There are several reasons why you might have taken a break from powerlifting, ranging from sustaining an injury, prioritizing other commitments, having a lack of gym access, or just simply needing a mental break. Whatever the reason, your return to lifting should follow a step-by-step plan.
So, how do you get back into lifting after a long break? Follow these 7 rules:
• Understand that muscular soreness will be uncharacteristically high
• Work on mobility & stability at the start of each workout
• Start with 50% of your normal volume
• 90% of your training should be within 60-80% of your 1 rep max
• Use the RPE scale to manage fatigue (aim for RPE 6-7)
• Use a high training frequency for your powerlifting movements
• Don’t compare yourself with previous numbers
I’ve been the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting since 2012 and over the years I’ve had to frequently deal with athletes who have taken extended breaks from powerlifting. This article will outline the exact process I’ve used with athletes to get their strength back up to prior levels, and beyond.
At the end, I’ll give you a sample programming structure that you can follow. Let’s get started!
What Does The Science Say About Getting Back Into Powerlifting?
Before diving into the principles you should follow when returning to the gym after a break, you might be wondering whether you’ve completely lost all of your gains or not.
Let me put your mind at ease: It’s not as bad as you think.
There’s been solid research studying the impact of taking a break from lifting on muscle and strength loss.
Of course, you will have lost some muscle size and strength, even more so the longer the break.
However, the more “trained” you were going into your break, the more muscle mass and strength you will have maintained during your time off, and as such, the quicker your return to prior levels will be.
In other words, if you’ve already had a few years of consistent strength training experience under your belt before the break, then you will be in a strong position to regain your muscle mass and strength fairly quickly when you get back to lifting.
The tricky part in returning to prior levels will be if you’re the type of lifter who hasn’t always lifted consistently. If this is you, it might take you slightly longer to see results. But that shouldn’t discourage you from starting!
Let’s take a look at a couple of studies showing some data behind returning to lifting after taking a break.
Study #1: Muscle Size & Strength After 3 Months of No Training
A study by Blazevich et al. (1985) looked at the effect of lifting for 10 weeks and then taking 3 months off.
The researchers measured leg size and strength of participants before starting a 10-week training program, 5 weeks into the training program, 10 weeks into the training program, and then after 3 months of no lifting whatever.
The results showed that lifters gained both size and strength during the 10-week training period.
However, when it came to muscle size and strength after three months of no lifting, it showed that they were at the same levels as after 5 weeks of lifting weights.
What this means is that after three months of no training, they only lost about 5 weeks of muscle mass and strength.
Study #2: How Fast Are You Able To Gain Back After Taking A Break?
A study by Staron et al. (1991) looked at how much lifters were able to gain back after they re-started training.
The researchers had participants lift weights for 20-weeks, and then stop lifting for 30-weeks, before lifting weights again for 6 weeks. Throughout the study, participants had their muscle size and strength muscled.
Note: 30-weeks is a huge break – that’s 7.5 months of no training!
In terms of strength, after the initial 20-week training period, their strength (as measured by a 1 rep max squat test) went up 67%. After 30-weeks of no lifting, it only went down 13% relative to the number they set after the training period.
Think about that, after 30-weeks they still retrained 54% of their strength gain.
After 6 weeks of training again following their break, their strength increased another 40% relative to where they were after their break. So not only did they regain the 13% loss very quickly, they were able to set new personal records after only being back in the gym for 6-weeks.
Here are the important points you should take-away from these studies:
• Well-trained lifters are able to maintain their muscle mass and strength during a break
• It’s extremely hard to lose all of your gains even after several months of no training
• Your return to prior levels can be quite rapid if you are well-trained going into your break
• These studies had participants do absolutely nothing during their break. If you did some sort of activity during your break, you will likely maintain your muscle mass and strength even more than what these studies showed.
• One variable not investigated in these studies is the role of diet. In order to maintain muscle mass during a lifting break, diet is a major contributing factor to your success. Talking about diet is not the focus of this article though.
7 Rules: Getting Back Into Powerlifting After A Break
Let’s get down to the practical tips for getting back into powerlifting after taking a break.
Rule #5 is the most important one to follow (if I had to pick just a single rule to follow).
1. Understand That Muscular Soreness Will Be Uncharacteristically High
No matter what you do in the gym in the first 1-2 weeks after returning from a break, you will be uncharacteristically sore.
You could be lifting weights that you previously considered a “warm-up”, but in an environment where you haven’t lifted in a while, these loads will create an extreme amount of muscle soreness. Also know as, Delayed Muscle Onset Soreness (DOMS).
The reason why I bring this up is that you need to mentally prepare yourself for this kind of soreness. It can feel somewhat discouraging knowing that such light loads are crippling you.
