All of the below is based on a break of 2+ weeks; you may still be exercising during this time but you aren’t lifting weights.
1. MODIFY YOUR VOLUME & INTENSITY
First off, let’s clarify what that these variables mean. Volume = number of reps and sets you do for certain muscle groups. Intensity is the level of effort you put in while doing your reps, this is often referred to %1RM (percentage of 1 rep max) or RIR (reps in reverse); don’t get too caught up on these terms, if you’d like to read more about what %1RM means, or what RIR means, click on those links.
It may be both tempting and satisfying to return to lifting similar weights, dumbbells, barbells, etc. you were doing before in the gym. This isn’t exactly a great idea, for a few reasons.
One reason: Injury prevention. The larger the break, the great the chance of injury. There’s a lot of moving parts when you lift weights. Aside from muscles, you also have tendons, ligaments, and collagen in joints. Jumping the gun and lifting similar weights could overload some of these structures and an injury could happen.
Second reason: Muscle soreness. If you don’t gradually return to lifting weights you will be sore, that is for certain; this can be seen with as little as 2 weeks off from weight training. Muscle soreness can be ok, but too much can be a bad thing. If you’re too sore you won’t be able to train as often – sometimes having to take 3+ days off – lift as heavy, and do certain movements without compensating.
Solution: in the first few weeks (2-4 weeks) work to build up your Intensity. Slowly increase the amount of weight you are using, mix up your rep ranges and “leave some reps in the tank” – If you’re doing 12 reps, which is a good start, you should be able to do 16-18 but stop at 12. Also, slowly increase the volume per muscle group (# of sets per muscle group). In other words, don’t do chest or arms day right when you get back to the gym. Mix in 2-3 Full Body days, then some Upper / Lower Body splits, then look to separate further if your training schedule permits 3+ days per week of weight training.
2. INCORPORATE THE CORE
Chances are your core may have been neglected during your break away from the gym. For the record, the core refers to any muscles that help stabilize your pelvis and is not just your ab muscles. When it comes to weight training the core is instrumental in almost all lifts – whether you train it directly or not.
Designate at least two core exercises for each workout to help strengthen the abdominals; this will also help re-strengthen you lower back, which could alleviate any lower back pain you may have been experiencing due to lack of weight training.
Try these core exercises, 2-3 sets each for 10-12 reps:
Quick tip about sit-ups if you’re doing them: be aware of the lower back arching as you perform the sit-up, as this is a sign the abdominals are weak and the lower back is compensating. You want a natural lower back arch, but not excessive arch. Modify the sit-up by only coming up halfway until your core becomes strong enough so that the lower back doesn’t arch, more than it’s natural arch, as you start doing the sit-up.
3. DON’T BEAT YOURSELF UP
Whether you took a break from the gym intentionally, or unintentionally, accept that this is ok. Life events unfold at unexpected times with unpredictable outcomes, whether it be a job transition, a new baby in the family, or a worldwide pandemic.
Everyone copes differently. The most important thing is you are choosing to return to training, and wanting to re-integrate healthy habits, and reap the long and short term benefits of regular exercise.
Don’t dwell on the past and instead be proactive about the future.