Weight Training After the Lockdown
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
As gyms throughout New Zealand re-open this week after closing their doors 7 weeks ago, lifters will be overly eager to dive back into training, no doubt full noise. However, for those that have had minimal to no training with a barbell over the past 7 weeks, you may want to think twice before testing your maxes to “see where you’re at”.
The following article will provide a somewhat experience, somewhat science-based (sans references) take on some considerations for returning to powerlifting training.
North Shore Barbell is opening for the first time in 7 weeks. Thankfully many of our gym members have had access to equipment throughout the lockdown.
Firstly, if you haven’t had access to a barbell or anything of the like over the lockdown period then as cliche as it may sound this is undoubtedly an opportunity for you to get much stronger than before. Time off, although daunting may not be as detrimental as you may think, yes your skill retention will likely diminish and things will feel foreign, but strength at the muscular level should not have taken too much of a hit.
So - what does that mean exactly for training? Well, it means that although your execution in the first few sessions may feel off, your strength will come back and likely reasonably fast. Couple this rate of progression with the eagerness to lift heavy s**t after not being able to do so for 7 weeks and you have yourself an interesting scenario. So with that in consideration, there are a few things you can factor into how you approach your training.
In spite of taking 7 weeks of heavy barbell training, it's likely your strength will come back fast.
As boring as it is, unfortunately, it may pay off in the long run to have injury prevention at the forefront of your training approach as you get back into training. Before you think it, no, not injury prevention in the sense of “pre-hab” or recovery based strategies, a far more efficacious strategy - load management.
When referring to load management it simply means how much work you are doing, which can be quantified in many ways but the 4 most important variables I like to consider for powerlifting are sets, reps, load, and RPE. So, at any given time those variables contribute to your overall “training load”. Now, to extrapolate a concept predominantly researched within field and team-based sports, something that may be an important consideration when trying to undertake a successful comeback is your acute: chronic workload ratio (ACWR).
Now, to put it simply ACWR is essentially the consideration of your short term training load (acute workload) compared to your longer-term training load (chronic workload). There is some research to suggest that potentially a significantly higher acute training load in comparison to your chronic workload may increase your chance of injury (you can read more on this here). This concept is shown below from Gabbet (2016):
Pushing things too early in your return may result in injury.
So what does this mean exactly? Well firstly, we need to consider that next to none of the data on ACWR is in barbell sports let alone powerlfiting, therefore it’s application in the sport is potentially limited. However, there is an opportunity to take the concept of ACWR and apply it to your training. So I’ll do my best to try and outline some ways you may be able to apply this to your “post-lockdown” programme.
The four main training variables to consider when returning to training:
Load (weight on the bar)
Now, assuming you have done next to no powerlifting training over the previous 7 weeks calculating your chronic training load (usually the average training load over the previous 4 weeks) should be quite easy, as it will essentially be 0. However, we can probably assume that if you were training with a reasonable powerlifting programme prior to being unable to train, you will have retained somewhat of a capacity to go back to a powerlifting-style of programme without a large risk of injury. Yet, how the above variables are programmed is very important in order to mitigate that risk. Although we can assume somewhat of a baseline retention of fitness, when considering the ACWR model, what should your training look like to begin with? Well, to put it simply, it should look and feel very easy, and probably easier than you and your heavy lifting deprived mind want it to be. For example, if you generally run a powerlifting programme that looks like this:
Squat 2x p/week
Bench 4x p/week
Deadlift 1-2x p/week
Train with RPE’s ranging from 7-9
Do most exercises for 3-5 sets
Have at least one day (or one days worth split throughout the week) of accessories
Then your re-introduction programme could look a little something like this:
Squat 1-2x p/week
Bench 3-4x p/week
Deadlift 1-2x p/week
RPE’s ranging from 5-7
For most exercises, sets will drop 1-2
Accessory sets should drop and RPE’s also
Now at first glance, these two programmes may not look all that different set out as they are above, however, when undertaking them they will elicit significantly different levels of fatigue and stimulus. As you can see there are ranges, these ranges are essentially trade-off’s that would need to be made with other training variables in order to push that variable higher. For example; if you chose to train with the higher end of the frequency spectrum across all 3 lifts you would have to trade that with training at lower RPE’s, or else, the risk of your training load spiking above what you can recover from increases. Similarly, if you were wanting to train at slightly higher RPE’s then you may want to consider reducing sets and/or frequency.
Sadly for volume lovers, a 10 x 10 squat may not be the best approach to returning
In summary, your training should be very easy, but if you want to push a little more in one area make sure to make compensations elsewhere. The upside to starting light is it allows you plenty of time to gain momentum, and anyone who's trained for powerlifting long enough can understand just how important momentum can be in training. If you go full send on day 1 the following 8-10 week build up into regionals may all of a sudden seem a little more daunting. Now, considering the fact that ACWR is not an exact science and there are no guidelines (as far as I’m aware) for powerlifting around just how high your acute training load can be in relation to your chronic training load, there’s essentially nothing to suggest that you will get injured. Like I said, personally this is a concept I like to utilise with my clients to help with injury prevention, and for the most part it works well. However, if you do wish to come back to the gym full noise and add 10kg to the barbell on a session to session basis, by all means, go for it, but just be aware that you may run into some issues. Anecdotally, I have had to have this conversation with myself in the past. For a bit of context, in 2018 I took 3 months off training properly (maybe 1 session per week at the most) to travel. When I came back I was weak as all hell and lifting felt shit for the most part, but once I started getting back into the swing of things (and gained a bit of weight) I got strong, fast, like really fast. For reference, I was deadlifting 160x5 on week one of the programme and 6 weeks later I was deadlifting 230x6 for a PB. Now that rate of progression was in complete violation of the ACWR guidelines, yet I was aware of this, and to be honest, training felt so good I wasn’t the least bit concerned about getting injured because a) I doubted it would be in any way catastrophic and b) I figured if something did happen I figured I would be able to get myself back to training within a short enough time frame for it not to be overly detrimental. So, did I get “injured”? well, I guess you could say I did, I threw my back out high bar squatting and hurt my pec trying to bench a PB both occurring in 12 or so weeks of returning to the gym. Both occurrences of pain stopped me from performing those lifts at full capacity for about 2-3 sessions. But like I said, I knew what I was getting into and I knew I would be able to come back from them and therefore they didn’t throw me.
Your training likely won’t take too much of a hit, and it’s equally as likely that you will start to gain your strength back at a fast rate. Now, if you want to roll with fast progression and increase bar loads exponentially, go for it, but just know that you are potentially increasing your chance of flaring something up. If you have had injuries in the past I would tread carefully here as it is reasonably well established that a large predictor of future injury is in fact prior injury.
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