Ask A Swole Woman: How Do I Get Back Into Lifting?

Image: greg westfall via Flickr


If you’ve taken a considerable break from lifting—you were laid up sick, or had a busy few months at work, or lost interest in lifting for a while that stretched into a longer while—what’s the best, safest way to get back on the horse?

This is where I currently find myself. I’m still pretty new to lifting, only did it for a year. (My 1 rep max for squat was 155, DL 135, bench 70 (I know), and OHP 70.) I haven’t touched the bar in about 4 months, and the last time I did I was at a bit of a loss program-wise—either de-loading way too much or not enough, then not having the motivation to go back to it two days later (or being too sore to). I’ve been exercising about once or twice a week during this lull, but lightly, and it’s not lifting

Are there good rules of thumb or programs for prodigal daughters of the bar like me? I feel like I can summon the will to keep at it once I have some momentum, but the lack of a program or sure sense of where to start is holding me back.

Thank you! —Dayna


You may be surprised, or relieved, or both, or neither, to learn that even very very good and strong and skilled athletes, including powerlifters or weightlifters, take months or years off lifting. Sometimes out of necessity, sometimes because they feel like it, sometimes both, sometimes neither. How one might deal psychologically with taking time off, and then going back, sort of depends on the reason you take time off in the first place.

You sound enthusiastic but just wary of the logistics, which is a good place to be in. I bet there will be more than a few of you who started in a similar way, maybe around New Years, petered out through the year, and now that the end of the year is circling around and everyone’s getting anxious about their personal progress they are again thinking about lifting. Good! But also don’t wait until the New Year, please just go back now. Gyms are very empty this time of year, and it’s a GREAT time to get into the swing of things and learn to stake out your territory before they get crazy-crowded again come January 1. This sounds like a joke but it very seriously is not, January is genuinely logistically a bad time to start going to the gym. Go now, thanks!!!!!!!

I feel like you can probably guess the answer to this question, knowing that picking up where you left off will just cause you very great pain, and doing nothing is, well, doing nothing. So you have to start somewhere, between relearning to crawl and where you left off.

It might surprise you, but what many, or even most, lifters do when they’ve taken a lot of time off is basically just start over with something like Starting Strength or Stronglifts or another beginner-type program that has linear progression (big words for “add weight to your lifts every session”). These programs are built not just for people who are untrained in the sense they’ve never trained before, but also for people who are so detrained as to be the practical equivalent of untrained.

These programs work for both kinds of people because relative to the grand scale of things, you actually add weight to your lifts very quickly with these programs. Even if you have a max squat of say, 300, if you start with, let’s say, 90 pounds for 3 sets of 5 and add 5lbs per session every session, you will be back up to 250 for 3 sets of 5 in 10 weeks. Taking two and a half months to return to basically full strength when you’ve been off for a few months or more is actually not much of a time investment at all, especially considering it probably took that person a couple years at least to build to that point the first time. (Just for posterity, there are a lot of ways a person COULD go about this, especially guided by some sort of coach or trainer, but barring a more personalized method, going back to basics is not the worst thing to do.)

So if works for someone who is very experienced with lifting, it works for you too. Go back to whatever program you started with and start with eminently manageable weights. Do NOT, for the millionth time, chase soreness or your protestant-ethic-fueled ideas of working out “enough”. If you ego-lift your first time back and are so sore you can’t bear the thought of moving at all, let alone going to the gym (which is actually fine to do even when you’re sore but nevermind), you lose a week on that. If you lift too little the first time around, guess what? That means you get to lift heavier the next time you go, which is tomorrow!!

Let’s say you start with just deadlifting the bar, which is 45 pounds. You do your 3 sets of 5, and you’re like, lol, this is nothing, you go home and feel nothing, you feel great the next day. Did you waste your time? No—lifting involves a lot of biological adaptations, many of them neurological. You are not just stressing your muscles when you lift; you’re also stressing your nervous system and re-teaching your muscles to work together. This does not even manifest as soreness (though it might go hand in hand with muscle overwork that results in soreness). You will not really feel it, at least day to day, but it is important. Be one with the idea that even though you can’t feel what you’re doing in the way that certain fitness gurus who are not me tell you you should (debilitating soreness), you’re doing just fine.

And now when you go back to deadlift again, you can add 10 or even 15 lbs. In a mere six deadlift sessions, or four weeks in SS/SL time, you’ll be back to your previous best. And I swear to you, your body will be doing things in that time, even if you aren’t debilitatingly sore at any given time.

You basically cannot deload “too much” when going back to lifting after a long time. There is no downside to starting at a low point and moving up the weights at a linear pace except that it will perhaps not satisfy the part of you that can only feel good about itself when you are so sweaty you’re soaking the floor around you, so sore you cannot move, so tired you can’t move. I’m sorry, but you just have to say no to that part of you. For real, I did go to college and read The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and I can tell you unequivocally it is mad capitalist to break yourself on every workout. Be a better socialist and enjoy the overall reduction of necessary labor time.


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