Gyms are starting to open back up and if you've been without access to gym equipment the last few months, you are probably excited to get that beautiful, heavy barbell back in your hands. Here is some advice on what to expect and how to approach your lifting sessions as you make your way back to the bar.
YOUR FIRST WORKOUTS MIGHT NOT REFLECT YOUR TRUE STRENGTH
If you have kept up with your strength training using sandbags or other implements you have at home for the last few months, you can rest assured that you have almost definitely done enough to maintain (or even increase) your overall strength during your time away from the bar.
However, don't expect to walk up to the bar and lift what you lifted before or PR your lifts right off the bat. Your first barbell lifting sessions might feel awkward, a bit of a struggle and you may not be able to lift as much weight as you were hoping to. Don't get discouraged! You haven't lost strength, you've simply lost some coordination with barbell lifting.
Coordination is a huge component of lifting. Our brain's ability to efficiently direct and coordinate a complex body movement and move heavy loads requires consistent exposure to that movement and that magnitude of weight or that ability will start to decline. While you can use alternate movements or equipment to maintain or increase your overall strength, some of your coordination with the barbell will decline when you go some time without using an actual barbell.
For instance, while sandbag squats and barbell squats are both squats and require the same basic form, the shape of the weight, the way you hold it, the placement of the weight on your body and the fact that you usually lift heavier with a bar than with a sandbag, make the movements different enough that the coordination needed for each is a bit different. Having continued to practice the basic squat movement with a sandbag will have helped you maintain more coordination that can be translated to the bar than someone who did no squats at all but you'll still have some barbell/heavy weight-specific coordination to regain.
Luckily, coordination is not only lost much more rapidly than strength is lost, it is also regained very rapidly as well. If you've noticed how new lifters seem to make massive gains right out of the gate when they first start out, this is mostly due to them quickly building the neural connections that allow them to move in a more coordinated fashion rather than them building raw strength at lightning speed.
It's ok if those first several workouts back are less than stellar. Your brain just needs a couple of weeks to say "Oh yeah! This barbell lifting thing is a thing I do!" and reestablish that brain-body connection that is coordination. Be easy on yourself the first couple weeks, let your body and mind get back into the barbell groove and you'll see your numbers go back up quickly in your first few weeks back under the bar!
DON'T OVERDO IT!
I know most of you reading this are hard-chargers that want to run back to the gym, grab some metal and crush the shit out of some heavy lifting. Please exercise some restraint! The best way to derail your return to the bar is to go too hard and too heavy right away and get sore as hell and not be able to go back for days. Also, as you are in the process of regaining the coordination you once had, going too heavy too soon could put you at greater risk of injury. Work your way up to pushing your limits again. Do your first lifting session at what feels like a 5 or 6 out of 10 level of effort. If you didn't get too sore and you felt that you had good control over the bar and your movement, take things up a notch during your next lifting session.
Week 1 back in the gym is not the time to "go hard or go home" or you really will be going home and staying there longer than you want, too sore to lift again soon!
OPT FOR INCREASED FREQUENCY OVER INCREASED WEIGHT
Since we are working towards regaining our coordination with barbell work when we return to the gym, adding in an extra day of lifting will be far more helpful than trying to add more weight too fast. If you normally lift 3 days a week, up that to 4 days (or maybe even 5 if you aren't doing a variety of other training) the first few weeks. That initial slightly increased exposure to the lifts will help you regain the coordination you lost faster. Of course, don't take this too far - you still need some off days where you aren't lifting and if you lift more frequently, you'll want to drop the weight compared to what you would do with fewer days of lifting.
Practicing a movement you've taken a break from more frequently will result in better initial progress than will pushing the weight on the bar.
Being away from the bar sucks but you made it through! As you head into the gym, don't worry about how much weight is on the bar or whether or not you lost any strength. Don't get discouraged if the first few lifting sessions feel a bit awkward or if you get surprisingly sore despite using lighter weights. Just lift for the joy of lifting!
Forget about numbers, expectations and self-imposed pressure for the first few weeks. Just be grateful for the opportunity to wrap your hands around the iron again and enjoy your gym time!
Ruck Strong Cycle 3 starts July 1st! Going forward Ruck Strong will always provide two options for strength training - one using standard gym equipment (barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells) and an option for sandbag strength training for those without access to gym equipment. Sign up here for email updates on upcoming registration dates, discounts and blog posts!