Getting back into training after a layoff
Even the most dedicated exercisers have occasional layoffs from training. Vacations, work or family commitments, and illness or injury can all mean you need to take time off from your regular training schedule.
If you only miss a workout or two, you should have no problem jumping right back into your training exactly where you left off. In fact, that extra couple of days rest will probably mean you perform better and not worse than usual.
However, if your break is longer – say ten days or more – you will probably experience not only a drop off in performance, you'll also find that going straight back to your regular workout routine leaves you feeling very sore, what exercise experts call delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS for short.
Make your return to training after a layoff as easy as possible by following these guidelines.
- Regress Exercise Difficulty
Some exercises are more difficult and therefore more demanding than others. Examples of difficult/demanding exercises include sprints, jumps, barbell squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, power cleans, and other compound and complex exercises.
Ease yourself back into training by regressing the difficulty of the exercises in your workout. Using easier exercises for a week or two will provide your muscles with the stimulation they need but without crippling DOMS. As you become re-accustomed to training, gradually revert to your usual, more demanding exercise selection.
- Use Ramped Sets
Most exercisers perform several sets using the same weight, e.g. four sets of eight reps with 100 lbs. This is an excellent way to train but could be too intense if you are coming back from a lengthy layoff. You could just do one set, but that won't help you get back into the exercise habit effectively. The volume is just too low. Instead, use ramped sets to get the volume you need without excessive intensity.
With ramped sets, you use the same rep count for all sets, increasing the weight for each set. Treat the light weights as heavy, focusing on using a controlled, smooth tempo and perfect technique, and then do just one "real" work set. For example, instead of doing the aforementioned four sets of eight reps with 100 lbs., using ramped sets you’d do:
- 8 reps 40 lbs.
- 8 reps 60 lbs.
- 8 reps 80 lbs.
- 8 reps 100 lbs. (work set)
This extended warm-up will provide you with the opportunity to revise and hone your exercise technique which may be rusty after your layoff. The minimal number of high-intensity sets (i.e., one!) should minimize muscle soreness while gradually returning you to your earlier levels of performance. Increase the number of work sets over a couple of weeks as you get back into regular training.
- Cardio and Mobility
If you have been very sedentary during your break from training, even light strength training will be a big shock to your system and will probably leave you sore and achy. Ease yourself in gently with a few days of nothing more than some light cardio and mobility.
A couple of days of 20-30 minutes of light cardio followed by full body stretching and foam rolling will work out the kinks that being sedentary often cause. After a few days, you should feel loose, limber, and ready for a more demanding workout.
- 50% Workouts
If you keep a training diary (and you should!) you’ll know exactly how many sets and reps you were doing before your layoff, and what weights you were lifting. Use this information to help you get back into training gradually by doing a few 50% workouts.
A 50% workout involves doing 50% of the sets, reps, and weight you usually use in your workouts. This should feel very easy, but that's precisely the point. If you have been mostly sedentary during your layoff, even a 50% workout will trigger some muscle soreness, but it'll be a lot less than jumping right back into your regular workout schedule.
After a few 50% workouts, increase volume and weights to 60%. After 3-4 weeks you should be right back to where you were before your layoff while minimizing muscle soreness.
- The Headlong Method
If your layoff was relatively short, or you just don’t have the patience to ease back into training gradually, you can ignore all the methods listed above and just dive headlong back into your training.
This method will produce wicked muscle soreness, but it's arguably the fastest way to restore lost strength and fitness.
If you choose this method, it’s worth taking some steps to manage muscle soreness as well as possible. Contrast showers, anti-inflammatory medications, plenty of stretching, and longer warm-ups and cool-downs can all help. However, even if you use these soreness-beating strategies, your muscles and joints will still feel beaten up for a week or two.
As soreness is all-but unavoidable, the headlong method is best left to masochists only!
Layoffs from training are unavoidable and can even be beneficial. They give you the chance to recover from minor injuries, maximize recovery, and rediscover your enthusiasm for working out. However, getting back into training can be a shock to the system, so it makes sense to try to make your transition as comfortable as possible – unless you are an exercise masochist of course!