Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World


Coming Back After a Layoff

by Andy Baker, SSC | December 15, 2016

Time off training

I’ve had a few conversations with clients at the gym regarding what to do after a long layoff from training.  This is definitely one of those issues that almost all of us face from time to time during the year.  How to restart a program and what weights to use after a layoff are inevitable concerns since I train real people with real jobs, families, and a whole host of obligations that sometimes force them to take time away from the gym. Some do a better job than others about staying committed to their training, but usually even the most committed of clients will miss a week or a month with injury, illness, vacation, or business related travel. It’s called Life, and it happens. But layoffs are something we can work around.

A trainee’s level of training advancement will often dictate how much regression occurs during the layoff. In my experience, novices and early intermediates tend to regress the quickest, just as they progress the quickest, but the actual measurement of regression (in terms of load on the bar) is usually not as drastic as it would be for a late stage intermediate trainee or an advanced athlete. This makes sense, as most of the time, late stage intermediates and advanced trainees are using loads that are heavier than most novices use.

It has also been my experience that more advanced athletes can handle a week or 10 days out of the gym much better than a novice can. Often, there isn’t a need to reset at all for a short layoff.  More advanced athletes simply tend to hang on to their gains better than novices do. Advanced athletes also make up lost training time at a much faster rate than novices and intermediates do. As an example, a novice athlete who has to reset training weights by 10% might have to climb back to previous PRs in somewhat similar increments that were used in the original progression – usually 2-10 lbs per workout depending on the lift. An advanced athlete can usually make much bigger jumps from workout to workout to get back to old PRs.

A novice who was squatting 295x5x3 might need to reset back to 265x5x3 after a layoff, working back up to 295 in 5 lb jumps – the same increment used the first time through this progression. However, an advanced athlete that resets from 500×5 to 400×5 can probably work back up over that 100 lb gap in 20-25 lb increments after a layoff, even if he used 5 lb increments to hit the 500x5 the first time around. So, what originally took a year or more to achieve, might only take a month or two the second time around.

Guidelines at different levels

So how should athletes at various levels of training advancement/experience estimate starting weights when they return to the gym? Is there a rule of thumb?

Novices

For most novices who miss 7 to 10 days of training, I usually start with about a 10% reset for the first workout back and I see what happens. Most of the time, we get 3x5 with that weight and simply restart the novice LP from there. Simple. If that first set of 5 appears to be very easy, then I might add a little bit of weight for the next two sets of 5.

Example

Last workout before layoff: 295x5x3 

First workout back after 10 day layoff: 265x5 (very easy), then 275x5x2. Go to 280-285 on the next workout.

If the 265x5 was moderately heavy, then we just stick with that for the next 2 sets. If 265×5 was an all out ball buster 5RM, then I’ll probably drop the weight down to 245-255 for the next 2 sets and repeat 265 at the next workout until we get it for all 3 sets.

Let’s say the trainee has regressed more than I thought. I put 265 on the bar and he only manages an ugly triple. I’d reduce another 10% and perform 240x5x3, which would just result in a longer road back to 295 than we had hoped for.

If the novice has missed more than 2 weeks, or even up to a month, we are probably looking at about a 20% reduction for that first workout back, possibly backing off to 235x5x3 or so.

Intermediate & Advanced

For advanced or intermediate athletes, I use a different approach. Usually that first workout back, I work them up to a conservative, but heavy single. Really conservative! Not a true blue, all out 1 RM, but a heavy single that we can base some reliable percentages off of. So for a client using the Texas Method, I can easily use that heavy single to set up some reliable re-starting points for their volume and intensity days. I like to restart volume at 70% of that number for 5×5 and intensity work at 90% for a triple.

If the conservative single is 405, then I’ll probably set up their first volume workout at 285x5x5 (roughly 70%) and their first intensity day at 365×3 (roughly 90%). Then we see what happens and progress from there. That formula rarely fails to be a reasonable restart point.

Other Factors to Consider

It’s important to understand that high volume strength work (think 5×5) or high rep work (think sets of 10-15) will regress faster than absolute strength. This is because all volume work has a conditioning element as part of the adaptation and conditioning/endurance is a fairly transient adaptation. We lose it quickly and we gain it quickly.

The nature of the layoff will obviously impact how much regression is experienced. Was the trainee severely ill for a month? Extensively travelling on business? Some of my business guys fly all over the world to different time zones. They don’t get a lot of sleep or their sleep is not restful (short naps on planes), and their diet goes to hell. These things matter. Ditto for other types of emotional stress from things like divorce, moves, career changes, or the death of a loved one. Stress impacts recovery and some handle it better than others.

On the flip side, sometimes a short vacation and the added sleep, food, and mental/emotional break from work does the body good. It’s not entirely uncommon for someone to come back from a short respite from the gym stronger than when they left. This is especially true if the client had been training REALLY hard and consistently for several months at a time. This short deload can actually dissipate some fatigue and result in an increase in performance.

In short, resets of a week to a month will require a small deload and reset.  The extent depends on the trainee’s level of training advancement.  Remember that much longer layoffs will require one to three very light and low volume workouts before jumping back into regular programming since the potential to create debilitating soreness (or worse) is present after someone has already gotten strong and comes back from a 3 month or longer layoff. 


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