Getting back in good physical condition after extended lay-off can be a perilous undertaking. Over the decades I have been involved in sports training I have seen lots of people completely mess up their comeback attempts by getting injured. Many of these people have been experienced athletes who have years of experience in hard training.
This short article summarizes my thoughts on getting back in shape. It is aimed at those who have been in top condition for a sport before, who want to get back to the highest performance level they can achieve.
Re-conditioning is a long-term project.
One of thing I found when looking at failed reconditioning programs is the mindset that it will only take a few weeks to get back in shape. People who have been at the top of their game have trouble thinking that it will take them a long time to get back where they were.
If you were a top performer, it seems natural to think that returning to that level will take some effort, but not an excessive amount. In many cases I have seen this to be completely wrong.
For one thing, when we are at our peak strength or performance level, difficult things seem easy. If our conditioning is degraded even a little, these difficult tasks get hard very fast.
Shortly, Ill go into the reasons why this is so. For now, think of re-conditioning as being a project that will take many months rather than just a couple of weeks. The only thing that you can really do quickly is get hurt.
Step one on the path back to peak performance is taking the long view.
Reconditioning occurs unevenly
All parts of an athletes body do not recondition at the same rate. This may be particularly true of strength athletes.
If you think about doing a competition squat, the muscles that may decondition before others are those that are activated in the deepest part of the lift. If a powerlifter is not doing squats on a regular basis, the glutes will soon loose their strength in the deepest part of the lift. The hamstrings may also be deconditioned in different positions. The same can be said of the large number of stabilizer muscles that have to work to mobilize maximum power.
In other words, if you are not doing high intensity training in the body positions where you must exert maximum force, it is likely that some muscles will be severely over taxed when you try to do even a relatively light competition lift.
As an example, a few years ago I was watching a 20 something lifter working out to get back in condition. He was doing full squats and had increased the weight he was using from 225 up to about 375. I suggested that he might want to consider his workout a success and gradually increase the weight he used over several workouts.
His reply was that 405 is easy for me.
He got almost into the deep position with 405 and let out a stream of curses. He dumped the weight behind his back (bumper plates) and tried to stand erect. He was in a full rage at that point.
He injured a groin muscle, a glute muscle and strained a knee. He didnt make it back to the gym for a year.
Moral of the story: reconditioning is process that takes place over weeks and months.
Connective tissues strengthen more slowly than muscles
Tendons, ligaments, and facia strengthen at a slower rate than muscles. The connective tissues that link muscles to the skeleton will develop phenomenal strength, but it takes much longer than rebuilding muscles.
Knowing this can help you avoid getting a small (or major) injury that will keep you on the sidelines for months.
For example, your muscles may be able to lift 300 pounds in something, but your tendons and ligaments are only ready for 200 pounds.
By progressing gradually and not getting too greedy to lift big weights, you will be able to insure that your connective tissues are able to handle the load you want to put on them.
Having been a runner some time back, I tended to equate endurance with the ability to run a long way. During my 25 years of competing in powerlifting I found another meaning for endurance which is pertinent to reconditioning.
It is essential for your entire body to have the endurance to do heavy training sessions for weeks and months at a time. This is a different type of endurance than simply being able to run a long way, but it is critical to being able to do consistent heavy training.
In reality, all the muscular links in the power chain must be in top shape to allow you to train hard over an extended period. If there is a weak link (weak muscle) that will be taxed heavily during heavy training, that muscle must be conditioned to carry the workload over time.
When you start training again, some weak muscles may fail in the first few workouts. However, it is really important to understand that the weak links may not fail immediately but could go a few weeks before giving out under the strain of continuing heavy workloads.
I have seen multiple examples of lifters getting injured three weeks or even two months into their comeback training. The injury will always be to a support muscle that has been untrained for an extended period.
Examples would be injuries to groin muscles in squatting, oblique strains in bench pressing, or biceps muscles in deadlifting.
The point is that an all too common injury that derails or demolishes comebacks will often be to a muscle that only plays a support role.
Being smart: increase slowly
Probably the biggest risk that you will face in getting back in shape will be the temptation to test yourself to see how much you can lift when you are feeling good. Forget these short- term PRs. They are the thing that will probably get you hurt and kill your chance for steady progress.
Even though it may grate on you at times, you should increase the volume of work you do before increasing the weights. For example, you may start out doing 2 x 5 at 135 pounds in a given lift. You should think of improvement as adding another set or two before you increase the weight (and reduce the sets again).
In the first month, keep the weights you lift to no more than 80% of what you feel you could lift. In the second month you can be a little more aggressive, but still dont start trying to do heavy singles or doubles.
Over time you will build up both the weights you are using in each exercise, but also the total number of repetitions you are doing in a given workout. This gradual increase will build the muscular endurance you need for getting back to heavy training.
First, be aware that when you begin reconditioning you are at very high risk for injury. This means emphasizing light weights and higher reps for the first month or so of reconditioning.
Second, insure that when you are doing power movements do a full range of motion, not a partial lift. Half squats wont help you get back in condition for full squats.
Third, you may have to use some specialized exercise movements to train some muscle groups that you know may be weak. These exercises will vary from one person to another.
Fourth, remind yourself that getting back in condition is a multi-month project not something that can be done in a couple weeks. The longer you have been away from training the longer it will take to get back where you want to be.
There is no hard and fast rule about how quickly or slowly people can rebuild their strength. However, being conservative is almost always the best strategy.
Finally, being consistent and persistent will always yield the best results. Chasing short term results may undercut any chance you have for long term success.
Remember, most people tend to over estimate how much they can accomplish in a day, and significantly under estimate how much they can accomplish in a month. Each workout is only a one step along a trail. If you take careful steps, you will go a long way down the trail.