Many obstacles make it challenging to stick with a fitness program, including injuries, work and family commitments, or just simply mental fatigue. Whatever the reason, many of us find that one day we’re fit and looking good, and another day our friends are asking us, “Bro—do you even lift?”
The technical name for staying with a workout, or getting back into a workout after a long layoff, is exercise adherence. The problem with extended layoffs is that the longer you take off from training, the harder it is to get back into training—having more free time is nice, after all!
Coaches of young elite athletes in sports such as gymnastics know how difficult it is to get their athletes back into hard training after a long layoff, and will often insist that even when injured they still train in some capacity. The late Bulgarian weightlifting coach Ivan Abajiev, who often had his athletes training five times a day, would say to the effect, “If an athlete is so badly injured all they can do is lift a finger, come to the gym and lift a finger!”
Iron game athletes have an especially hard time with comebacks after long layoffs because they know exactly how much they could lift, and it’s discouraging to find that even the warm-up weights are hard. A female athlete who take an extended layoff to have a child has an especially difficult challenge. Not only are they weaker and may have a considerable amount of bodyfat to lose, but the responsibilities of motherhood consume much of the day.
There are many effective ways to help you get back into the gym or motivate you to stay in the gym, including finding a training partner, working out in the early morning so responsibilities later in the day don’t cause conflicts, and even changing your training environment by joining a new gym. For your consideration here’s one more – train less!
Let’s start by looking at one measure of fitness, aerobic capacity. Events lasting over two minutes primarily use the aerobic, or long-term, energy system. Swimming more than 1500 meters or running more than 5000 meters primarily use the aerobic system.
To improve aerobic capacity, a typical protocol for a beginner would be to train 3 days a week for 30-45 minutes, working up to an intensity level of at least 80 percent. That volume of training would need to be increased to reach higher levels. For example, one study found that marathon runners who put in 38-44 miles a week averaged a time of 3:50:46, those who ran 6-13 averaged 4:45:35, and those who ran six or fewer miles per week averaged 5:12:12.
The key principle to understand when considering taking a long break from endurance training is that the amount of work needed to maintain aerobic fitness is significantly less than it takes to increase it. For example, one study on aerobically-fit individuals found that the subjects could reduce their training volume by two-thirds and maintain their aerobic conditioning levels for several months. So if life gets in the way and you can’t keep up your current aerobic training regimen, don’t panic! Just cut down to one quality aerobic training session every 5-7 days and you can hold onto those hard-earned gains. Eventually you will get into a detrained state, but recognizing that you can stay fit with a minimal time investment will give you peace of mind in knowing that when you get back to your regular routine, you will not have lost much, if at all.
With strength and muscle mass, as with aerobic conditioning it does not take much training to maintain your strength or muscle size. One study found that resistance-trained subjects could reduce their training volume to just one day a week and maintain their strength levels for 3 months! So if you’ve been in the gym six days a week using a bodypart split system, rather than just taking a complete layoff, how about trying a compromise such as cutting back to full-body workouts performed twice a week, or perhaps once every 4-5 days? In fact, you might even find that during the first few weeks of using such a protocol you might get significantly stronger.
In the 80s and 90s, one popular weight training method promoted in muscle magazines was the “Heavy Duty” system created by the late Mike Mentzer, a professional bodybuilder who won the IFBB Mr. Universe title performing short but intense workouts. Many who tried this system found that because they had been overtraining with their previous workout, when they tried Mentzer’s system they often experienced exceptional gains in strength in the short term.
If you feel the need to take a long break from training, first try reducing the number of workout sessions per week. Even as few as one training session a week can help you maintain your hard-earned levels of strength, muscle mass, and endurance. And when you’re ready to get back into it, you can start from where you left off and strive to pursue higher goals!