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How to get back to the gym after a long break?

During this pandemic, gyms in most countries were shut down in order to control the spread of the virus. As a result, a lot of people were limited to home workouts only with no equipment since getting equipment online was almost an impossible task.

More than two months later we are now seeing gyms slowly start to reopen, allowing us to get back to our old routines. Now the question is, how do you get back to your workout routine that will maximize your muscle and strength growth, while minimizing excessive muscle damage and soreness that can hinder your progression? That is exactly what I am going to dissect and analyse for you guys in this article.

How much muscle do you really lose during a long break?

First of, lets see how much muscle you can lose after you take a break from the gym. Fortunately we have a couple of studies measuring the rate of muscle loss when you take time off from the gym. Blazevich et al 2009 study examined the effects of 3 month de-training in recreationally active men and women with some resistance training experience. Keep in mind that these are not professional bodybuilders, so the effects will not be the same but it can give us some insight for the majority of population.

This study had 2 parts where the first part consisted of training period for 10 weeks on leg extensions where they performed 4-6 sets per workout, followed by 3 months of no workouts at all. What happened is that all participants gained significant amount of strength on leg extensions during this 10 week period, however the amount of strength they lost during their 3 month break was only around 30% of their strength gains. Have a look at the graph.

The results for muscle growth are even better. Participants showed no-significant muscle loss during this period. They did lose some muscle, but statistically speaking it was not significant. Now these results are not applicable for advanced lifters, but for majority of people that were starting to get into fitness before this pandemic happened, this study proves that they can easily get back to where they were before the break.

In this current situation, most of us were on a break from the gym for 2-3 months, with some home workouts to make up for it. In this case you can expect your strength go be lower than it was, especially on more complex exercises such as squats, bench press and dead-lift, however your muscle size should be similar to the levels before.

On top of this we have another phenomenon that works in our favor in these situations: muscle memory (its not a myth).

Muscle memory

The way muscle memory works is via myonuclear addition. You might wonder what a myonuclei is in the first place, do not worry, I will make it very simple for you. Myonuclei is like a tiny control center in your muscles. Your muscles have a lot of these control centers all around your muscles. Each myonuclei has a limited range to how much control it has. Inside this nuclei you have a DNA, basically a blueprint of your body. So when you put your muscles to stress through workouts, all the information on how to build new muscle tissue is in this nuclei.

Now the problem with this is that each nuclei has a limited range, so the more nuclei you have in muscles the more muscle you can grow. Now imagine you are a complete beginner and you are just starting to workout. Initially for the first few months, the amount of nuclei in your muscles will be able to easily support muscle growth. However there is a ceiling, and when you reach this ceiling your body will find a way to add more nuclei. This is where STEM cells will come into play where they donate new nuclei to the muscle fiber, therefore increasing the total number of nuclei. It turns out that this donation is permanent, meaning once it happens the new nuclei stays there even when you stop working out. As an example, below is a photo comparison of myself taken 1 year apart. I was forced to be out of the training for a long time (a few years) due to my shoulder injury, but I was able to come back pretty quickly. Usually for for naturals training the first time, building that much muscle would take 3-4 years probably.

So now you have much higher number of nuclei in your muscles that easily support muscle growth, which is why the whole process takes much faster the second time. Imagine having a full infrastructure built in the city, you just have to start the traffic again. As a result, we can definitely count on this when we start working out again.

How to start working out again?

Most people are currently very motivated to get back to the gym and crush it, however there are a few important considerations that you need to make to make it as smooth as possible and avoid any negative effects.

First of all, after a 2-3 month detraining, you will fatigue much quicker now compared to before. On top of that you will be more sensitive to muscle soreness and muscle damage. You might think that its actually good, but extreme muscle soreness is not correlated with muscle growth. It actually only delays muscle growth as your body needs to repair the excessive damage first before any super-compensation takes place.

Alternatively what you can do to minimize your fatigue and muscle damage levels is to start with what I call introductory cycles. Remember, if you did nothing for a few months, then doing something will help you kick-start your fitness progress. Starting with minimal work is usually the best way. This usually means less than 10 sets per week per muscle group for the first 2 weeks. Another important element is how much are you pushing yourself each set. This is the time where you need to hold yourself back and leave even up to 4 sets in reserve (4 sets before you reach failure). Once you get through this period you can start increasing your work in the gym by adding more exercises and more sets as well as going closer to failure.

You can also start with only going to the gym 3 days per week, and slowly add more workout days over time. By the second month you should be able to go back to your old levels of frequency.

If you want an example of how this would look like I made a workout plan sample below that makes it super simple.

If you want to take action today and take your fitness to the next level feel free to book a free assessment call with me.

What you will get from this call:

  1. I will see what is your current situation and give you my feedback on what is the best way to go forward.

  2. You will understand exactly what  needs to be done in order to achieve your desired fitness goal.

  3. We will talk about strategies that can help you to reach that goal and how to fit them in your lifestyle.

  4. If we both feel that my program and my coaching is a good fit for you, we can talk about working together.


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