If it has been some time since you last exercised, whether due to COVID-related restrictions or other circumstances, there is one important point to remember: your first workout upon your return is not the keystone to your future athletic development. It is also not the ideal time to match or exceed your previous personal records. A relatively easy re-introduction to training is the fastest way towards improvement, although this may seem contradictory. If you are intrigued, read on.
Because individual situations vary so widely, we cannot cover every possible approach. Instead, we will cast a wide net and leave it to you to decide what applies to you. The first question will be, “How long have you been away from training?” That length of time will broadly determine what you do. The table below summarizes some general recommendations, but realize these are not based on direct evidence from the literature:
Table 1. Generalized approaches to training based on duration of time off.
In summary: the longer you have been away from training, the more measured approach you should take upon your return. If your layoff has been lengthy, rein in your expectations. Weights that previously were not challenging may feel very heavy, and this may be upsetting. Your conditioning and tolerance for work will likely be decreased. Fortunately, this will be a temporary situation. A single workout is not important on its own. Instead, the sum of weeks, months, and years of consistent training provides the stimulus that makes you stronger and more capable.
Shilling for Autoregulation
We include a strength program outline below to provide some structure as you restart your training, but the process of selecting the weights will fall to you. This is one of many places where the concept of autoregulation proves its worth. Autoregulation is the process used to adjust your training loads based on how you perform on a given day. The weights may increase or decrease compared to a previous training session depending on performance during that session. Instead of targeting an arbitrary number, you are targeting a level of effort to ensure the appropriate stimulus is delivered – not too much, and not too little. If you are accustomed to rigidly equating load on the bar as the only metric of progress, this can be an adjustment.
Here is how autoregulation can work in practice. You may remember what you lifted three months ago and want to get right back to it now that you have access to a gym. As you warm up, you note the warm-up weights are feeling unusually heavy compared to what you remember. Given this new information, instead of sticking to your original plan, you dial back your expectations and choose a weight that is in the “mildly annoying” or “pleasantly challenging” (depending upon your outlook) range. Congratulations, you have successfully employed an autoregulatory strategy!
Consider the opposite scenario, where you initially plan on a very conservative weight for an exercise. After your first set, you determine that your original selection is far too easy, so you add some weight to move into a more productive range of effort for that day. Again, well done. You now have a fancy word to apply to your efforts: autoregulation. Welcome to the Dark Side.
Autoregulation has many uses in training, and these are just two examples. In your first couple of workouts, you will likely be better served by “undershooting” (using a conservative load) instead of “overshooting” (using an excessive load). Because you will be unaccustomed to the activity upon your return, you will be more likely to experience delayed onset muscle soreness. Overly aggressive choices in weight and training volume can leave you sore enough that you might be reluctant to return to the gym for the next few days. Being realistic about your workload can help manage this soreness and make subsequent training sessions more rewarding. You may also be more motivated to do them in the absence of excessive discomfort.
Some soreness is normal when doing something new and is not to be feared. If you find yourself unusually sore after your first session, autoregulation can again come in handy. Return to the gym as planned, even though you may still be uncomfortable. Moderate your efforts – substantially, if needed. This may involve different exercises and potentially reduced weight or volume. Getting into the habit of training regularly throughout the week is more important at this point than the result of a session viewed in isolation.
A gentle start has the potential to result in better training outcomes. This would seem paradoxical. More effort should result in more improvement, ergo Go Hard. Here is where “easy” can actually be more effective than “difficult.” Appropriately dosing training loads and training volumes results in more manageable levels of fatigue. This will allow for more successful subsequent training sessions and higher levels of motivation. Instead of spinning your wheels on your first several workouts with needless soreness, potentially training less frequently and being unhappy, you will provide for a reasonable on-ramp towards desired levels of exertion. Momentum thusly builds and the gains floweth.
A Sample Program
All of this is neat, but “Wat do?” is a familiar refrain. Here is an idea, culled from the May 2020 Barbell Medicine Newsletter (if you do not subscribe, you should). As mentioned above, if you have been away from strength training for a long period, consider the Barbell Medicine Beginner Prescription. It has more detail and provides for a longer progression.
The idea behind the program below is to increase strength, conditioning, and to become accustomed again to training. We include a variety of exercises and rep ranges. Since this is the Barbell Medicine website and many of our readers will be familiar with barbell movements, those are the ones we utilize below. More variety has multiple benefits including reducing the risk of overuse injury while encouraging favorable outcomes across a wider array of fitness adaptations. This will help to build a broader base early on that can be applied more specifically later, if desired.
The exercises we include here are not sacrosanct. When returning from a layoff, sticking to movements that are more familiar has some benefits, although that is not strictly required. This can also be an opportunity to learn some useful variants of the lifts, the caveat being that new movements will benefit from a similarly conservative approach with respect to loading. Note that volume and intensity across the exercises below gradually increases each week.
