Gyms Are Re-Opening, Use This 4-Week Guide to Strategically Increase Weight

Let fatigue dictate training parameters during your comeback sessions!

Everywhere around the globe, gyms are beginning to re-open slowly which means eager lifters are prepping themselves to get back into their tradition training.

While it’s certainly exciting to return to normal training, the process of doing so should be handled with strategy and intent, and the good ol’, “I should test where I’m at,” mentality needs to take a hike. Unlike other activities and hobbies, jumping back to where we left off in the gym can be problematic and increase the risk of injury, and why is that?

For starters, by neglecting a grace period to ramp up, we are then asking our bodies to bypass critical steps to prep the muscles, joints, and nervous system to handle external loads and produce force. In the training world, this is similar to a beginner attempting to max out with weight they’ve never touched before, and in sports, going to a really tough golf course before hitting the driving range first.

So with looming gym open dates around the corner, we wanted to build a 4-week guide to help lifters scale their training intensity when getting back into their normal training.

crossfit class
4 PM production/Shutterstock

What Can Influence Back to Training Timelines?

The 4-week guide below will need to be individualized to be truly effective. Essentially, it’s up to you to objectively recognize where you left off, then structure the recommendations for your individual needs. There are multiple factors that should be taken into account when coming back to training and scaling loading.

Some of the major factors that can dictate return to training timelines include:

  • Specificity of Training: As a general rule of thumb, the more specific you were with your training before a long-term leave of absence, then the longer the run way you’ll need for your return. This is due to the heightened level of skill and physical requirements for specific tasks.
    • Example: Weightlifting athletes will likely need a bit more time to ease them into the intensities in which they were performing full Olympic lifts at before taking a break compared to recreational lifters.
  • Level of Fitness: Those who are more advanced and elite in the gym may require a slightly longer runway due to the heightened demands they’ve place on their body throughout their careers.
    • Example: Powerlifting athletes who were in the midst of meet prep before the shutdown will likely want to ease in slowly due to the sharp shift of intensity and training experienced.
  • History of Injury: Lifters who have a history of experiencing certain injuries, or those who were rehabbing prior to a cessation of training may way to create a longer runway when coming back.
    • Example: Let’s say a lifter was coming back to their normal squat strength after sustaining a knee injury, then had to completely stop barbell training for two to three months. This lifter will likely want to pick back up with the rehab mindset in their first weeks back to training. They haven’t been loading their body in the specific nature of barbell training, so a longer runway is a way to hedge bets or re-injuring the body.

There are multiple other factors to consider when returning to training and creating a runway with intent. However, these three are generally the most broad and cover a vast majority of the training population when it comes to easing back into loading.

Breathing and Lifting
Photo By Ruslan Shugushev / shutterstock

4-Week Training Comeback Guide

This 4-week guide is intended to serve as a foundation to help get the ball moving for your training in regards to loading for compounds and accessories. There may be some discrepancies based on things like the factors mentioned above, but the advice within each week can be broadly applied for most lifter’s programs.

The guide below will provide general ways to scale intensity for compound and accessory exercises for beginner and intermediate athletes.

Author’s Note: The below recommendations can be applied to the routine that you want to use when coming back to traditional training. If you want to be as effective as possible in your return, then hiring a coach will be your best bet!

Week 1: Priming the Lifts

The first week back to the gym is by the hardest when it comes to loading especially for overzealous athletes, but this is when patience needs to be at the forefront of training. For this week, the goal is to simply move through full ranges of motion again with light external loads.

Week 1’s Goal: Reinforce movement mechanics and apply a light load without creating a high level of fatigue and soreness. It’s counterproductive to have delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) after week 1, as this will only result in a longer runway due to decreased performance in the following weeks.

  • Beginners
    • Compounds: Work up to top sets with 50-55% of 1-RM or less.
    • Accessories: Stop 4-5 reps shy of failure.
  • Intermediates
    • Compounds
      • Percentages: Work up to top with 60% of 1-RM
      • RPE: RPE 6-7
    • Accessories: Stop 4-5 reps shy of failure.

Week 2: Increasing Intensity, Slightly

The second week is a great tool to gauge and make adjustments for the following weeks based on the volume and intensity used in week one and how the body responded to training again. If there’s a large feeling of fatigue or soreness, then scale back training volume by a set or two on each exercise.

Week 2’s: Objectively gauge where the body is at and continue to reinforce mechanics by increasing load slightly. 

  • Beginners
    • Compounds: Work up to top sets with 60% of 1-RM or less.
    • Accessories: Stop 3-4 reps shy of failure.
  • Intermediates
    • Compounds
      • Percentages: Work up to top with 65% of 1-RM
      • RPE: RPE 6.5-7
    • Accessories: Stop 3-4 reps shy of failure.

Week 3: Introduce “Heavyish” Top Sets

The third week is an excellent time to introduce slightly heavier top sets for compound exercises. By implementing only one set per compound exercise that is heavier in nature, we can gauge where the body is at in a manageable fashion versus trying to push 3+ heavy top sets.

Week 3’s Goal: ease into higher intensities by increasing their volume slowly.

  • Beginners
    • Compounds: Work up to top sets with 70% of 1-RM or less.
    • Accessories: Stop 3 reps shy of failure.
  • Intermediates
    • Compounds:
      • Percentages: Work up to top with 75% of 1-RM with a top set that is 5-10% heavier than used in the prior sets.
      • RPE: RPE 7 with a top set at RPE 8.
    • Accessories: Stop 3 reps shy of failure.

Week 4: The Bridge to Normalcy

The final week is the final tool to gauge readiness to normal training. Like in the previous weeks, if fatigue feels like it is accumulating to a point in which performance or daily life decrease, then elongate the back to training runway by shifting volume and intensity accordingly.

Week 4’s Goals: Push the body and gauge overall fatigue following a month of traditional training.

  • Beginners
    • Compounds: Work up to top sets with 70% of 1-RM or less.
    • Accessories: Stop 2-3 reps shy of failure.
  • Intermediates
    • Compounds:
      • Percentages: Work up to top with 80% of 1-RM with two top sets that are 5-10% heavier than used in the initial working weight.
      • RPE: RPE 7-7.5 with two top sets at RPE 8-8.5.
    • Accessories: Stop 2-3 reps shy of failure.

Finding Your 1-RM

If you need help finding or establishing a new estimated 1-RM, then check out the calculator below. My advice, take 5-10% off the estimated 1-RM provided below for the first four weeks of training to avoid overshooting due to variance in the calculator and current strength levels.

One Rep Max Calculator

Weight Lifted
Reps Performed

Let Fatigue Guide Training

Fatigue should be at the forefront of training when dictating loading, volume, frequency, and other variables when returning to normalcy after a long break. If at any point fatigue feels as though it’s amassed past a point of what’s normal following a few tough training sessions, then scaling back volume and intensity can be useful and easy ways to mitigating decreases in performance and limiting DOMS.

It’s important to remember that intensity is only one part of the larger picture. So while the guide above can certainly help dictate loading parameters, other factors like recovery, total training volume, and frequency should also be considered.