For the professional and recreational athlete, life has come to a weird turn. Most of us were forced to step away from the weights, and change the way we approach training. Times called to get creative with our body weight, resistance bands, milk jugs, and anything else on hand to get in some effective training. Luckily, most places are slowly seeing their gym doors re-open, controlled sports being organized, and golf tournaments showing up on the schedule! As we return to the “normal”, it’s going to be in many of the athlete’s interest’s to jump back to where they were before quarantine, hoping to quickly pick up strength and performance levels again as if they never left the gym, but we have to approach this situation wisely and strategically. I am especially talking to competitive and recreational athletes who are used to training with barbells and have had no access to them as they did 3 plus months ago.
The moment you first get back under the barbell is going to be somewhat foreign to the body. You will feel that 60% of your previous estimated one rep max may feel like 80 or sometimes 90%. This is to be expected if you have only had access to a limited amount of weight in dumbbells. It’s important not to completely lose your cool here and think that you went back to square one. Like any practice back to sport, if we ease back into the specific method of training, our strength should return. In a 2010 study, it was observed that we can actually hold on to our strength for as long as 8-12 weeks after a period of detraining, however the actual size of the muscle along with tendon stiffness is what will be compromised (Kubo,2010). For power athletes, this can mean a decrease in performance, and their ability to be as explosive as they once were. So to have a safe, consistent, and goal oriented plan coming back will be important.
What is the best way to go about “easing” back into training? I’ll start by saying how there is no “best way”, any training method can be effective with consistency, and every athlete is different in how they will respond to it. I will share with you however the following approach has helped me, along with many of my athletes, become stronger, and increase performance after a hiatus of training.
Autoregulation is a systematic approach to training which is highly individualized. Using an RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) or RIR (Reps in Reserve) scale is one way to express this. The original RPE scale was created by Gunnar Borg, and was designed to rate light, moderate, and heavy efforts during aerobic training (Borg, 1970). Since then, it has also become a method to determine load used in the lifting/resistance training world as well. The term RIR has been used to express RPE on the same scale of measurement. Below you can see the chart that explains how to utilize the scale. Like I mentioned earlier, the scale is used on a day to day basis to choose the load you are to use in that specific session. There are different ways to utilize this scale, however this is one of the most popular.
Lets go over a basic way of implementing the RPE/RIR scale in a training session. Your coach has you easing back into the compound lifts and wants to use a linear approach to ramp up intensity to peak you for in tournament season. Your first block of training has 3 sets by 8 reps, but instead of using 65% of your estimated 1 rep max, you would use an RPE 6-7. This would just require you to choose a load from the scale that would land you between the 6-7 columns. The usage here is going to require you to pick a load that your body is ready for THAT DAY. It is going to fluctuate daily based on your recovery levels. Utilizing this can also make you think about some of the important factors when it comes to that recovery- How was my sleep last night? Is my nutrition on point? My stress levels are higher today, etc.
Returning to percentage-based training after a 3-month hiatus may result in an athlete pushing too hard, too soon, and potentially risk injury or burnout. It can also be extremely disappointing and frustrating for an athlete to feel a weight that was once labeled “light” as “heavy”. Percentage based is another useful systematic approach, but does not take into account the high variability in repetitions able to perform between different populations or different people in general. The stimulus will be very different for an athlete who performs 5 reps with 5 left in their tank, and an athlete who performs 5 reps and has 2 left in their tank. For example, because of differences in hormones and fiber types, it is typical for females to be able to provide a higher amount of reps in a period of time than a male, who has higher ABSOLUTE strength. This is due to quicker muscle recovery because of differences in glucose uptake, along with estrogen levels that assist with quickly producing ATP (Faerch, K 2010)(Klinge CM, 2008). The beauty of the RPE/RIR scale is really how it individualizes the load allowing you to decrease or increase as needed for the certain stress level we are looking to reach. There is also research in which shows that allowing lifters to choose load based upon RPE allowed them to train at higher intensities throughout studies, which led to a higher 1RM strength (Helms, 2018). Pretty cool stuff!!
Much of the research here suggests that RPE is a more than sufficient way to train to build strength, however like I said previously it does not all suggest it is the “best” way to train or is the end all be all. Any well designed program can give an athlete a successful outcome in the short and/or long term with consistency. However, when coming back to training after a 3 plus month hiatus, it may be a better scale to utilize. With no specific weight prescribed, the athlete can use more self awareness in choosing the weight to put on the bar. No pressure is put on them to hit a number, but to hit a stimulus. If they truly become experienced and how to autoregulate properly, they can get the stimulus we are looking for while staying submaximal and saving themselves from injury.
In conclusion, after a long hiatus of training, it is in the athlete’s best interest to get back after it with high motivation. Returning to training should be a strategic and progressive process which leads an athlete into their competitive season, or towards their goals. Autoregulation is a studied and highly utilized method in which the athlete can get there in a safe manner without overreaching too soon. I understand this is a broad outlook on this topic and there is definitely much more that will go into it, but I hope it introduces you to the idea and maybe enlightens you to look into it a bit deeper. If you are interested in chatting with a coach on this topic or how you can implement it into your training, I highly recommend you to schedule a strategy call with one of our coaches to learn more using the following link!
1. Borg G. Perceived exertion as an indicator of somatic stress. Scand j rehabil med. 1970;2:92-8.
2. Caterisano A., Decker D., Snyder B., Feigenbaum M., Glass R., House P., Sharpe C., Waller M., Witherspoon Z. CSCCa and NSCA Joint Consensus Guidelines for Transition Periods: Safe Return to Training Following Inactivity. Strength Cond J. 41.3 (2019).
3. Faerch K, et al. Sex differences in glucose levels: a consequence of physiology or methodological convenience? The Inter99 study. Diabetologia. 2010 May;53(5):858-65.
4. Helms ER, Byrnes RK, Cooke DM, Haischer MH, Carzoli JP, Johnson TK, Cross MR, Cronin JB, Storey AG, Zourdos MC. RPE vs. Percentage 1RM loading in periodized programs matched for sets and repetitions. Frontiers in physiology. 2018 Mar 21;9:247.
5. Klinge CM. Estrogenic control of mitochondrial function and biogenesis. J Cell Biochem. 2008 Dec 15;105(6):1342-51.