The Climb – How to Return to Training After An Extended Hiatus

If you wish to climb a cliff face, the most common approach is to start at the bottom. You could ride a helicopter halfway up, take a running jump out the door, and try desperately to cling to the cracks as your body slams into the rock, but most of us would admit that this is not the safest method. Yet, so many people try to take this approach to training, and with much the same result.

Sometimes, training will be interrupted for an extended period of time. For many young lifters today, this pandemic has precipitated the most significant interruption in your training career; you may have found this agonizing, and you have probably been anxious to “pick up where you left off” so you don’t “lose your gains.” You may be excited to “test your max” to “see where you’re at” before “making up for lost time”.

Those who have been in this game a little longer have probably experienced something like this already. Perhaps you were injured in a way that halted normal training, or some big change in your life (career, family, etc) put your priorities in another place for a while. You’re probably a lot less stressed than these younger trainees, because you’ve been here before, and you know what it’s like to climb out.

As a high school strength coach, I’m writing now to address the young lifters. I actually had planned this article out months ago, but I had procrastinated when I saw that everything I wanted to say had already been said better, by people who are smarter than I am. But from what I’m seeing on social media and hearing from my athletes, not everyone is reading the same articles I’m reading, so my hope is that my modest attempt to communicate will reach ears that would have otherwise missed the memo entirely.

Physicist Niels Bohr has been quoted as saying “An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a narrow field.” I joke that this must mean I’m well on my way to expertise, and I’m making progress faster than anyone. I’ve made a fair handful of mistakes over my training career, so I’d like to share them with you, as well as the lessons I took from these mistakes and how I think we could all apply these lessons in the near future. Then, I’ll share my approach to coming back from this particular present disaster.  

What You’re NOT Gonna Do…

When I was about 20 years old, I sustained a boxer’s fracture in my left hand when I had a disagreement with a surprisingly-solid barn door. I distinctly recall immediately calming down enough to ask, “Can someone please drive me to the doctor? I think I just broke my hand.” Lesson #1: Get your temper in check, and you’ll get fewer injuries, aka training impediments. For many of you, that cooldown won’t happen until your mid-20s when your frontal lobe finishes developing and your judgment improves. Until then, do try your best to minimize future regret.  

My hand was in a cast for only about a month or so, and I actually was able to train around that injury by performing cross-arm front squats. Lesson #2: Training around injuries, rather than through them, is a very good idea! Find ways that you can keep active without aggravating healing tissue.

When the cast was removed, I decided to “test my grip” to “see where I was at” by *checks notes* maxing out my deadlift. I’m pretty certain the injury that resulted around 80% of my 1rm was my first disc herniation, though it would go undiagnosed for several years. And just like that, I was sidelined yet again with another injury, and normal training will have to wait even longer. Lesson #3:  Don’t max out lifts you haven’t been training with heavy loads lately! Even if you want to see how all that progress from pushups translates to your bench press, you’re just not ready! I’d really love for this to be your biggest takeaway point from this entire essay – so many people have injured themselves in the name of “seeing where they’re at” after a layoff, and it’s really a terrible idea. Either you injure yourself, or you manage to avoid a danger unbeknownst to you entirely, only to feel disappointed in the result.

Caveat: I have seen high school athletes who seem to be able to max out on their first day back and show that they’re roughly as strong as ever, but this still sends the wrong message and reinforces the wrong behavior – this effect is likely due to the fact that you’re still developing physically into an adult (adults are generally stronger than they were as children), and not evidence of any sort of training-related progress. Further, this individual now believes that their behavior has been rewarded, and is likely to repeat it in the future, where the result may be drastically different, much to their surprise.

This back injury then sidelined me for another month or so, and frankly, I’m lucky it wasn’t longer. I probably wallowed in self-pity at the time, but the fact of the matter there is that all of my misfortune was the direct result of making bad decisions.

