Back to the Gym? Use This Professional Powerlifter’s 3-Step Plan!

Strategy leads to success when getting back to training!

As gyms start to reopen across the United States, you’ll see a lot of lifters getting back into things after a long layoff of doing…well, doing nothing. My guess is they’ll be a little frustrated at first, seeing how much their strength has dropped off. 

That’s not exactly a hot take – but here is a bold prediction for you: the slackers won’t be nearly as frustrated as the group that worked their collective butts off during quarantine and still come back much weaker.

Fortunately, you don’t have to fall into either of those categories.

Hopefully, you’ve already been following one of the several solid at-home training programs available online. If not: start now! You definitely don’t want to go back to the gym for the first time in months…only to wind up with crippling DOMS or even injury after so much inactivity. 

hill sprints
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Even if you have been following a home training routine, though, you’re still not home free. Here’s why.

Muscle Memory Has Your Back (and Quads, Pecs, and all the Rest)

Let’s get one thing straight right from the start: you are not going to be able to pick up right where you left off after an extended layoff.  The negative consequences of detraining are real, and I don’t want to mislead you in that regard.

However, things aren’t as grim as they might seem. First, you can take some solace in the fact that you probably haven’t lost as much as you might fear, and what size and strength you did lose will be regained fairly quickly.  Just how quickly depends on your strategy for returning to full-bore training.

In my opinion, that strategy should be comprised of three stages:

  1. The first few days back in the gym should be devoted strictly to a gentle re-introduction to heavy training, focusing on movement and mobility. 
  2. The next several weeks should be designed to help you regain any lost muscle mass and to rebuild your training technique.
  3. Finally, you can begin to add weight more aggressively to compound or competition movements.

I admit that that’s a mouthful – and it’s just an overview. Let’s break things down and take a closer look on how to best return to the gym.

Stage 1: The First Few Days

Please, please, please be careful: no matter how you’ve been training (or if you’ve been training) during the quarantine, do not just jump back into maximal work from day one. That’s a good recipe for injury.

Instead, take some time to ease back into general activity. I would recommend a schedule like this:

  1. Your first day back, just do some light, low impact cardiovascular work, like incline walking or stair climbing, for 15-20 minutes, along with about 30 minutes of gentle stretching using a combination of static and dynamic movements. Also start to clean up your diet and sleep habits if you’ve let those fall off during the break.
  2. Your second day, introduce a little more vigorous activity: a moderate-intensity conditioning session with a sled is perfect here. Don’t kill yourself — just try to push your heart rate up to the point where you’re slightly out of breath. Again, follow with stretching and mobility work if you choose. You can also perform a few sets of the competition lifts using a barbell or about 25% 1RM if you feel confident.
  3. Take the third day off and observe any unusual soreness or fatigue.

From there, you can then begin to slowly return to heavier training.

Stage 2: The First Few Weeks

Keyword there is slowly. While muscle mass and strength can be easily rebuilt, the same cannot be said for training technique. If you return to pre-layoff loads too quickly, chances are, you’ll be able to move the weight, but you could also easily fall back into poor movement patterns or habits, jeopardizing your long-term progress and perhaps setting yourself up for injury and another extended layoff.

Instead, focus on training your muscles while doing light work to perfect movements. If you need a recap on the difference, I suggest you check out this video:

A good, simple way to set up a program like this: use an upper/lower bodybuilding split, beginning each day with some light competition movements (squat, bench, or deadlift).  “Light” for me would fall into the 40-55% 1RM range (pre-layoff). 

Yes, that’s so light as to be almost boring, but it’s very important that you give your body all the space and time it needs to get familiar with those movements again. As my friend Joe Sullivan put it, it’s not exactly like riding a bike… unless the bike had sandpaper on the seat and there was another bike that weighed 100 pounds more on your head.

Over the course of the next several weeks (anywhere from two to around ten, depending on how long your layoff was and how difficult you find competition technique), slowly add weight to those lifts using a linear progression.

Don’t want to take the time to set all that up? That’s fine; I’ve created an entirely free program to help you get back up to speed. Just plug in your pre-quarantine 1-RMs and you can be off and running!

Phase 3: To Infinity and Beyond

Once you’re feeling confident in your technique, have worked up to at least 55% pre-layoff 1RMs, and have regained any lost muscle mass, it’s time to return to normal training. 

If you had a program or coach you were working with previously, you can pick back up – but I suggest staying with gradually increasing loads and linear progression for as long as possible.  

And, if you didn’t have a set program before, now is the perfect opportunity to start building one!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page.

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack is a professional powerlifter and holds the all-time world record raw total of 2039 in the 198-pound class. He has won best overall lifter at the largest raw meets in the world, including the US Open, Boss of Bosses, and Reebok Record Breakers.

Ben earned his Ph.D. in the history and management of strength and fitness from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, and has published articles in a number of scholarly publications, including The Journal of Sport History, The Journal of Sport Management, and Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture. He also coaches strength athletes of all skill levels, including several internationally-elite powerlifters and world record holders. You can contact Ben through his website (phdeadlift.com) or via email at [email protected]

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