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Going Back to the Gym? Here Are 3 Return-to-Training Tips

By Jake Boly

In this article:


With gyms reopening a lot of us are getting ready to get back to our workout routines. This is great news for fitness enthusiasts from all walks of life, however, it’s important to remember that when we take longer times off from training we need a strategy when we return to the gym. 

If we went into the gym and simply “picked up where we left off,” then we could run into a few very avoidable issues. We need to remember that our body has detrained likely to some degree, so expecting to pick up exactly where we were left off is not realistic in many cases. In this article, we’re going to discuss detraining, retraining, and three returning to training tips so you can tackle your gym sessions with strategy.

‌‌‌‌Detraining and Retraining, Explained 

Detraining is what happens when we’ve taken away or decreased one or more stimuli that the body is used to having. In the case of working out, this can take many forms. Your strength can be detrained if you’re not providing the body with adequate and frequent loading, and you can detrain endurance if you’re not constantly working on your cardiovascular capabilities. 

Retraining is the process of strategically working towards previous levels of training by reversing times of detraining. When you retrain the body, you’re essentially re-covering tracks that you’ve already paved and then taking stock of what might need more attention. 

When we take extended times away from our normal training schedule, we detrain the adaptations that we’re regularly pushing and pursuing. It’s important to understand the different forms of detraining when contextualizing the tips below. 

Here are three things to remember with detraining and retraining. 

  1. Detraining rates will vary based on a lot of factors like genetics, training status, training age, specialization of training, age, and many more. Your detraining rate will be different from mine, as we are all individuals!
  2. There will be a difference in detraining if you stop training completely versus shifting gears. For example, detraining would vary if you stopped barbell training to do nothing versus doing calisthenics. Calisthenics may not provide the same level of loading as a barbell, but it would be more than nothing.
  3. Elite level lifters and athletes will usually lose their training status quicker than newbies. This is due to their threshold being much higher and when there’s an absence of stimulus, their body will have a harder time remaining at its elite level.

Remembering these three points will be crucial as we dive into the returning to training tips below.

‌‌‌‌Tip 1: Use the Half-the-Time Rule

When building your return-to-training plan and workout, remember the “half-the-time rule.” This rule is essentially derived from multiple pieces of research that have been performed on detraining and retraining timelines and the rule gives a suggestion for how long we can expect to return to our previous level of training. 

Basically, with this rule, take half of the time that we took detraining and use that as our baseline for when we can expect to reach our normal levels. So for example, if we took four months off from training, then we can suggest that we would reach our normal levels of training (before we detrained) in about two months. 

This rule can be beneficial because it can help us build our programs accordingly so we don’t rush getting back into it, and it also provides a nice mental reassurance that we will return to our previous levels. 

Now, it’s worth noting that this rule will have times where it’s not perfect. Below, I’ve provided two scenarios where this rule can be void of its “half-the-the” suggestion. 

  1. Detraining periods that are six months or longer will be void of this rule. In this case, start training fresh and adopt a beginner mindset until you establish a foundation once again.
  2. Specialized athletes should account for a timeline that will be skewed based on their sport and needs. For example, weightlifting athletes may need a bit more time to return to normal levels of training due to how specific their training was before a cessation occurred. 

With these points in mind, you can mentally assess where you’re at and set expectations accordingly. A useful tip for returning to training is to always assume you need more time than you think you do.

‌‌‌‌Tip 2: Don’t Chase Soreness and Have a Plan 

When we take prolonged periods away from the gym, it can be really hard to hold back a little bit and not push incredibly hard right away. At times, we can crave the feeling of being slightly sore and fatigued, but in the case of returning to training, we need to usher these feelings and thoughts to the side. 

Think about it this way, when we’re returning to training, we’re already re-building and playing catch up for where we left off, so why would we want to push to the point of getting excessively sore. 

If we’re sore, then we can’t train to our best abilities and in the case of building muscle, we won’t be able to recruit as many muscle fibers during reps. Pushing to the point of being super sore is counterproductive for strength, hypertrophy, and power. 

To properly mitigate fatigue and soreness, we need to have a structured plan when returning to training. The days of “winging it” should be put aside while we strategically rebuild what we’ve potentially lost. 

When either building your own plan or working with a coach, here are a few things to keep in mind to help you train with more strategy: 

  • Increase rest times if you need to!
  • Your 1-rep max has likely decreased, so consider scaling back your previous 1-rep max by 10-20% and working off that number.
  • Be mindful of your overall volume and remember less can be more when returning to training.
  • Always keep the “half-the-time” rule in the back of your head. 

‌‌‌‌Tip 3: Nutrition and Supplements Matter 

It can be difficult maintaining nutrition and supplement habits when training, detraining, then retraining. Each of these timeframes has very different mindsets attached to them, so eating and fueling our body can sometimes get pushed aside, but we have to remember to properly fuel ourselves, especially when returning to training. 

When it comes to nutrition, the best approach is to keep it simple and to consume a diet that is filled with nutritionally dense foods. Ideally, your diet shouldn’t shift too much when detraining and retraining, however, shifting more focus on consuming ample amounts of protein can be useful. This is where consuming complete protein like eggs, meats, yogurts, and protein powders can be helpful. 

In addition to consuming complete proteins, supplements like BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) can also have some benefit for those who want to make sure they’re consuming enough amino acids for muscle recovery, growth, and repair. Granted, they may not be as needed if you are consuming enough protein, but they can be a safety net for bumping up amino acid consumption if you’re worried about getting in enough protein each day. 

Outside of protein and BCAAs, consuming carbohydrates is also important for both recovery and energy purposes. In addition to carbs, using electrolytes can be useful for lifters and athletes that are retraining with endurance goals. Electrolytes can be easy to consume with water and can provide the body with key elements needed for performance.

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