There will come a point in all our lives where we’re going to have to take some time off from training—whether it’s planned or not. The impetus behind the decision could stem from an illness, injury, a major life event, a vacation, or simply falling off the wagon. Regardless, there might be a hiccup that occurs down the line—and hey, that’s okay.
Perhaps you’re in the midst of training for a marathon and suffered an acute sprain. Maybe our personal relationships shift or a huge life milestones occur—like having a child. Or maybe we fall under an illness and need to hang up the running shoes for a bit and give our body the adequate rest it needs
If you’ve been working out for a while and are forced to take time off, it may be tempting to jump back in at full tilt and try to pick up right where you left off. It can be discouraging to start our routine back up again and find that our endurance or strength isn’t what it once was. We worked so hard to get there. It sucks.
Simply put, jumping headfirst back into the same strength training regimen or trying to hit our previous weekly mileage we were attaining prior to time off can be a big mistake. But it’s likely that you already know this.
To prevent the dreaded overuse injury (or re-injury), there’s some planning involved on your part. Devising a comeback plan will not only help you minimize risk of injury, but it will help you ease back into a solid routine. The good news is that if you’ve been training for a while, the physiological qualities you’ve developed (ie. lean muscle, Vo2 max, running economy) are very slow to decline and atrophy—much slower than most of us think. In this post, we’ll look at how to safely return to workout out after taking some time off.
Returning After an Injury or Time Off
The main concern when returning to running is that your mind may be willing to write checks that your legs (and musculo-skeletal system) are not ready to cash. If you overdraw your account, you’ll be right back where you started—unable to run, this time due to injuries. – Trail Running Magazine
The Principles of ‘Ease of Maintenance’ and Muscle Memory
If you’re worried that after taking time off you’ll have to resort back to the fundamentals, then I have some good news for you. The principle called ease of maintenance indicates that our body can maintain training adaptations easier than when we build them. So, when returning to training after a prolonged rest period, it will be much easier and quicker to get back to the place you started from. The same holds true with gaining muscle; it’s much easier and faster to rebuild old muscle than build new muscle from scratch.
It may be tempting to overextend yourself to “make up for lost time”—trust me, this isn’t necessary. You don’t need to push yourself to the same extent as when you were trying to get to a higher level of fitness.
How to Safely Return to Training
Say you’re training for a marathon or half marathon and sustain an injury in the midst of your training, forcing you to take a break before getting back at it. When you’re fully healed and ready to return, do you revert back to your prior training routine? Should you try to match the same weekly mileage or start from the beginning?
In order to determine how much mileage you should jump back into, the first step is to take a look at how much time you took off.
In running coach Jack Daniel’s book, Daniels’ Running Formula, he outlines the following categories of what he calls a layoff, which I’m compiled into a nice little table for you:
While this provides a great rule of thumb, it’s important to check in with yourself regularly. If you’re still feeling sore for over days or so after a training session, it may be time to bring down the mileage and pace a bit.
Just like we need to figure out a ‘comeback mileage plan’ after returning to running, this also applies to our resistance training.
Muscle and Strength Loss After a Break
Muscle memory allows our bodies to build back that muscle and strength much quicker than, say, starting at ground zero. The more frequently we trained prior to our time off, the more muscle we’re able to preserve and re-build one we’re back at it.
In a randomized control trial conducted on 21 men and women during a 10-week strength training program, researchers measured muscle mass and strength at the outset of the program, 5-weeks in, 10-weeks in, and after three months with zero training. All participants gained muscle mass and strength after the 10-week period, but surprisingly only lost about 5 weeks of strength and muscle after 3 months off. So even after 3 months of doing nothing, these people only lost about 50% of the strength and muscle gains they made during the 10-week period—preserving the rest.
There’s a principle in bodybuilding called “newbie gains”—that is, we will see the fastest muscle growth when we first start a resistance training program. This principle also applies to those who have taken a prolonged break in their training. In fact, some bodybuilders intentionally take time off from their training to reap the benefit of gaining lean muscle again upon their return.