This brings us back to you. Worst case scenario, you’ve been sedentary for 6+ months now due to a pandemic, and I am not shaming you for that. Better case scenario, you’ve stayed generally active with pushups, pullups, lunges, and gone for some runs here and there. Great. Maybe you even have some dumbbells or a little weight on a barbell, and you’ve been able to switch to higher rep training of lifts you’d normally train much heavier. Fantastic.

Either way, when you get back into the weight room, you’re going to be very tempted to “test your max” just to “see where you’re at.” Don’t do it.

If you simply MUST evaluate your starting point, I’d rather you warm up to a weight around 50% of your max – a weight that probably will not kill or maim you – and take a few sets of 5 reps before taking your final set for maximum repetitions. Use the formula (weight)x(reps)x(0.0333)+(weight) to find your estimated max, and feel free to compare that with your lifetime best to “see where you’re at.”

Even this is completely unnecessary and comes with some non-zero risk, but at least you’re a lot less likely to sideline yourself for another month or more with an injury by trying to test a 1rm effort. I shouldn’t need to say this, but don’t even apply that light rep-max approach to snatches, cleans, jerks, or probably even deadlifts, especially for most high schoolers. And even if you do use this approach with squats or bench press, make sure you’re adhering to the strictest standards of technique and range of motion.

The Climb

I’ll tell you what I plan to do instead.

Block 1 – Complete Minimalism – Start Low Frequency, Low Intensity, Low Volume; Increase Volume

For the first couple of weeks back under a barbell, I’m going to choose the fewest number of compound movements that hit every major muscle group, and I’m going to hit each just once in the first week. Despite all the running, pushups, and pullups I’ve been doing, it’s still going to take me longer than it used to for me to recover from the training stimulus, so I want to give myself a full week off before hitting the same muscle group again.

I’ll probably choose weights around 30-50% of my lifetime max for that particular exercise. There is evidence that weights this light taken for high rep sets can still stimulate muscle growth, and also 30-50% of what I used to be able to do might really be more like 40-67% of what I can currently do, for all I know.

As for volume, I’ll probably take 3 sets (not counting any warmups) at my working weight in the first week, and increase the sets from week to week to steadily increase the total volume as my body begins to adapt to the training stimulus. I’m not going in with any expectation of how many reps I will get per set, but I don’t plan to take any sets to failure, always leaving 2-3 “Reps In Reserve”. For example, if you were benching 50% of your max, you might get 12 reps your first set,  10 your second set, and 8 your third set, each set dwindling slightly with fatigue. Your reps will drop off faster if you push sets closer to failure, or if you take shorter rests times. That can be okay if you’re short on time, though I’d generally recommend recovering sufficiently that your heart rate and breathing return to near-resting tempo and you’re ready to give your next-best effort on your upcoming set.

Example:

2 Days/Week

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFriday
Squat
Pullup
OffOffBench Press
Deadlift
Off

Week 1: 3 sets @ 30-50%1rm with 3RIR
Week 2: 4 sets @ 30-50%1rm with 3RIR
Week 3: 5 sets @ 30-50%1rm with 3RIR

Remember, your goal here is a safe return to training, nothing more. Reintroduce your body to the stimulus, and don’t get hurt. And before anyone asks, sure, you can throw in some single-joint isolation exercises if you insist – a couple sets of curls, skullcrushers, and calf raises at the end of your session probably won’t kill you.

Block 2 – Double the Volume by Doubling the Frequency, Raise Intensity to 40-60%

Okay, you got through the first couple of weeks without putting yourself in the hospital, great! Time to actually start increasing our volume a bit. Similar approach as before, but now we can either hit every movement twice per week, or include a second movement that hits the same muscle groups. Take a look.

 4 Days/Week

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFriday
Squat
Pullup
Bench Press
Romanian Deadlift
OffFr Squat
Chinup
Overhead Press
Comp Deadlift

Week 1: 3 sets @ 40-60%1rm with 3RIR
Week 2: 4 sets @ 40-60%1rm with 3RIR
Week 3: 5 sets @ 40-60%1rm with 3RIR

Block 3 – Finally Increase the Intensity

Keeping everything else roughly constant, we increase the load range to 60-70% (typical of most hypertrophy programs) and continue increasing sets week to week while taking every set to 3 reps in reserve.

