Coming Back After a Layoff


On March 14th of this year I was run-down, sick, and tired. For the last 6 months I had been playing hockey 3-4 times a week, and I played in three tournaments in three months. For a 35 year old gym owner/barbell coach who has dealt with back and hip issues for years I was doing pretty well. Getting stronger afforded me the opportunity to add years to my competitive beer league hockey career, and I was taking advantage of it. But at this point enough was enough. The stress from hockey was getting to be too much and my strength was suffering. I decided it was time for a little break.

As a Starting Strength Coach I knew exactly what to do. I simplified my focus and decided to get stronger. I stopped playing hockey and began lifting, eating, and sleeping with my purpose in mind. Not surprisingly, my health, strength, and overall well-being began to improve almost immediately.

During my first session back under the bar I squatted 185 and benched 185. There was no way I could have deadlifted that day. I was still too exhausted from the tournament, but I knew that I needed to start somewhere. Sadly, 185 pounds was literally all I could muster on the squat. I felt a little better the next day and decided to squat 225, press 135, and deadlift 275. I slept like a baby that night, and was happy to take those very important first steps.

As I started eating better and sleeping more I grew stronger and stronger. The next six weeks were spent running a basic, novice linear progression with a few tweaks. I didn’t power clean because I had played the last month of my hockey season with a sprained wrist and couldn’t rack the bar just yet. I rotated squat/press/deadlift for workout A and squat/bench/chin-ups for workout B. It was the perfect start to get me back on track.

Things went pretty well. I tweaked a few other things here and there, but for the most part I just followed the plan. I ran my squat up to 395, my bench to 302.5, deadlift to 425, and press to 195 all for fives. Nothing earthshattering by any means, but for a kind of older, beat up guy with plenty of grown up responsibilities to worry about it was not too bad. My squat would have went further, but I got roped into playing 3 playoff hockey games the day after I did my 395 pound three by five. After not skating for a month and squatting three days a week my legs felt great while playing, but the recovery was hell. I never really rebounded back into my LP after that.

There were some ups and downs along the way. There always are. Like the day 285 pounds felt like it was 505 and I just about collapsed under it. Or when I got to 345 pounds and I was convinced after my first set of five that my LP was over because there was no possible way I could do two more sets. Somehow I talked myself in to completing the scheduled sets, and even though they felt horrible I got the job done. The funny thing is that all of my reps at 350, 355, 360, and 365 flew up over the next four sessions. It is interesting how that happens.

I took home a few things from my recent experiment coming back from a layoff that I think are worth noting. The fact is that training consistently and adding weight to the bar works every single time for detrained individuals and rank novices unless there is some kind of underlining pathology that needs to be addressed. Sure there comes a time when these simple steps no longer work, but we shouldn’t be in a hurry to get there. Far too many people overlook these two basic ideas. There are plenty of things about the Starting Strength program that are invaluable, but having a consistent training plan and adding weight to the bar every time is simply genius.

Rip told me when he was up at my gym last August that returning from a layoff always works the same. You run your basic LP again to rebuild the strength that you lost from detraining. He also said that the first few times you run linear progression after a layoff it should take half as long as the previous run. So if your first LP took you 6 months than when you come back from your first major layoff you should plan on it taking about 3 months to get back to that level of strength. And the next time you should plan on it taking about 6 weeks. That is exactly how it has worked for me and plenty of clients over the years.

The next time you are forced into a layoff for legitimate or illegitimate reasons, remember that getting back on the gain train always starts with the basic program. Remember to take it slowly and always use less weight than you think you should for the first few workouts back. After you ease back in gently you need to start taking bigger jumps for a few weeks. For example, I went 185, 225, 275,295, and started taking 10 pounds jumps up until the last few weeks when I slowed down to 5 pounds jumps. I also jumped into Advanced Novice and added a light day into the mix pretty quickly. That is always a good idea.

It doesn’t matter if you are coming back from a layoff or are a rank novice, linear progression gets tough. You will want to quit, but you have to decide if you truly want to get stronger or not. Layoffs happen for a lot of different reasons whether you like it or not. If you are going to be lifter you need to know how to handle them.

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