Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Forced Layoffs and Working Back Up: A Case Study

by Jordan Burnett, SSC | July 21, 2020

platform 1rm squat test

The past several months have been a very interesting time for the fitness industry. The mass forced closure of training facilities, both commercial and private, left us with what I consider to be a very serious problem. All of a sudden, a great many people were left without a place to train. Some chose to recuse themselves for fear of their own safety. Some spent inordinate amounts of money on furnishing home gyms, and some were put on an endless waitlist for barbells and plates as the gym equipment industry quickly became overrun with orders. And some were left without the facilities or equipment to be able to continue their training. 

At first, the thought of a two week layoff may have even been welcomed by some trainees. Then it became very evident that this was going to last much longer than two weeks. After not having been “allowed” to train for several weeks, with no end in sight, the inevitable question is asked: “Am I going to lose all of my gains?” 

Well, yes and no. Without sufficient stress to the organism, an adaptation will not occur. If the adaptation we are seeking is an increase in strength, without a stress that is specific enough to elicit a strength adaptation, the system will not get stronger. It is more than likely that these people without access to equipment cannot even manage to generate enough stress to maintain what muscle mass they do have. So yes, you are going to lose some strength and muscle mass. But not all of it. It has long been observed that if we take a novice trainee and run him through a linear progression for 3-6 months, he will always be stronger than he was when he started on Day One, even if that person doesn’t pick up a barbell for years afterwards. 

Here's the good news, and why a long layoff could be considered a blessing in disguise. As trainees continues on through their training career, they become increasingly more efficient at adapting to the stress being imposed upon them. This is why the Novice Linear Progression only works for a short period of time, usually 3-6 months. Eventually, the stress of 3x5 becomes insufficient to drive a strength adaptation, and a bigger bolus of stress is required over time to continue getting stronger. By the time the trainee is into intermediate/advanced territory, he has to do significantly more work over a longer stress/recovery/adaptation cycle in order to elicit a strength adaptation. This results in an accumulation of fatigue due to the increased workload over the course of the training cycle. After a couple years of consistent training, we find our lifter in a near constant state of fatigue, with a much smaller return on their investment when compared to their very robust response to the very short and very simple stress/recovery/adaptation cycle of the NLP. 

Now our lifter has been forced to stop training for two months. Yes, he will lose some strength and muscle mass. However, the tremendous levels of fatigue he’s accumulated over the course of his training career will be allowed to completely dissipate. Little nagging injuries will be allowed to heal up or calm down. His body, which has become so efficient at adapting to very large doses of stress, will be allowed to re-sensitize, which will once again enable smaller doses of stress to elicit a more robust strength adaptation. 

As stated before, strength is an extremely resilient physical quality, and barring any excessive catabolic conditions (i.e. large caloric deficit, high-intensity glycolytic work), he will retain a large percentage of his muscle mass, albeit with a fraction of his previous work capacity. These conditions have the potential to provide a massive rebound effect when training is resumed, because the lifter’s stress/recovery/adaptation cycle has effectively been reset. It is not uncommon for lifters who have taken a long layoff to come back and break through plateaus on one or more of their lifts. 

Now, by that logic, everyone should take a 2-3 month layoff once a year to become fully recovered enough to continue making long-term progress. This is the wrong way to look at it. Certainly, a novice lifter has not been training long enough to have accumulated enough fatigue in their 3-6 months of training to warrant a de-load, much less a prolonged layoff. In a properly structured training protocol for an intermediate or advanced lifter, there will be short periods of overall reduction in stress built into the program to prevent overtraining and to let fatigue dissipate. This accomplishes the same thing without a great deal of detraining taking place. A good example of this would be peaking for a strength or power event. A complete layoff will always result in detraining to some extent. 

Strength is the means by which we interact with our environment. It would be of no real benefit to allow a lifter to become detrained to such an extent. Less strength is less useful, less mobile, and less functional. Continuing a strength training protocol may be the difference between a senior’s ability to move around without falling down or being confined to a rocking chair for the next few months until training is able to resume. It could be the difference between living and dying for those who are beset by illness, or at the very least, a positive influence on the length of the recovery process. In a time where the importance of health is being impressed upon our society, is not being strong and having more muscle mass the best shield we can provide ourselves with? There are also many psychological benefits to training. For some, it might be the only semblance of routine or control in their lives, and training’s positive impact on mental health cannot be overstated. 