However, also know that this level of muscle soreness is relatively short-lived. If you’re managing your training volume and intensity properly (discussed later), then you should only feel this kind of muscle soreness for about 1-2 weeks.
One more thing to remember: getting sore is not a sign that you’re weak.
Your strength is not correlated with how much or little you get sore. Muscle soreness is a peripheral response to acute stress (muscle fibers tearing), and it doesn’t’ represent the neural signals of your brain connecting to your muscles efficiently, which is how we get stronger.
2. Work On Mobility & Stability At The Start of Each Workout
Recruiting your stabilizing muscle groups prior to your workout will help you control your body position to a greater extent after returning to the gym from a break.
In order to execute a complex movement like a squat, bench press, or deadlift, several smaller muscle groups are required to promote joint stability and effective positioning.
For example, in the squat, a stabilizing muscle like the glute medius (upper side part of the glute), will help stabilize the external hip rotators.
The reason why activating the external hip rotators are important is because if they are weak or unengaged, your thighs will rotate inward, and subsequently, your knees will start to cave while squatting.
There are several muscle groups like the glute medius that help support good movement techniques.
However, stabilizing muscle groups aren’t necessarily trained in everyday life. So they become detrained and “lazy” during your break from powerlifting and then are harder to engage when returning to the gym.
This is one of the reasons why your technique might feel “a bit off” or you that you lack stability while lifting.
Therefore, you should spend 10-15 minutes at the start of each workout activating your stabilizers, with a particular focus on your deep core muscles, rotator cuff muscles, and pelvic/hip muscles.
Check out my article on the 9 Best Ab Exercises For Powerlifters.
3. Start With 50% Of Your Normal Volume
You need to cut your training volume in half in the first 2-4 weeks after returning to the gym from a break.
“Training volume” is a measure of how much work you do in the gym. It is calculated by multiplying your sets by reps by load. If you lift 5 sets of 5 reps at 100lbs then you have done 2500lbs of volume (5 X 5 X 100).
Most people don’t track their volume meticulously enough to know how much work they do within a particular day or week of training. This is because you would need to have access to fancy spreadsheets that further broke down how much volume you did per lift and muscle group.
So the most practical way to cut your volume by 50% is simply to reduce the number of sets you perform in half.
Therefore, if you are used to performing 4 sets of 8 reps, then you should do now do 2 sets of 8 reps when returning to the gym from a break.
It’s not a perfect system because the load isn’t equated into this volume reduction, and you also can’t cut odd numbers in half. For example, if you did 5 sets previously, you can’t do 2.5 sets. So you’ll need to make a decision to round up or down (I would round down for the first couple of weeks).
However, this system of reducing the number of sets in half is the most practical for most people. It will accomplish the volume reduction needed so that you’re not doing too much, too quickly, risking overtraining, burnout, or injury.
4. 90% of Your Training Should Be Within 60-80% Of Your 1 Rep Max
The vast majority of your training intensities (90%) should fall within a sub-maximal range, between 60-80% of your 1 rep max.
Much like your training volume requiring a substantial reduction, your training intensities need to take a large shift downward for the first 1-6 weeks after returning to the gym from a break.
Most powerlifters will accumulate a lot of their volume between 80-85% of their 1 rep max during a normal training cycle.
However, you’ll want to start at around 60% intensity, building it up to 80%, over a 6-week time period.
Even after 6-weeks, you may only be doing a small amount of volume at 80% intensity, and the majority will still likely be around 70%.
This will shift the priority to building muscle, increasing joint stability, and optimizing movement efficiency through higher rep training.
You’ll be doing a lot of protocols like:
• 1-2 sets of 10 @ 60%
• 2-3 sets of 8 @ 65%
• 2-4 sets of 5 @ 70%
Now, I mentioned that 90% of your training should fall between 60-80% of your 1 rep max. So what about the other 10% of your training?
The other 10% of your training should include percentages below and above that range.
Below that range will involve your “warm-up sets”.
And sparingly, you may want to tap into loads slightly higher than 80% just to get used to how a heavier weight feels again.
For example: performing 1 set of 1 rep at 82.5-85%.
This is an extremely low amount of volume (only 1 rep), but it gives you the opportunity to prime the nervous system for future blocks of training where heavier training will be prioritized.
5. Use The RPE Scale To Manage Fatigue (Aim For RPE 6-7)
You need to keep your proximity to fatigue at or below RPE 7 for the first 4-6 weeks.
Remember how I said this was the most important rule to follow (if I had to pick one)? Well, listen up.
RPE is a scale of how close you’re working to your fatigue limit.
