Understanding How to Return to Training After Time Off

The long awaited re-opening of gym facilities in Trinidad and Tobago will finally take place on the 22nd July 2020. Thankful that the economy can begin to function properly once again and as we re-ignite that fire to resume training, let’s be smart about it. Here is a simple guide to understanding a smart way to approach training after a layoff and effectively resume your fitness journey.
So you’ve been out of the gym for 3 months. Most people were affected and if you found a way during this time to stay active then good job. It may not have been the ideal situation but now we have the opportunity to move forward with a new normal.

What should you expect as you transition back?
For most it would have depended on if you were able to train or not. If you weren’t, you should have seen a reduction in size and strength. If you put on a few extra pounds of fat, it’s something I can address separately but the scope of this article will focus more on training. Don’t be too worried though, as fat can be relatively easy to lose with the magic of a caloric deficit, which works better with a high protein intake and sufficient training volume to maintain/ build muscle during that phase.
However, the good news is that those lost gains are easier to get back thanks to muscle memory. Skeletal muscle memory refers to both cellular and tissue retention of prior stimuli that leads to a modified response if the stimulus is re-encountered. While traditionally the concept of muscle memory applied to re-learning a motor task, recent evidence indicates that it may also have relevance to hypertrophy.
But does this mean we should just enter the gym and pick up where we left off? Or GO HAM?! 
If only that were possible…but NO!

We should be mindful that we will be introducing a novel stimulus to our body as well as the time off will have drastically dropped our MEV, the minimum effective volume required to improve or the lowest amount of volume we can do per session and make measurable progress. Volume can be described as the dosing of tension at a fiber level or the number of hard sets required to place sufficient mechanical tension on the active muscle fibers.
But I want to get back to my best right away, why can’t I do more?
Good question. Doing more than you need to especially when you are not ready for it will cause more harm than good in a situation like this. Exceeding your volume threshold is the fastest way to stall or even induce a self inflicted lockdown for you, causing you to regress even more. No amount of sleep or optimal nutrition can make up for training beyond your ability to recover once you start back. It is important to note that recovery is needed before adaption takes place. The process of adaptation requires energy and resources and your body only has the capacity for so much. If you accumulate so much fatigue that your body’s recovery mechanisms are overwhelmed, your body will prioritize recovery over adaptation for improvement. 
Additionally, from this you can cause exercise induced muscle damage. It is important to note here that muscle damage is one of the mechanisms of hypertrophy along with mechanical tension and metabolic stress. Although it’s not something we want to be chasing directly, a reasonable amount takes place as a result of doing what is required. However, it is clear that if too much muscle damage and soreness occurs, it can have a negative effect on muscular and strength development. There will be a decrease in strength output, reduction in velocity with the same loads, acute muscle swelling, and loss of range of motion and pain that causes the inability to maximally produce force. This will definitely reduce performance and training under these circumstances can lead to a higher risk of injury. 

Let’s focus on the positives of all this and the practical applications to get you back to where you need to be.
Our focus should be slowly climbing our way back up over time. It means getting used to the movement patterns again; feeling comfortable with the weight and doing as little as needed to induce a stimulus. The good news is that our joints and connective tissues got some time off and now hopefully can come back fresh with less wear and tear than before. Additionally, we get a chance to rediscover our volume landmarks again. This is important because we get a chance to add volume and adjust as we adapt. You can always add more volume so I recommend starting on the lower end. Test yourself even as times go by. If you are able to get back to your pre-lockdown strength/size with less volume than before then it’s good news. Being able to make progress with less volume means you can always do more when progress stalls as opposed to doing too much upfront and then having to take away as a result of other problems. It also means less stress and fatigue to recover from and could mean you were previously doing too much volume and could have made better progress. 
 If you are a strength athlete, we know that the principle of specificity is key so ease back into the movements and don’t aim for any max effort testing soon just to see where you’re at for Instagram. However, if you do decide to do singles, keep it at around 50-60% of your max and keep the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) at around 5-6. You will get a better bang for your buck in terms of time in the gym but with the lower volume requirements, it may not even be necessary to do singles since your working sets may be around that range. Focus on proper technique, full range of motion and ingraining that movement pattern into your CNS once again. 

 Keep working sets to a minimum and you will probably need one exercise per body part at 2 sets each, 4-5 reps shy of failure. A typical session can have you in the gym under an hour and with 4-5 times a week you’d be able to evenly spread a minimal dose of volume without wrecking yourself. As the weeks go by and the neural adaption as well tolerance for volume increases, you’d be able to add more. With this method, progress will come at a faster rate upfront.
This also gives you enough time to even complywith any local health regulations. It will be enough to allow you to effectively get in and out and be able to get along with your day and limit your exposure in public places for extended times. 
Also, be mindful if you add excessive cardio on top of this as it’s also another stimulus you need to account for in terms of recovery capabilities. Cardio has its benefits but if you haven’t done it in a while, starting on the lower end would also be a wise idea. Stay safe, and if you have any further questions leave a comment or message us and we’d be happy to help. Thanks for reading.

-Varoon Seepersad

Sharples, AP, Stewart, CE, and Seaborne, RA. Does skeletal muscle have an ‘epi’-memory? The role of epigenetics in nutritional programming, metabolic disease, aging and exercise. Aging Cell. 15: 603-616, 2016.
Schoenfeld, Brad. Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy (Kindle Locations 4617-4620). Human Kinetics, Inc.. Kindle Edition
Isratel, M. Hoffman, J. Davis, M. Recovering from Training. How to manage Fatigue and Maximize performance.
Isratel, M. Hoffman, J. How much Should I train? An introduction to volume landmarks.

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