The weights you use will be subject to autoregulation. We denote this with a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) number. You can learn more about RPE here. The Cliff’s Notes version of RPE for strength training is that it involves a 0 to 10 rating, although it is rare for numbers below 5 to be specified. A 10 RPE is a maximal or near-maximal effort. A 9 RPE indicates a near-maximal effort, or where you could perform one more repetition at that weight. An 8 RPE is a challenging but clearly sub-maximal effort, or where two more repetitions were possible. RPE is related to a concept known as Repetitions in Reserve (RIR) when used in this manner.
Table 2- Quick and dirty guide to Rate of Perceived Exertion
Note that we do not call for anything beyond RPE 8 in the three weeks below. There is not a convincing reason to “grind” through near-maximal efforts early in this process. There is also no need to be overly concerned if your RPE rating is “just right.” Perfection is not required. Lift, make some ballpark observations, and adjust accordingly as you add weight across the working sets.
Lastly, the program below is just one example of what may work. It is open to modification and substitution as you see fit. Enjoy your return.
- Squat: 4 reps @ RPE 5, 4 reps @ RPE 6, 4 reps @ RPE 7
- Press: 6 reps @ RPE 5, 6 reps @ RPE 6, 6 reps @ RPE 7
- Romanian deadlift: 8 reps @ RPE 5, 8 reps @ RPE 6, 8 reps @ RPE 7
- Bench press: 4 reps @ RPE 5, 4 reps @ RPE 6, 4 reps @ RPE 7
- Paused Squat: 8 reps @ RPE 5, 8 reps @ RPE 6, 8 reps @ RPE 7
- Barbell Row: 10 reps @ RPE 5, 10 reps @ RPE 6, 10 reps @ RPE 7
- Deadlift: 4 reps @ RPE 5, 4 reps @ RPE 6, 4 reps @ RPE 7
- Close-grip bench press: 8 reps @ RPE 5, 8 reps @ RPE 6, 8 reps @ RPE 7
- Split Squat: 10 reps @ RPE 5, 10 reps @ RPE 6, 10 reps @ RPE 7 (all sets are per-leg)
Twice per week: 20 minutes of steady-state cardio @ RPE 6 accumulated in 5 to 20 minute bouts
- Squat: 4 reps @ RPE 6, 4 reps @ RPE 7, 4 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 4 @ 8 for one more set.
- Press: 6 reps @ RPE 6, 6 reps @ RPE 7, 6 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 6 @ 8 for one more set.
- Romanian deadlift: 8 reps @ RPE 6, 8 reps @ RPE 7, 8 reps @ RPE 8
- Bench press: 4 reps @ RPE 6, 4 reps @ RPE 7, 4 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 4 @ 8 for one more set.
- Paused Squat: 8 reps @ RPE 6, 8 reps @ RPE 7, 8 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 8 @ 8 for one more set.
- Barbell Row: 10 reps @ RPE 6, 10 reps @ RPE 7, 10 reps @ RPE 8
- Deadlift: 4 reps @ RPE 6, 4 reps @ RPE 7, 4 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 4 @ 8 for one more set.
- Close-grip bench press: 8 reps @ RPE 6, 8 reps @ RPE 7, 8 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 8 @ 8 for one more set.
- Split Squat x 10 reps @ RPE 6, 10 reps @ RPE 7, 10 reps @ RPE 8 (all sets are per-leg)
Twice per week: 25 minutes of steady state cardio @ RPE 6 accumulated in 5 to 25 minute bouts
- Squat: 4 reps @ RPE 6, 4 reps @ RPE 7, 4 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 4 @ 8 for 2 more sets.
- Press: 6 reps @ RPE 6, 6reps @ RPE 7, 6 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 6 @ 8 for 2 more sets.
- Romanian deadlift: 8 reps @ RPE 6, 8 reps @ RPE 7, 8 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 8 @ 8 for 1 more set.
- Bench press: 4 reps @ RPE 6, 4 reps @ RPE 7, 4 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 4 @ 8 for 2 more sets.
- Paused Squat: 8 reps @ RPE 6, 8 reps @ RPE 7, 8 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 8 @ 8 for 1 more set.
- Barbell Row: 10 reps @ RPE 6, 10 reps @ RPE 7, 10 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 8 @ 8 for 1 more set.
- Deadlift: 4 reps @ RPE 6, 4 reps @ RPE 7, 4 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 4 @ 8 for 2 more sets.
- Close Grip bench press: 8 reps @ RPE 6, 8 reps @ RPE 7, 8 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 8 @ 8 for 2 more sets.
- Split Squat: 10 reps @ RPE 6, 10 reps @ RPE 7, 10 reps @ RPE 8. Repeat 10 @ 8 for 1 more set per leg. (all sets are per-leg).
Twice per week: 30 minutes of steady state cardio @ RPE 6 accumulated in 5 to 30 minute bouts.
Special thanks to Austin Baraki and Leah Lutz for their assistance with this article.