For a weathered gym rat, almost nothing is worse than being unable to access your barbells and weight plates. Not that you need a fully-equipped gym to work out — but sometimes, life just doesn’t accommodate your regularly-scheduled training. Whether you’ve been sidelined by injury or life with the kids just hasn’t been giving you any “you” time, sometimes you just can’t work out for an extended period of time.
When you and your favorite exercises go on a break, the number one question that might be floating in your mind is how to return to strength training after so much time away. You’ll want to transition back into training safely, but you also don’t want to wait forever to get back into pumping heavy weights. So where is the balance? How can you get back to lifting after a break and get back to your old personal records as soon as you can without hurting yourself?
To explore this topic, BarBend chatted over email with Greg Nuckols, a powerlifter and founder of Stronger by Science with an M.A. in exercise physiology. Along with research-based training science, Nuckols has got some important insights to offer about how you can design a strength program after taking a break from the gym to get you back on your game as efficiently as possible.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
What the Science Says
Strength sports research is always evolving and providing new insights into the most effective ways to train for different populations. That said, there are some basics that research into resistance training suggests about breaks from training right now that are worth looking into.
How Fast Do You Lose Strength and Muscle?
If you’re a dedicated strength athlete, you may feel like being away from the gym for a full week or two is an extended break. While that might be a lot more time than you’re used to, taking a deload week, where you’re doing less than usual or not lifting altogether, can actually be good for you. Even if you’re away from the gym for a bit longer, you may not have much to worry about.
Most people maintain their strength pretty well for up to four weeks without training.
Nuckols explains that your muscles aren’t likely to waste away if you’ve been on a break. Sometimes, you’re going about your business during the rest of your life and just happen to not be lifting. In that case, he says, “most people maintain their strength pretty well for up to four weeks without training.” (1) You might lose strength more quickly after that four-week threshold — but even that is dependent on a wide variety of factors. (1)
For example, you might be away from the gym for a couple of months but banging out occasional bodyweight sessions in your hotel room. In that case, you can maintain your strength pretty effectively. (2) However, you might have a limb immobilized from injury or on bed rest from illness. In that case, Nuckols cites research that shows that, “Strength losses can exceed one percent per day, and muscle losses can be around half a percent per day.” (3)
How to Maintain Muscle and Strength Away from the Gym
Even if you’re not quite ready to get back into a routine yet, you might want to maintain as many gains as you can while on your break. The cause isn’t nearly as hopeless as you might fear.
Research has shown that lifters between the ages of 20 and 35 can potentially maintain their muscle and strength for as long as eight months while only performing one-ninth of their regular training volume. (2) Older lifters (between 60 and 75 years old) can maintain their gains with one-third of their usual training volume.
Something as simple as two to three sets of push-ups, pull-ups, split squats, and back raises, or hip thrusts per week should be sufficient to maintain the vast majority of your muscle and strength for a long, long time.
Nuckols explains that strength athletes who have maintained some small level of bodyweight training volume during their break are likely to bounce back more quickly. So if you’ve been keeping up with some bodyweight moves — even if it’s sporadic and over the course of nearly a year — your transition back into the gym will likely be a lot easier.
Factors to Consider When Returning to Strength Training
You don’t always take a break from the gym for the same reason. Sometimes, you’ve had surgery and need to wait for your doctor’s clearance before you come back. Other times, you’ve just got a lot going on in your life outside the gym and need to take some time away from that sweet iron life. Your break might have lasted for three months or eight months or two years.
Not all extended breaks from training are created equal.
Why you’ve been on your break makes a difference when you’re coming back. “There’s a spectrum, ranging from bed rest or complete immobilization of a particular limb on one extreme, and still doing some form of resistance training on the other extreme,” Nuckols points out. Where you fall on this spectrum — and how long you’ve been away — can help determine how you return.
Coming Back From Injury or Surgery
Some surgeries or injuries don’t keep you sidelined long. You might only be out of commission for a few weeks or a few months. Others have even longer recovery periods, or more severe restrictions.
In that case, you’ll really need to prioritize following a doctor or surgeon’s advice and personalized recommendations regarding your return to strength training. The more extensive your immobilization during recovery, the slower you’ll have to ease back into it. Nuckols explains that this can make a huge difference in terms of how much strength and muscle you may lose — and therefore, how slowly you have to come back.
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“With ‘normal’ training cessation, strength and muscle losses will be (on average) pretty small after a month out of the gym,” he says. “But with complete limb immobilization, you might lose 30 percent of your total strength and 15 percent of your total muscle mass in the immobilized limb within the same month.” (4)
How Long You’ve Been Away
Maybe you’ve been traveling for a month, or maybe the pandemic has prevented you from using your gym for a couple of years now. Barring lingering injuries or other forms of healing, you’ll generally be able to return to previous strength levels faster when you’ve been absent for a shorter period of time.
“It takes about one-third to one-half as long to regain strength and muscle as to lose strength and muscle,” Nuckols explains. “So, if you were out of the gym for six months, you should be able to regain the vast majority of the strength and muscle you lost within two to three months.”
This time frame won’t be the same for everyone, as it will be influenced by a range of individual factors — all the way from your age and previous training experience to your amount of confidence under a barbell and skills with pacing yourself.
Activity During Time Off From the Gym
Sometimes it’s unavoidable to lie on the couch and do pretty much nothing. Anything from a shoulder injury to ACL reconstruction can have you out of your sport for anywhere from a few days to a few months or even a year. But especially if you’re away from the gym because you’re traveling or something else unrelated to injury, you might be able to maintain some level of activity during your time off. According to Nuckols, that matters a lot.