  4 Days/Week

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFriday
Squat
Pullup
Bench Press
Romanian Deadlift
OffFrSquat
Chinup
Overhead Press
Comp Deadlift

Week 1: 3 sets @ 60-70%1rm with 3RIR
Week 2: 4 sets @ 60-70%1rm with 3RIR
Week 3: 5 sets @ 60-70%1rm with 3RIR

Block 4 – The World Is Your Oyster

Look, at this point you have about two solid months of training under your belt. You probably have a pretty good idea of “where you’re at,” too. Now the question is where you want to go.

If your primary goal is hypertrophy, you could stay in the 60-70% range and increase the volume further by increasing total number of training days to 6 and jumping on a classic bodybuilding split

  6 Days/Week

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturday
Squat,
RDL,
Ham.Curl,
Calves
Bench,
DB.Press
DB.Fly,
Triceps
Pullups,
DB.Row,
Med.Delts,
Curl
Deadlift,
Leg Press,
Quad Ext.,
Walking Lunges
Overhead Press,
DB Inc Bench,
Skullcrushers,
Deficit Pushups
BB Row,
Chinups,
Shrug,
Curl

Week 1: 3 sets @ 60-70%1rm with 3RIR
Week 2: 4 sets @ 60-70%1rm with 3RIR
Week 3: 5 sets @ 60-70%1rm with 3RIR
Week 4: 3 sets @60%1rm for half as many reps as your rep PR at that weight (deload)

On the other hand, if your primary goal is strength, you could hop on any cookie cutter powerlifting program of your choice or just increase your intensity to the 70-80% range while also increasing your frequency if you have the time. I should mention now that even if your primary goal is strength, there is still a ton of value in training hypertrophy, both to directly increase your strength as you return from a layoff and indirectly to potentiate future strength gains.

   6 Days/Week

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturday
Squat,
Sumo Deadlift
Incline Bench,
Pullups
Front Squat,
RDL
Overhead Press,
Chinups
Conv Deadlift,
Leg Press
Bench Press,
Pullups

Week 1: 3 sets @ 70-80%1rm with 3RIR
Week 2: 4 sets @ 70-80%1rm with 3RIR
Week 3: 5 sets @ 70-80%1rm with 3RIR
Week 4: 3 sets @70%1rm for half as many reps as your rep PR at that weight (deload)

Finally, as a competing weightlifter myself, I will admit that I don’t feel like I am convinced of the best method for returning to training in the sport of weightlifting, but I think an approach that mirrored the approach above but included snatches, cleans, and jerks could be appropriate, but wouldn’t be my choice. The difficulty is that these lifts don’t benefit from massive volume phases the way that bodybuilders and powerlifters can train, and we know that higher rep ranges are associated with higher injury risk, especially in detrained athletes. So if you train light, you can’t safely hit the volumes you’d need to make progress, and jumping right into heavy training isn’t really an option for all of the reasons we listed to start – to that end, maxing out your clean & jerk on day one is certainly more dangerous than the same approach applied to a squat, bench, or deadlift.  

My own plan will be to go through ALL of the above phases before modestly returning to training as a weightlifter at the bottom of Prilepin’s Chart, so that I know that my muscle mass and joint integrity have returned to previous levels before I start adding these speed and power components to my training. I have avoided this before only to injure myself with EMBARASSINGLY light warmup weights. If that means I don’t snatch or clean & jerk more than the open barbell for the first 3-4 months of training, so be it. I’d rather be able to approach weightlifting training with confidence and strength, knowing my body was ready for the demands of the sport.

For my own athletes, let me know when you’re ready to get started and I’ll put you on this program, which I’ll be building in our Teambuildr software. For those who do not currently train with me, feel free to reach out and let me know if you’re interested! CoachSteveBare@gmail.com

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