Updated: Jun 13, 2020
It goes without saying that these are unprecedented times. While the health and safety of ourselves, our friends, and our family should be our top priority, eventually we'll get back to the gym. This will likely lead to a lot of questions. Is all my strength going to be gone? Did I lose all my gains? Will I ever get back to the level I was before this layoff? The answer to each of those questions is no, no, and a resounding yes. However, we must be honest with ourselves when we return, and set proper expectations to put us on the path to returning stronger and better than ever. To help us set those expectations, let's first take a look at what some of the research has to say about strength levels after a period of detraining.
Lemmer et al. (2000) examined the effects of age and gender on strength improvements during training and strength loss during an extended period of no training. Subjects in two groups, ages 20-30 and ages 65-75, performed a 9-week training program performing single leg leg extensions. followed by 31 weeks of detraining. Immediately post training, the groups averaged a 27-34% strength increase, with the higher increases occurring in the 20-30-year-old group. After 12 weeks of detraining, there were No significant decreases in strength for either group! After 31 weeks of detraining, there were significant reductions in strength, however, strength levels were still higher than they were prior to the 9-week training program. Meaning, these subjects did not train for over half a year, and still held on to some of their strength improvements, with the 65-75 age group seeing a slightly greater strength decrease.
Ivey et al. (2000) ran a nearly identical protocol(and included many ooy of the same researchers), albeit with a few less subjects and found similar results. Strength levels were relatively stable prior to 12 weeks, and while there was a significant decrease after 31 weeks, strength levels remained higher than baseline for all groups except 65-75-year-old women.
Kubo et al. (2010) also evaluated the effects of detraining on strength and other factors. Subjects performed 3 months of isometric knee extension training, followed by a 3-month detraining period, and were tested once each month. Participants saw significant increases in strength during the protocol, and during the 3-month detraining period, did not see any significant strength loss, though there was a decrease in muscle cross sectional area (size), which is to be expected.
While these results are all promising, it would be remiss to not discuss the limitations of the studies. The most obvious being that the studies evaluated strength in either a unilateral leg extension, or an isometric leg extension. Squat, bench, deadlift, and other compound movements require greater levels of skill and motor learning, and we must take that into account as we set our expectations. It may take a bit longer for these movements to feel good again, simply because you are out of practice. Additionally, training history of subjects was somewhat unknown, with many indicating being recreationally trained but not following any specific regimen. There is also no way to guarantee subjects were not training during the detraining period. Researchers checked in to attempt to ensure this wasn't happening, but to guarantee it is largely impossible. However, this is a problem that faces most researchers, as the means are not available, and it would be unethical to try and control someone's every move for 31+ weeks.
With all that said, and knowing the limitations of the research, how can we use this to set our expectations? Well, we can rest assured knowing we will still have some of our strength left when we return to the gym and won’t be starting from square one. However, many movements probably won't feel quite as good as they used to. One of the larger contributors to this is likely simply being "out of practice". You haven't performed the skill in quite some time, so you aren't going to be able to perform it as efficiently and effectively for a bit. A golfer's first day back on the course after a long winter usually isn't their best performance. The same applies here. Once you are able to train consistently for a few weeks, the lifts will start to feel normal again and the weights will begin to increase. Set your expectations accordingly and this will help limit your frustration and let you enjoy training.
Finally, it is extremely important to make sure you ease back into training. Since you've had an extended period of time off, your tolerance for the volumes and intensities you were using prior the hiatus has deceased. Therefore, you want to make sure you don't jump right back into similar volumes to those you were doing prior to your break from training. This may seem like a bummer but could actually be a positive. Since your tolerance to training has decreased, this also means your training sensitivity has increased. That means that you'll be able to make progress without having to do as much as you were doing before the layoff. Your body has lost some of the adaptations it had made to training, and therefore will be more responsive to the training you are doing. Similar to what happened when you first started lifting weights, though not nearly as pronounced now as it was then. Take advantage of this and get more with less training volume (get results with less work!) as it may set you up for some big improvements in the future.
It's also important to ease back into training to avoid increasing your chances for injury. Since your tolerance to training has decreased, if you were to introduce a large amount of volume right away, you are increasing your chances for overuse injuries (i.e. tendinitis). These types of injuries crop up when you introduce too much stress too fast, and it exceeds the tissue's ability to adapt the stressor(s). Give yourself some time to re acclimate so you can set yourself up for success.
All in all, we're going to be fine. Our gains have not been completely lost, and we will be able to return to and surpass the levels we were once at. Just remember:
· Set reasonable expectations- All your strength is not lost, but some movements may feel “off” for a period of time. That’s okay! Embrace it as part of the process and work through it.
· Ease back in to training and take advantage of your increased training sensitivity
· Enjoy yourself! You’re back to doing something you enjoy. This will likely lead to improved physical and mental well-being.
Before you know it, it'll be meet day and you'll be smashing PRs.
Ivey, F. M., Tracy, B. L., Lemmer, J. T., NessAiver, M., Metter, E. J., Fozard, J. L., & Hurley, B. F. (2000). Effects of strength training and detraining on muscle quality: age and gender comparisons. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 55(3), B152-B157.
Kubo, K., Ikebukuro, T., Yata, H., Tsunoda, N., & Kanehisa, H. (2010). Time course of changes in muscle and tendon properties during strength training and detraining. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(2), 322-331.
LEMMER, J. T., HURLBUT, D. E., MARTEL, G. F., TRACY, B. L., EY IV, F. M., Metter, E. J., ... & HURLEY, B. F. (2000). Age and gender responses to strength training and detraining. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 32(8), 1505-1512.