Where to start coming back from a long sabbatical or never lifting before

Most people don’t know, or possibly understand, that the body is a fantastic stress, recovery and adaptation machine. Meaning when you put stress on the body such as the sun on the skin, lifting weights, etc. the body will adapt to that stress after a brief period of recovery. So the next time you go into the sun it will take a much longer period of time in the sun or stronger UV index to burn you. The same thing applies to lifting weights. When you lift a certain amount of weight one day, if properly recovered, your body will be able to lift that same weight a little easier than before. 

This is applied to all lifters with a central nervous system. The longer you train the more the body can tolerate a certain stress. Someone like myself who has been lifting for years has adapted to a very high amount of stress to allow me to squat 435 pounds and deadlift almost 500 pounds. However, I have recently taken a large amount of time off from lifting due to some extenuating circumstances and am ready more than ever to jump back into it. But….. where would someone like me have my starting weight at? Where would someone who has never touched a bar even start?

Let’s start with a person like myself who has been training for years and adapted to high stress and put on a large amount of muscle. I could probably come back and start my squat at 315 and deadlift 350 if I like being sore for a week and a half and laying in bed all day. I would need to take a long enough break to allow my body to recover and my SRA cycle would be affected. The weight I put on the bar would still be 5 pounds but I wouldn’t make much progress. Also, what’s the rush to get my strength back. I don’t compete so I’m not in a hurry. It feels like a lot of people nowadays want to be as strong as they can be as quickly as possible. It shouldn’t be a big deal if it takes 2 to 3 months or 6 months to a year. You will get there eventually if… you are consistent in the gym and your form is correct. 

So Jason, what weight are you going to start with? Glad you asked, believe it or not, I will only be starting my squat out at 95 and my deadlift at 135. These weights are very low for me; however, it allows me to do two things to allow for a good strength outcome. It allows me to keep my overall stress on my body very low and it allows me to practice form. 

Since the weight would be so light I will be able to allow a proper SRA cycle. Meaning I will be able to do my lifts, take the next day off of training to fully recover and allow a proper adaptation. I will be coming into the gym 48-72 hours later and most likely adding 10 pounds on my lower body lifts since these weights are very light for me. My upper body lifts I may add 10 pounds until it gets hard, which will be much quicker than my lower body. My first day in the gym I will start with the bar and do 5 reps, add weight on the bar, do 5 reps and work to a weight that isn’t too heavy and my form isn’t breaking down and do one top set of 5 reps. In 48 hours I will come back and do 3 sets of 5 reps instead of 1 set of 5 reps either at the same weight or increase the weight. 

What if I have never touched a barbell before? Good question. The answer is very similar, but has many extenuating answers as well. I have had lifters who were very lean and very weak and we either did just body squats or started with a light bar (less than 45 pounds). If you are older and very weak I would apply the same method but instead of using a box and going down as far you can without breaking form. I had them do 5 reps and add weight until we found a weight that wasn’t too heavy and the form didn’t break down. I’ve had guys start their squats at 65 pounds and by the end of the first program finish with a 350 pound squat PR. I have had females start with a 65 pounds deadlift and deadlift well above 200 pounds. Just don’t let your ego get into the way of proper training. 

So what about form? Well, when we start at lighter weights we are able to practice form MUCH easier than if we were to start at almost max weight. Yes, I am strong and have been doing this for years, but after not doing them for a bit I am a bit out of practice. Just like anything you do, when you take a long break you “need to knock off the rust a bit.” This especially applies to those who have never lifted weight before. I highly recommend NOT starting at heavy weights. I also recommend a coach, such as myself, that would help you figure out proper form. The biggest reason people get hurt in the gym is form. A surprising amount of trainers don’t know how to teach it and it leads to injuries. 

So remember to leave the ego at home and do this properly. Make sure your form is where it needs to be and keep the weight very light. Don’t be afraid to start with bodyweight movements and lighter bars. Increase the weight to a moderate start weight and only do one set of 5 reps, then come back 48 hours later and do the same weight or more for 3 sets of 5 reps. Remember lifting is a lifelong journey, not a sprint.