Don't be a Comeback Warrior!

By MuscleTalk Pro-Member Jack5r
June 2014

This article will give details on the most effective ways to reintroduce weight training after some time off. From my experience, the majority of weight trainers jump straight back into a body part split and end up with a chest so tight they struggle to do a pull up on back day and legs so tight they cannot do anything at all. Their coordination is poor and they are weak.

When going back to the gym, there are a few factors you must take into consideration:

Frequency
Training frequency should be high, which means using a full body routine, training every other day or even everyday if load/volume is adjusted accordingly. A body part split is best avoided for a number of reasons which will become evident as you read on.

The majority of strength lost over a period without training is due to a loss of habitual neuromuscular pathways / the ability to recruit these pathways. Efficiency in recruiting neuromuscular pathways is what makes us strong, taking a signal from the brain through nerves, resulting in a muscle contraction. After a period of time off, we need to retrain these pathways and the most effective way to do this is to practice them as often we can. Strength can be described as a skill in that repetition amounts to an increased ability to complete the task: lifting a weight. Practice makes perfect! I recommend using a variation of the basic compound movements for muscle and strength building. These include variations of squats, pulls from floor, horizontal/vertical pressing and pulling exercises.

Along with a faster increase in strength, you will also find you have reduced muscle soreness and tightness, due to the physiological nature of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) in response to frequent training. DOMS is the aching pain you experience during the days proceeding exercise, which can really hinder the following training sessions. Warming up and training a slightly tight and painful muscle will reduce the tightness and pain. Blasting a muscle on Monday will produce massive DOMS and also give you just one chance to use that muscle / complete a specific movement pattern over the seven day week.

Load
The weight you use should be lighter than you were using before your time off. The percentage will depend on the amount of time you have had off, but the general rule should be to do just one or two challenging sets, avoiding failure. Your technique will be lacking and so jumping straight into max lifts will not only feel horrible, it may also cause injury. Do not underestimate the importance of staying injury free! The weight should also be proportionally light to minimise DOMS. DOMS are not an effective measure of training quality and should be avoided where possible.

Volume
As you are training the same muscles every other day volume will need to be lower than normal. Again the percentages will be dependant on previous time off, but as a general rule start at less than half of the overall volume you would normally use. High volume has no place in a comeback, unless load is incredibly low. Whilst muscles may be able to recover, joints are likely suffer if volume is too high. The body is in a continuing cycle of degeneration and repair. Too much too soon will result in degeneration increasing at a faster rate than the rate of repair and this is when injuries occur, or at least the stage is set for future progressive injuries.

The reduction in both load and volume will allow muscles to repair sufficiently. This is thought to take be around 24-48 hours and is dependent on a wide range of variables.

Intensity
This factor is probably the least important. You should take into account that recovery between sets will not be as good as it was previously.

Reps
These will depend on the type of training you do, but it would be best to work at the higher end of your normal rep range, using the theory that repetition will create movement efficiency, resulting in faster increases in strength. Remember, this is for someone returning to training, not lifting weeks before a powerlifting competition.

Warm Up Sets
Avoid low reps on your warm up sets. Use these as a way up to really nail the movement.

Rough Example of Program
Use a number of warm up sets and then do one or two challenging sets, avoiding failure. Do this session 3-4 times during the first week, increasing load or volume with each session. Continue for another week or gradually move back to your old routine.

  • Squat 1-2 x 8
  • Bench Press 1-2 x 8
  • Rows 1-2 x 8
  • Deadlift 1-2 x 8
  • Shoulder Press 1-2 x 8
  • Chin ups 1-2 x 8