As we see gyms slowly starting to open up across the country, I know weight room regulars are itching to get back under a barbell. While social distancing and hygiene are of the utmost importance in the gym right now, I know many lifters haven’t touched a weight in weeks (or even months) and have one major mission in mind: getting their gains back—and as fast as possible.
Here’s everything you need to know about how your muscles bounce back and how to pack muscle back on. Get ready to blow your pre-pandemic fitness out of the water.
Muscle Memory And Making Gains (Again)
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how to train right now, we need to discuss the concept of muscle memory, since the concept is often misunderstood.
An example: Say you played the piano as a child but haven’t played for 15 years. If you sat down at a piano now, you could probably bang out a tune or two—even if it’s just “Hot Cross Buns.” Many people would attribute this to muscle memory, as if the skill is retained in your hands, not your brain. However, that’s not quite the case.
Read More: How Long Does It Take To Lose Muscle?
What we’re really talking about here is actually called motor learning. This process is really all about your brain and nervous system learning to perform some sort of task or skill by activating the right muscles at the right times. Since motor learning allows you to progress certain exercises more quickly, it is a major advantage for seasoned gym-goers getting back into a routine right now over newbies just starting out.
Satellite Cells And Building Muscle
So, if motor learning isn’t really about your muscles themselves, what does muscle memory really mean? Well, when we train hard, we activate satellite cells, which basically hang out around our muscle cells, helping repair muscle damage and promote recovery.
After a lot of training, these satellite cells can donate their nuclei to our muscle cells. Since muscle cells are large and nuclei can only control a limited amount of space, they need an increasing number of nuclei to continue to grow and function properly.
Thing is, your muscle cells don’t lose these extra nuclei if you stop training—so they essentially remember your training stimulus! (This review by Dr. Kristian Gundersen really gets into the weeds, if you’re interested.)
What does this mean for the gym? If you experience a lapse in training (like most have because of the pandemic), you can expect to lose some strength, endurance, and muscle size. However, since your muscle cells retain the nuclei they gained from previous training, you can typically regain these losses in little time.
Bottom line: Your muscles do remember how big and strong they used to be—and they respond very well to training after time off.
How To Train To Get Your Gains Back
Now you know that your muscles are much more receptive to making gains once you get back in the gym. Keep these training tips in mind to make the most of it.
1. Decrease Your Volume
Unless you have a great home gym, odds are you haven’t touched really heavy weights in a while.
Though your muscles are in a good position to grow and get stronger, they’re also detrained and very susceptible to muscle damage right now. For that reason, take your time ramping the weights back up.
During your first weeks back in the gym, you might only need two or three sets tops of each exercise. I’d also recommend shooting for 75 percent of your previous weight in your first few sessions. So, if you used to squat 200 pounds for three sets of 10 reps, start with two or three sets of eight to 10 reps at 150 pounds.
2. Take Extra Rest
If you don’t have a treadmill at home and didn’t get out to run or bike during the peak of the pandemic, your cardiovascular capacity has likely taken a hit. (It’s one of the first things to be reduced during time off of training.) Take an extra minute or two between sets to ensure you’re doing more training than fatiguing.
3. Then, Ramp Up Your Cardio
It’s perfectly normal to feel like you’re out-of-shape when it comes to cardio right now. Start with cardio workouts that are 75 percent the length (or distance) of your pre-pandemic sessions. You may also want to start out at 75 percent of your previous speed. Whether you run, cycle, or hit the stair-master, your capacity will bounce back.
While research hasn’t always found it to be helpful, some people like to stretch after strength training to reduce soreness. Stretching might be especially helpful after time out of your routine, so give it a shot if you need to walk the day after a tough leg workout.
5. Be Patient
I know you want to race to get your gains back. That said, plan to progressively ramp up your training for at least three or four weeks. If you did zero resistance training at home, it may take up to six weeks before you get back to your previous training level.
The silver lining: This retraining period can be fun, because you’ll see measurable progress each week!
Eating And Resting For Quick Gains
When it comes to getting back in shape, nutrition and sleep play just as important a role as your training.
Odds are, you’re going to be pretty sore from your workouts. To offset some of that, it’s important to eat enough protein (0.8 grams per pound of body weight per day). Take the time to cook quality good meals and do your best to hit your protein goal every day.
Read More: 9 Easy Ways To Increase Your Protein Intake
Proper hydration is also huge, so try to drink at least two or three liters of water every day.
In addition, shoot for at least seven hours of sleep every night to help boost recovery. Since you’ll be pretty sore during the first few weeks, plan an extra recovery day or two each week, too.
The Bottom Line
Generally, 75 percent of your previous training volume and/or intensity is a good place to start when getting back to the gym. If that feels too tough, back off a bit and give your body more time to re-adapt.
All in all, your muscles are primed to make great gains right now—just remember that you are detrained. You are going to be sore—and your training, nutrition, hydration, and rest all need to be optimized for you to make maximum progress.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.