So, if you’ve taken extensive time off from your fitness regimen, here’s a silver lining for you: if you apply the principles of progressive overload, you will start to see rapid changes to your body composition.
Another thing to note is that you will make progress even if you don’t hit muscle failure after a training break. In other words, you can bring down the intensity quite a bit and still build muscle.
An important consideration here is diet. In order to preserve muscle mass during time-off, you want to make sure you’re getting adequate calories and enough protein (aiming for >2g/kg of body weight per day).
Reset Your Expectations
When we’re ready to get it back, we need to chill for a second and first deal with the psychological aspect behind our return. While it is tempting to jump right back in, squat/press/deadlift the same weight prior to your time off, please don’t. Have a little talk with your ego before stepping foot back in the gym. If you go in full speed ahead, we all know what’s going to happen. So my friends, I ask you to acquire the virtue of patience, repeat affirmations in the mirror or whatever you need to do to tell yourself that you’re going to have to lift less weight, do less reps, and perform less sets than before your time off. Develop a bit of self-compassion and embrace the tortoise mentality. But since you’re getting back on the wagon of weight training, you’re going to at least be a tortoise on a scooter.
In Jeff Nippard’s video How To Re-Build Muscle After A Training Break, he outlines a “half the time” rule which means it will take half the time to get back to where you were before taking time off. So, if you took 1 month off, it will take 2 weeks to get back to the fitness level you were at before. If it took you 2 months, it will take a month and so on and so forth. You get the gist. However, Jeff does specify that this rule applies to months only, not years. If you’ve taken 6 months off or more, it’s going to be a much more gradual (and slower) process to get back to where you were. But in short, you can gain your muscle back pretty quickly after time off. This is highly dependent on the individual and their circumstances, but it is generally a good rule of thumb to follow.
Type of Exercises
When stepping foot back into the gym, maybe try to avoid b-lining it to the squat rack. Instead of starting with your usual compound movements, you can start with some isolation or body weight exercises instead. Isolation exercises work specific body parts or areas (focused on a specific muscle or joint), whereas compound movements work multiple body parts at the same time. Examples of compound exercises include squats, deadlifts, and presses. Examples of isolation exercise are bicep curls, lateral raises, and tricep extensions. While compound exercises are great and give you the most “bang” for your workout buck, they are also more likely to leave you with prolonged soreness and because you’re using higher weights, the likelihood of re-injury increases.
Akin to Bobby Boucher’s Momma’s take on foosball, Jeff Nippard calls soreness “the devil” when it comes to a comeback plan—reducing performance and prolonging recovery. In short, soreness will not do you any favours when it comes to re-building that muscle. He recommends focusing on the exercises with a “high stimulus to fatigue ratio”; where you can feel the muscles working, but experience minimal soreness and fatigue post workout.
While it is fine to go back to compound exercises, you’re going to want to reduce the weight and intensity. If you have access to machines, those are a great tool to safely return to your exercise routine. Machines help you maintain proper form and isolate specific body parts, helping you target weaker areas. Similar to compound movements, free weights are great for activating multiple body parts, however you need to be cognizant of your form. Bad form with free weights is a foolproof recipe for injury or re-injury. Lastly, if you’re still sore from a session you did 4 days ago, it’s time to pump the breaks on your training intensity.
The Comeback Plan
Now, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty. Your comeback plan should be about 2-4 weeks and is a transition period before getting back into your pre-break routine Do not freestyle it—write it down.
Before we dive into some best practices, let’s do a quick jargon check:
Training volume refers to the total work you do and is measured by the following formula: Total work in training (sets) x (reps) x (load/weight). When we talk volume, we should look at the number of sets you perform per muscle group, per week. Most aim for the 10-20 range, but more advanced can up the volume to 30-45 sets per week.
One-repetition maximum is the most amount of weight you can lift during a single repetition (100% maximal effort). The 1RM is used to ensure you’re in the correct training zones to make progress in your workouts. Here’s a calculator you can use to determine your 1RM.
