy weights to rebuild lost muscle and strength, or even come close to exhaustion. But take note of the kilos you will lift because very soon they will… shoot off.
For isolation exercises (mainly pulleys and machines) you can comfortably go to higher reps around 7-8, always avoiding exhaustion. These exercises will help you re-establish the so-called ” mind-muscle connection ” and get a good swell out of your workout without cramping the next day
When it comes to training volume, you don’t need to be too restrictive. A volume of 8-10 sets per muscle group per week is sufficient to trigger adequate stimulation.
When it comes to training density, forget the classic bro split, one muscle group a day only. You’ll need slightly more frequent stimulation from one muscle group per week, so aim to work each muscle twice a week, splitting your set totals accordingly. But be careful: Strictly 2 times. Above this, there is a small risk of insufficient recovery.
So for the adaptation period, we would recommend running an Upper/Lower split for 4 days a week giving you a day in between for rest and 2 days for the weekend. We will list such a program for rejoining the weights in the coming days.
By now the tightness you may have felt in the first 2 weeks due to general rusting will have subsided, but that doesn’t mean you’re fully recovered! Having adapted well in the first 2-3 weeks, you will now be able to go through a short transition period where the main idea will be to gradually increase the intensity and volume of training.
Now, you should be able to hit your old 60-70%RM in the big exercises, but don’t rush it. Keep it in a rep range of around 6-7, always without reaching absolute exhaustion. For the isolation exercises, you can give them a relative throttle and take them around the standard hypertrophy range (8-10 repetitions) as naturally as your own body’s recovery capacity allows.
In terms of training volume, once you see that you are able to recover relatively easily, you can slowly start increasing the total number of sets for each muscle group to 12-16 sets for the large muscle groups and 10-12 sets for the smaller ones per week.
Training intensity should again be kept at 2 times per muscle group per week. It’s not bro split time yet.
For periods of a break over 3 months
We said above that the “bridge” you will make can last from 1 to 1.5 months depending on the period of your break (2 or 3 months). But what about longer intervals? 6 or more months of break?
Here the “bridging” ceases to apply and we enter a prolonged period of transition followed by a linear periodicity. This means that you continue your adaptation program following a progressive overload model, increasing either weight, reps, or sets (in the human range) until you feel like you’ve regained your lost strength and muscle.
You definitely won’t be able to get back to your old levels within 1 month. When you will recover is difficult to say because unfortunately, it depends on additional variables such as diet, consistency, lifestyle, etc., which we are no longer able to control.
But be patient. Continue with the philosophy of the transition period by increasing, as we said, the intensity and volume of training until the point where you will see that you have reached your weight (training and physically). Only you can decide when.
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