So, what program works best for those coming back after these forced closures? The Novice Linear Progression. Some more intermediate or advanced lifters might be tempted to hop back into whatever program they were running prior to the layoff. This is a fantastic way to run yourself into the ground. Severe DOMS and overtraining await those who do not take a very conservative approach to ramping back up when they get back into the gym. Remember, you are much stronger than you were on your first day of training – 275x5x3 produces much more stress than 115x5x3. 

If you take nothing else away from this article: start off light on your first day back. It will feel too easy, and that’s okay. That said, because the trainee has been through the NLP before, working back up over the course of the first few weeks of training can be much more aggressive than it would be with a rank novice who has never trained before. 

What follows is an example of one of my lifters, Charles, and his first several weeks of coming back from this two month layoff. Charles has been lifting with me for a little over two years and went from a bodyweight of 135 to 195.

Prior to the lockdown, his 1RMs and 5RMs were as follows:

  • Squat: 440x1, 380x5
  • Bench: 270x1, 230x5
  • Press: 210x1, 180x5
  • Deadlift: 475x1, 425x5

Coming back: 

  • May 29: Squat 225x5  Bench 155x5  Deadlift 275x5 
  • Jun 1: Squat 225x5, 245x5, 265x5  Press 125x5, 130x5, 135x5  Deadlift 315x5
  • Jun 3: Squat 265x5, 285x5, 305x5  Bench 160x5, 170x5, 180x5  Deadlift 345x5
  • Jun 5: Squat 305x5, 315x5, 325x5  Press 135x5, 140x5, 145x5  Deadlift 365x5
  • Jun 8: Squat 325x5, 335x5, 345x5  Bench 180x5, 185x5, 190x5  Deadlift 385x5
  • Jun 10: Squat 345x5x3  Press 150x5, 155x5, 160x5  Deadlift 405x5
  • Jun 12: Pause Squat 260x3x4  Bench 195x5x3  Deadlift 415x5
  • Jun 15: Squat 350x5x3  Press 160x5x3  Deadlift 420x5
  • Jun 17: Pause Squat 265x3x4  Bench 200x5x3  Deadlift 345x5x2
  • Jun 19: Squat 355x5x3  Press 165x5x3  Deadlift 425x5
  • Jun 22: Squat 360x5x3  Bench 205x5x3  Deadlift 430x5 (PR)
  • Jun 24: Pause Squat 270x3x4  Press 170x5x3  Deadlift 350x5x2
  • Jun 26: Squat 365x5x3  Bench 210x5x3  Deadlift 435x5
  • Jun 29: Squat 370x5, 335x5x2  Bench 215x5x3  Deadlift 440x5
  • July 1: Pause Squat 275x3x4  Press 175x5x3  Deadlift 355x5x2
  • July 3: Squat 375x5, 340x5x2  Bench 220x5x3  Deadlift 445x5
  • July 7: Squat 380x5, 345x5x2  Bench 225x5x3  Power Snatch 135x2x5
  • July 9: Deadlift 450x5  Press 180x3x5  Pause Squat 280x3x4
  • July 13: Squat 385x5 (PR), 350x5x2  Bench 230x5x3 (volume PR)  Deadlift 360x5x2
  • July 15: Deadlift 455x5  Press 185x3x5  Pause Squat 285x3x4

As you can see, after only about 6 weeks, Charles was not only back up to his previous levels of strength, but he set PRs on 3 out of the 4 lifts. We utilized ascending sets for the first couple of weeks to speed up the process, and because the overall stress was still fairly low and enabled him to build up his work capacity more quickly. It’s also important to note that when Charles started up training again, he made sure to eat enough food to facilitate his training. This rebound does not happen nearly as effectively in the absence of providing an anabolic environment in which to grow. Just a simple Novice Linear Progression. It evolved more quickly than it would for a true novice, but the point is that complicated programming is just not necessary in this situation. Start off light, take bigger jumps at first, smash through plateaus and hit some PRs.

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