Taking breaks is an essential part of being human. Too much time spent in mundane routines can take its toll on you psychologically. The activities that you once had to put conscious effort into end up becoming automated and as a result you feel as if you are going nowhere. This is true for all hobbies, occupations and activities in life. Any lifter can tell you that this is true for training as well. However, easing back into training after time off (i.e. ~3-4 weeks) can be a bit of a challenge both psychologically as well as physically. The weights that used to be easy feel heavier than usual, your body feels sore as hell after volume work and it can be tough to determine where to set the intensity for the first day back. In this post I hope to clarify these concerns for many lifters.
This I feel is the most important aspect to consider. When you go back into the gym after some time off, it feels as iff you can still lift your old maxes. This is because your nervous system can still remember “how” to lift the weight. However, the problem resides with the muscles. Not only do the muscles start to atrophy with de-training, they also become de-conditioned. This means, assuming you have no mobility issues, that they will have a harder time maintaining good form with heavier weights, which can result in injury.
Okay, so we know why intensity is important to consider, now let’s discuss how to appropriately ease you back in. First, take your pre-break 1 Rep Max (RM) and take a range from 60-70% of that number. For example, say you used to be able to squat 335 lbs for 1 repetition. Your range would be between ~200-235 lbs. You would want to keep your working sets in this range to ease you back into your old training norm. Don’t panic I know that the ego takes a big hit in these situations, but you’ll be back to normal in no time.
I believe that training volume should be kept the same as pre-break. The reason being, if you want to get your body re-conditioned to pre-break status as quickly as possible, then you want it to get used to the set and rep schemes and the total training time right off the bat. Conditioning comes back quicker than strength and the sooner it comes back, the sooner you can become stronger.
Let’s go over an example. It’s day one after a four week hiatus and you are going to do four exercises: Squats, Bench Presses, Good Mornings and Barbell Rows. Before the break you were doing five sets of five reps (5X5) for all of the above exercises. Today, you are going to do 5X5 for all those exercises, just like you used to. The only difference is that the weight will be lighter than before the break, as mentioned above.
Mobility is another factor to consider after a break. I believe that mobility work and soft tissue work should be done everyday for maximum benefit. No matter how experienced you are, there are always going to be areas that need work. Regardless, the reason I bring this up is because the main reasons I see people taking breaks is from either an injury or a vacation. Anyone in either of those situations can tell you that mobility/soft tissue work is the last thing you are thinking about. Therefore, mobility may be slightly compromised for some of your movements/lifts. You don’t have to ease this variable; this should be done with full intensity on day one.
Why do we lose motivation after we stop lifting for a while? The answer is simple, it’s because of fear. We are afraid of what our gym buddies will think of us when they see us lifting less weight. We are afraid of our reputation being ruined. We are afraid that we are going to have to find a new hobby. If we just take a step back for a second and use reason and logic we will see that this is completely ridiculous. Sure, we may have lost some of our strength, but it will come back faster than you think as long as you ease your way back into training. In fact, i’ve seen some of my best gains after taking time off from training. Remember, the mind is a great servant, but a terrible master.
As long as you keep plugging away at your workouts as the weeks go on, you will find yourself returning to normal in no time. Keep at it!