8 June, 2020
Getting Back on the Gain Train: Your Post-Pandemic Guide
As some countries are approaching an easing of COVID-19 restrictions, lifting fanatics are returning to gyms around the world and I’m receiving a lot of messages asking if there is a particular way we should approach training now that things are returning to “normal”. In short, the answer is yes. A slightly longer answer is that the approach I’d recommend now is very similar to the approach I would recommend if you have taken time off training (longer than 2 weeks) for any reason. One of the most important factors when you’re getting back into training is actually being able to train, so the focus in this time should be on stimulating your body but not beating yourself up so much that it stops you from being able to train and stops you from building training momentum. Some of you reading this might have been lucky enough to source some gym equipment over the lockdown, others might have been stuck bicep curling soup cans and squatting couches, and still others may have chosen to use this time to take complete rest or focus on another fitness or life goal. Regardless of which category you fall into, the majority of you will have to be mindful of the way that you approach your training when the gyms doors open because unless you had access to a full private facility, you probably will have experienced some detraining and will now have the option to train with a much greater selection of exercises and access to significantly heavier loads. In this article, I am going to outline the approach that my athletes and myself use when returning to training after a period of time off.
To kick things off, my first recommendation is to change your expectations. I actually wanted to write “lower your expectations” but I know those words might trigger a violent reaction in some of my readers so I went with the gentler approach of suggesting that you “change” your expectations for the first few sessions. But the truth is, to avoid disappointment, create positive habits around exercise, rebuild training momentum and avoid busting something you really should be lowering your expectations in the first 1-3 weeks back in the gym. A lot of us are invested in this training because we love it and love how rewarding it is to meet and surpass goals, so this tip probably sounds counterintuitive, but if we want to get back into the the habit of exercise then we need to create an enjoyable training experience. If you surpass the realistic expectations that you’ve set for the first week and leave every session wanting more, you will look forward to the second week of training. On the other hand, if you set the expectations too high and fail to meet them, or go too hard in your first week and injure yourself or feel too sore to train, then this will work against you when it comes to developing a good training routine. Be patient and make it your goal to be encouraged – not discouraged – in your first few weeks of proper training. I promise this won’t set you back.
This leads to my second recommendation, which is to reduce volume and intensity initially, but maintain frequency. If you took time off over the lockdown or had to drastically modify your training regime, then we can consider this a period of “detraining”. When you come back from periods of detraining, your body is not used to lots of volume or higher intensities, so the same volume and intensity that you used prior to the detraining will be a lot more fatiguing on your body. If you attempt the same intensity and volume, you will be very sore and you will also need a lot more recovery time after each session, which means that you either won’t be able to train as frequently, or if you do maintain the same frequency then you won’t be well recovered for each session and will limit your performance in that session (or risk injury). This is where I refer back to my first point and say that your main goal at this point should be to get back into the habit of training, and to get into the habit of training you need to be able to actually train. If you maintain training frequency but reduce the volume and intensity, it will be easy for you to build back up to where you left off a few months ago, however if you go hard in your sessions and the frequency has to drop, it won’t be a smooth transition back to training.
So what should this look like?
Whenever I start working with a new athlete, the first week of training we do together is always very conservative. It’s so important for me that the athlete is able to progress each week, and by starting off conservative they will have room to progress in the second week – regardless of whether they have made improvements or not. When you’re coming back from a period of detraining, this conservative approach is even more important. In the first week, you should leave every single session like you could have done more – more weight, and more volume. If it feels ridiculously easy then don’t worry, this just gives you room to improve in the following session.
I know a lot of you like numbers, so I’m going to break this down so it is really simple for you to follow. This is the 4-week plan that I would recommend to anyone returning to training after the lockdown.
Choose a frequency that suits you. Some people like 3 days a week, others like 5. It could be the same training frequency you were using before lockdown, or something different to fit with a new routine.
If you’re feeling a bit lost for where to start, here is a very basic template that you can follow for your post-iso training. This is not a complete program (if you want something a bit more comprehensive, I know a guy), but it will be an excellent starting point for your return to the gym.
Day 1 – Squat
B Squat Accessory (lunge, leg press, leg extension)
Day 2 – Upper Push
A Bench Press (horizontal push)
B Seated Db Shoulder press (vertical push)
Day 3 – Deadlift
B Deadlift accessory (rdl, back extension, reverse hyper)
Day 4 – Upper Pull
A Lat pull down (vertical pull)
B Seated Cable Row (horizontal pull)
Take whatever program you were on before the lockdown, and consider the last week of good training that you did. Think back to the weights you were doing in that week and halve them – this is your intensity for Week 1 of post-iso training. Over the next 4 weeks, you will not only be able to increase the weight on the bar, but you can also increase the amount of effort you put into each session as your capacity to recover improves. When prescribing intensities for my athletes, I typically prefer to tell them the exact weight in kilos/pounds rather than RPE, because it leaves little room for error. It will be a bit challenging to do that for each of you reading this, so RPE is a great tool in this instance to demonstrate how this increase in effort should play out over those 4 weeks.
Week 1 – RPE 5 – “underachieve”
Week 2 – RPE 6 – “underachieve”
Week 3 – RPE 7 – “achieve”
Week 4 – RPE 8 – “achieve/over-achieve”
Again, take the last week of good training that you did on your previous program and halve the number of sets. This is the volume you should be doing in week 1 post-iso. If you were doing 6 sets of an exercise, halve it and do 3. Now a lot of you are following a 5×5 rep scheme and I can see you all scratching your heads and thinking, “this is where the math gets hard” – does this mean I want you to do two and a half sets of each exercise? Does a half set mean you do half of the reps, or that you only perform half the range of motion, or that only half of your body does the movement (which half??)? Relax everyone, I’m going to simplify this even further. If you were doing an odd number of sets before, go with the conservative half. Remember, a conservative first week gives you more room to improve later on.
For someone who was previously doing 5 sets of each exercise, I would recommend the following progression:
Week 1 – 2 Sets
Week 2 – 3 Sets
Week 3 – 4 Sets
Week 4 – 5 Sets
As a bonus round, I’m going to suggest that you be sensible with your exercise selection. If you have been training with only a kettlebell and a few dumbbells over the lockdown, but then choose to indulge in a smorgasbord of machines and barbell variations when you return to the gym, you will probably be unable to walk for several days. Novel/unaccustomed movements create more muscle damage, fatigue your body more, and are more likely to give you that sweet DOMS you’ve been missing, but will soon be resenting.
Now I’m going to change tone for my final recommendation. For the majority of us, this lockdown period has been like nothing else we have ever experienced before. As a society, the rug has been pulled out from underneath our feet and the things that we have always relied on – our work, our health, the ability to travel, the ability to socialise – have been turned on their head. The way I see it, we can consider this time wasted or we can think of it as a period that we are able to grow from and learn from. This applies just as much to your training as it does to anything else. Time off training does not have to be a step backwards. I’ve had countless athletes take time off training and come back well rested and even stronger with more clarity for what they want to achieve. In fact, that’s exactly what happened to one of my athletes who took 2.5 months of complete rest off training due to a torn plantar fascia, then came back stronger than ever to win the Arnold Classic Pro Strongman 2020 and pull a little over half a tonne a few months later. You can look back on this lockdown and consider it a period of rest, you can consider it a period of challenges, you can consider it a time where you reassessed what’s important to you moving into 2021, or you can consider it a learning curve, but remember that it will only be a setback if you choose to call it a setback.
Happy training everyone!