Doing a little bit of resistance exercise can pay huge dividends.
Nuckols explains that bodyweight training can keep you on your game a lot more than you might think. “A lot of people assume that if they can’t make it to the gym, or if they can’t train at anywhere close to the volume, intensity, or duration they’d like, then still continuing to do a little bodyweight training is essentially a waste of time. However, nothing could be further from the truth.” He explains that being able to do bodyweight or other training — even a few times a week — during your hiatus can speed up your return process quite a bit.
Previous Lifting Experience
Whether or not you were active during your break from the gym, it’s likely that you can bounce back faster if you trained hard before pressing pause on your workouts. In fact, under some circumstances, your break might even make you stronger. (3) If you were hitting it very hard in the gym before your time away, your muscle size and strength might increase between 10 and 20 days into your break. (3)
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So if you’re someone who considers a three-week break to be an extensive period of time — but you’ve been working your quads off prior to your time off — you may actually come back stronger. The power of a deload period can in fact be longer than a week.
How to Design a Strength Training Program After a Break
Figuring out how to program your grand return to your old lifting grounds isn’t quite rocket science — but it’s not necessarily the simplest thing, either. Initially, you might want to program a few short training cycles — maybe two to four weeks long — just to see where you’re at. That way, you’re not locking yourself into a program that’s too advanced — or too easy — for where you are now.
Use the initial first couple of weeks back to assess where you’re at. You’ll build the rest of your program up from there.
First Two Weeks
During your first couple of weeks back in the gym after a long break, you’ll pay extra attention to your body to see how it’s changed. Use this time to identify what’s working for you and what you might need to adjust in light of all your time off.
If injury history allows, start with lifts you were very familiar with before your break. Now may not be the time to teach yourself the clean & jerk if you’ve only ever performed strict presses. Use very conservative weights — as little as 30 to 40 percent of your previous maxes — especially if you’re working back from injury or surgery. Remember that it’s easier to scale up than to hurt yourself and be forced to scale it back.
Maybe you’re a lot stronger than you thought you’d be, and you can up the weights more quickly after a week or two of reorientation. Or maybe the weights feel good, but your joints are creaking a little too much for comfort while you’re coming out of the hole in your squat. Gather data during this short training cycle to inform the next phase of your lifting reorientation.
Based on the information you learned about yourself during your first couple of weeks back, start forming the next short cycle of your program. Take the next three to four weeks to shore up any new weaknesses you’ve discovered. Your mobility might be lacking, or your strength might have taken a more serious hit than you thought it would.
Stick with the principles of progressive overload. It might be frustrating, but only increase the intensity of one factor at a time. Maybe that means adding weight to the bar each session but keeping your rep scheme the same. Or maybe it means adding a couple reps to each set but keeping the weight the same so you can iron out any technique kinks that have developed.
Keep your training cycles relatively short — between four and six weeks — while your body is getting back to equilibrium. That way, you can continue making the adjustments that you might need on a more regular basis. When your body starts to feel back to consistent strength levels — whether that occurs at three weeks or three months — consider programming longer cycles to really hone your gains.
Retest Your Strength
If your break was related to travel or general life chaos, you might be able to retest your new one-rep or three-rep maxes relatively soon after returning. But if your break was longer than six months and/or related to injury, you might want to avoid jumping right back into max tests.
In general, you’ll likely hold off on testing your true max until you’re ready to peak in your new program. Assuming you have clearance from a doctor or surgeon to go as hard as possible in the gym, whether and when you test your updated max may be up to your own experience and confidence levels.
“I know people who are concerned about getting under a heavy barbell again after a single deload week or a week-long vacation,” Nuckols explains. “I personally don’t think twice about working up to a true max after several months away from the gym (even though that’s probably not the smartest thing to do).”
Even if you’re not ready — physically or psychologically — to test for a true new max, finding a solid estimate can help you build a solid program based on updated percentages. Finding a three- or five-rep max within a month or two months back at the gym can help guide your new program and expedite those new gains. The more up-to-date weights you have to work with, the more effective your new program can be.
Taking a long break from the gym doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to get back into the game. You can often get back to where you’ve been — and even continue to improve — as long as you work your way back into a routine strategically. Try to avoid rushing back into things and find what feels best for your body. You might find that you can crush those old max lifts a lot sooner than you expected.
- Bosquet L, Berryman N, Dupuy O, Mekary S, Arvisais D, Bherer L, Mujika I. Effect of training cessation on muscular performance: a meta-analysis. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2013 Jun;23(3):e140-9. doi: 10.1111/sms.12047. Epub 2013 Jan 24.
- Bickel CS, Cross JM, Bamman MM. Exercise dosing to retain resistance training adaptations in young and older adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jul;43(7):1177-87.
- Campbell M, Varley-Campbell J, Fulford J, Taylor B, Mileva KN, Bowtell JL. Effect of Immobilisation on Neuromuscular Function In Vivo in Humans: A Systematic Review. Sports Med. 2019 Jun;49(6):931-950.
- Bjørnsen T, Wernbom M, Løvstad A, Paulsen G, D’Souza RF, Cameron-Smith D, Flesche A, Hisdal J, Berntsen S, Raastad T. Delayed myonuclear addition, myofiber hypertrophy, and increases in strength with high-frequency low-load blood flow restricted training to volitional failure. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2019 Mar 1;126(3):578-592.
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