Strength After a Layoff

This is going to be a short post that's inspired by someone I know whose been recently coming off a long layoff from the gym due to life circumstances and injuries. She had been upset how heavy what used to be light weight was to her, and after a couple weeks of being more consistent was upset she hadn't gained much strength back. This was due to a very easy misconception, she was simply lifting too heavy!

Very simplistically speaking we all know low reps are what build strength. The muscle we have is what gives us potential strength, so massing blocks with higher rep sets are great for building that potential, but to realize that potential we lift heavy at low reps. When people come back from a layoff they often feel very weak, and sometimes are embarrassed at how weak they've become, so they desperately want to gain their strength back as fast as possible. They know that they lifted very heavy to gain that strength, so they try to do the same to gain it back. They're using less absolute weight but lifting in the same rep ranges.

This is a mistake. First of all, you need the muscular potential in order to gain that strength back. Primarily lifting in low rep ranges isn't optimal for hypertrophy. The heavier you go the more volume you accrue per rep, but also the more fatigue you accrue. Once you get into very heavy sets the fatigue outbalances the volume and you're not able to do nearly as much volume as if you went lighter. If you want to gain muscle back as fast as you can you need to be lifting with as much volume as recovery will allow (near your MRV, or maximum recoverable volume). While it may be significantly lower than it used to be, you're not likely to reach it doing very heavy sets.

The second issue here is that strength is largely neurological. While heavy weights are important to get used to using heavy weight, it's more important to first hammer the motor patterns down and get the initial adaptations out of the way. This will come back fast, just as it does for new lifters. New lifters can gain strength very quickly even without gaining a ton of muscle due to this, and being off a layoff is very similar. Sticking to only very heavy sets severely limits the amount of reps you're able to get in, and therefore prolong these initial adaptations that are very important to gain strength back.

The final issue is related to the second, and I have to credit Alex Viada for reminding me of this one which is a point I had thought of while thinking of the article but completely forgot when writing it. Attempting to lift too heavy after a layoff leads to a high likelihood of using bad form to get the weight up. So not only are you not building the adaptations and motor patterns back up as fast, you could very likely end up building bad motor patterns that you'll have to spend time to correct in the future, and raise your risk of injury. Let the ego take a backseat for a bit and have patience, having morons laugh at you for lifting light correctly is better than having morons laugh at you for lifting heavy with shitty form that will hurt in the long run.

So next time you get hurt or decide to say fuck it and do nothing but smoke weed and eat a couple pizzas a night for 6 months, don't attempt to lift heavy right away. Stick with what is often referred to as the "hypertrophy rep range," which is really just the range that best balances intensity and fatigue for the sake of volume, and don't worry about the low rep sets for awhile. Fuck the people that look at you in the gym and chuckle because of how weak you seem, you'll get the last laugh when they watch you progress faster than they can even hope to. I recommend sets of 8-12, even as high as 15, for as many sets as your personal recovery will allow. And don't be that asshole that overdoes it and then complains about doms every time you lift, remember your body isn't used to it anymore and you need to ease back into it. T-Rex arms or barely being able to walk isn't fun or impressive to anyone.

- Jason