Getting Back To The Gym After A Break
Gyms are open after being closed for weeks under restrictions imposed due to COVID-19. It has no doubt been a while since you've seen the inside of a gym and had access to barbells and heavyweight. A lot of people have been training through the lockdown at a reduced capacity with limited equipment and training with lower weight than what they typically would. Some might not have been training at all.
It is important to think about how you will approach your training going back to the gym after weeks of either not training at all, or at a reduced capacity, especially in terms of the amount of weight you would typically handle. Also, important to think about, are questions such as: how much muscle might you have lost? How much strength? How long will it take you to get back to where you were? Let's take a look and try and answer these questions and look at how to tackle getting back to the gym.
How Quickly Do You Lose Gains?
One of the scariest things about stopping training is losing muscle mass. However, when you stop training, you probably lose far less muscle and lose it much slower than you probably expect. A lot of it can be psychological, too.
The consensus seems to be that muscle loss starts to occur around 2-3 weeks after not training at all. After about one week of not training, a carbohydrate that is known as glycogen decreases. Glycogen is partly responsible for storing water inside your muscles, so a lot of the muscle ''loss'' in the first week is probably just water from glycogen loss, not muscle.
After 4-5 weeks, things start getting worse, and you'll begin to progressively lose strength and size.
The good news is that there exists something close to what you could call ''muscle memory', where even when you stop training for several weeks, you get back to normal a lot quicker than you might expect. This quick return is because, through training, you slowly add muscle nuclei which allow your muscle to grow larger. Even when you stop training these nuclei stick around, meaning that it's a lot easier to get back to where you were, than it was to get there in the first place.
What about strength?
A loss in strength follows a pretty similar timeline to muscle. An extensive analysis of the research on the topic showed that experienced trainers seemed to maintain their strength levels for about 3 weeks. At about 5 to 6 weeks things start going downhill.
So let us take a look now at how long it might to get those gains back.
How Long Do Gains Take To Get Back?
If you are anything like me, you take a week or two off training, and you feel like you've shrunk. A lot of that is probably psychological. As mentioned above, even if we take several weeks off from training, gains are lost far slower than we probably expect, and they come back pretty quick.
An excellent example of how a few weeks off affects your muscle gains was a study from the Univerity of Tokoyo. In the study, two groups of people trained for 24 weeks.
One group took 3-week breaks every 6 weeks, whereas the other group trained continuously throughout the 24 weeks. At the end of the 24 weeks, both groups gained the same amount of muscle!
Other research shows that gains for both strength and muscle mass come relatively quickly even after long layoffs. One study showed that after 30 weeks off training, participants regained and even improved their strength and muscle size after 6 weeks of training again. The people in this study weren't experienced lifters, so you'd expect that things might take a bit longer to get back if you've been training for years.
Being cautious you'd say that after a 3 - 4 weeks off training you wouldn't really lose anything and be back to where you were after a few sessions in the gym. More extended layoffs like 4-5 months will naturally take a little longer to get back to where you were. You'd expect to regain all your strength and muscle after 2-4 months back at it.
Getting Back To The Gym
We've established that gains are harder to lose than you might think and come back a lot quicker too. That is all good news.
When you do finally get back in the gym, it's important to be cautious, even if you have been training at home in a limited capacity with bodyweight exercises and basic equipment. Most people will be so keen to see a gym full of equipment again that they will go crazy. However, it's important to show some restraint. There are a few reasons for this.
One reason to be cautious when going back to the gym is that lifting weights is a skill. People don't typically think of lifting as a skill, but it is, and if you haven't done it for a while, you are going to be rusty. This especially applies to lifts that require more skill such as squats, deadlifts and bench press. It's important to ease your way back in when starting back in the gym until you get back your neural adaptations and lift with good form. Otherwise, you risk injury.
A second reason is muscle damage. If you haven't been lifting heavy for a while or training at all for that matter, you'll be very susceptible to muscle damage when you get back to the gym. What's that mean? It means that:
a) you don't have to do as much in the gym to start gaining muscle and strength
andb) if you do too much too soon, you'll likely get really really sore. So start off slow when you get back.
The key takeaways points about getting back into the gym after a lay off are:
- You will lose muscle and strength much slower than you expect.
- Even if you lose muscle and strength, due to something akin to ''muscle memory'' you will gain it all back much quicker than what it took to get it in the first place, even after months off.
- When you do start back in the gym, start off slowly. Don't jump straight back into your old routine. Ease your way back in to avoid injury and getting insanely sore.