RPE and RIR
RPE refers to the rate of perceived exertion, or in other words, how hard we’re working that’s measured on a scale from 1-10. From a strength training perspective, the 1-10 scale measures how many reps we have “left in the tank” until we reach technical failure. Say we’re lifting at a RPE of 6 (or 60%), this means that we have 4 reps in the tank before we hit muscle failure and we’re physically unable to lift anymore. RIR is defined as “reps in reserve” and is the inverse of RPE. For the RPE of 6, the RIR would be 4. It’s the same thing, but a lot of people use the acronym RIR since RPE more closely aligned to the aerobic scale and the Borg scale (a measurement developed in the 80s that rated aerobic exercise from 6-20 based on heart rate).
Now that we’ve covered some of the more technical language, let’s get into the plan.
Week 1-2 – Intro Phase
For the first 2 weeks, we want to focus on easing back into training: re-learning proper technique and form and priming our muscles to accumulate more weight in the weeks to come. You’ll want to minimize soreness between workouts as much as possible by cutting your volume down substantially and lifting lighter weight.
This is a good time to be working on stability, mobility and incorporating more isolation exercises. While it’s fine to include some compound exercises, you’ll want to avoid hitting muscle failure and make sure to leave plenty of “reps in the tank”—AKA keep the weight light.
Compound exercises (very light loads) – 50% RPE, RIR of 5 (5 reps “left in the tank”) or 50-60% of your 1RM (take the amount of weigh you normally do and multiple it by 50-60% to get your new weight).
Isolation exercises – since you’ll be doing lighter weight, you can up the intensity a bit, aiming for 70-80% RPE or RIR of 2-3 (2-3 reps “left in the tank”).
Volume – 7-10 sets per muscle group per week. Jeff recommends that you knock down your sets each day, so if you were doing 3 sets per exercise the day before, try reducing your set to 2 instead. You can also try cutting volume by 50% if you were lifting on the heavier side.
Frequency: hit each muscle group 2x per week
Splits: Upper/Lower (4 days) or Push/Pull (6 days)
Week 2-4: Volume Accumulation Phase
After the first few weeks pass and granted, you’re not feeling too sore, you can slowly increase the volume and intensity. You still don’t want to hit muscle failure just yet—this is particularly true for compound movements.
Compound exercises – 60-70% RPE or RIR of 3-4 (3-4 reps “left in the tank”)
Isolation exercises – 80-90% RPE of RIR of 1-2 (1-2 reps “left in the tank”
If you brought your sets down to 2 per exercise in week 1-2, you can bring it back up to 3. Add weight back incrementally (5-10%) each week.
Frequency: hit each muscle group 2x per week
Splits: Upper/Lower (4 days) or Push/Pull (6 days)
An important caveat to this plan is that as long as you’re recovering between sessions and aren’t experiencing soreness 4 days after a workout, you can slowly continue adding the weight and sets per exercise.
After the 4 weeks, you should be transitioned back and you can continue to gradually increase the weight, volume, and intensity in the weeks to come. An alternative to this plan is what Coach Jack Daniels suggests: staying at the same level of fitness for 4-weeks before adding volume (with resistance training and running). While this may be conservative, it may also be a good way to go depending on your fitness level.
Check in With Yourself
While these may provide a good guideline for returning back to your training, you’ll want to check in with yourself regularly. How are you feeling between sessions? Are you experiencing soreness during those rest and recovery periods? Listen to your body and adjust accordingly.
If there’s anything I want you to take away from this post, it’s that you need to mentally prepare yourself to do less than what you were doing before the break—unless of course, the break is under a week long. If you’re on a break now and still recovering, use this time to write down a plan of attack when you’re ready to return. If you’re like me and don’t like to write down your workouts (reps, sets, etc.), use intensity and soreness as a gauge. While you will be sore once returning (which is normal), you want to try and minimize it as much as possible. Soreness will impede progress and lower the amount of quality training sessions we complete in a week.
As with all my posts, be safe! Wishing you a smooth transition back into your training 🙂