Lifting at RPE 6-7 means that you’re picking a load where for the prescribed rep range you still feel like you could perform 3-5 reps after completing the set.
More than the load or volume that you use, how close you’re working to your fatigue limit will impact how you recover from your workouts.
So let’s say within the first few weeks back from your break your workout calls for 3 sets of 6 reps @ 65%.
You perform the first set of 6 reps and you say to yourself “yup, I could have definitely done 3 more reps before hitting my limit”.
Great, that would be rated as an RPE 7. You’re within the right proximity to fatigue.
However, let’s say you perform the second set of 6 reps and you say to yourself “hmm, I probably could have only done 2 more reps if I continued”. This means you’re inching closer to your fatigue limit and it would now be rated as an RPE 8.
If this happens, you need to drop some bar load (~5%) before doing your third and final set.
On a continual basis, you need to monitor how close you’re working to your fatigue limit and do the best that you can (by modifying your training loads) to stay at or below RPE 7. This will be important to manage within the first 4-6 weeks of returning to the gym.
6. Use A High Training Frequency For Your Powerlifting Movements
If your goal is powerlifting, you should be performing the powerlifting movements as frequently as possible within the first 4-6 weeks after a break.
Training frequency refers to how often you’re performing the powerlifting movements each week.
If you squat twice per week, then your squat frequency is twice per week. It’s that simple.
If you were squatting 1-2 times per week prior to your break, you can consider increasing your squat frequency to 3-4 times per week during your initial return to training.
The main reason for this is that the powerlifting movements are considered a “skill”.
Skill development takes a lot of practice, and since you’ve just taken an extended break from lifting, you need to re-teach your body how to move properly.
Trust me, you’re probably going to feel a bit “off” from a technical perspective in the first few weeks back. The movements won’t feel as natural as you’d like.
The only solution to this is to increase your training frequency in order to engrain the movement patterns.
You’ll be able to handle this increased frequency because your workout volume will be cut in half (rule #3) and your training intensities will be between 60-80% (rule #4). Therefore, most workouts won’t feel too difficult, and so the primary focus will be technical improvements.
If you’re interested in learning more about training frequency, read my articles on:
7. Don’t Compare Yourself With Previous Numbers
Don’t compare yourself to your prior training levels.
It will be hard not to compare yourself to how strong you were prior to your break, but as much as you can help it, you want to have your eyes forward-looking.
You should be analyzing your improvements from the start of your break moving forward.
If you are making incremental improvements on your numbers week-to-week, even if they aren’t as heavy as you’ve done in the past, you are on the right path.
For example, if you completed 2 sets of 6 @ 65% on week 1, and a few weeks later you did 3 sets of 6 @ 70%, and it felt easier even considering it was 1 additional set and 5% heavier, then you know you’re making significant progress.
The last thing you want to do is overlook your current success by comparing yourself to the best set of 6 reps you’ve ever done. It will only lead to feelings of disappointment, which isn’t productive to building momentum again in the gym.
Sample Program Structure
Putting all of these principles into practice is where the “rubber hits the road”.
That’s why I find it helpful to split out the training cycle into three distinct phases.
Each phase should progress from one to the next so that you’re adapting to heavier stimulus, and ultimately, regaining your prior levels of strength.
If I were to set up a periodization structure for returning to the gym after a break, it would look something like this:
Week 1-2: Intro Phase
• Training for your muscles to resist soreness
• Re-learn how to move efficiently (optimize technique)
• Focus on core and stabilization exercises
• Low volume
• Low intensity
• Reps between 5-8
• Intensity between 60-65% of 1 rep max
Week 3-8: Volume Accumulation Phase
• Training to increase your training volume
• Keep powerlifting frequency high
• Introduce more accessory work (dumbbell/cable exercises)
• Moderate volume moving to high volume over the weeks
• Low intensity moving to moderate intensity over the weeks
• Reps between 5-10
• Intensity between 65-75% of 1 rep max
Week 9-12: Intensification Phase
• Training to increase your ability to handle heavier loads
• Maintain or drop powerlifting frequency
• Reduction in volume from peak levels in the prior phase
• Increasing intensities from the prior phase
• Reps between 3-6
• Intensity between 75-80% of 1 rep max, with some occasions between 80-85%.
Although the first couple of weeks back in the gym will feel discouraging, as the lifts will feel more awkward than they previously did and you will experience more soreness than usual, your return to prior levels of strength will be quicker than you think.
The hard part is getting over the initial 2-weeks of stiffness and used to being in a routine again.
When you do return to the gym, make sure you follow the volume, intensity, and RPE guidelines outlined in this article. Focus on increasing your joint stabilization and improving your technique in the powerlifting movements.