Returning to Working Out Following a Layoff
Falling off the wagon and failing to get to the gym on a regular basis is common and occurs for many reasons. They may include an approaching deadline for work, a recent injury, family commitments, or a general lack of motivation. Getting back into an effective exercise routine can be easy but it requires patience. You will be more successful starting slow and being patient than if you dive in full speed ahead with unrealistic expectations. A reference to a popular children’s story seems to help people in this situation. In the story of the tortoise and the hare, you want to be like the tortoise. He consistently worked to the best of his abilities to get to the finish line, whereas the hare whom may have been able to jump out to a larger lead out of the gate was distracted and could not consistently perform to finish the race.
Time away from the gym effects your body on many levels. First, when you stop exercising you are simply not burning off as many calories as if you are working out. Because you are burning fewer calories your body will be begin to store them as fat. Also the more time you take off from the gym the less efficient your cardiovascular system becomes at performing its function and subsequently the lower your VO2max will be. (more on this later) Because the cardiovascular system does not perform as efficient as it did in the past you can not workout as hard and gain the benefits of those efforts.
Another issue that occurs is less stored energy in your body called glycogen. Glycogen is a complex form of energy that is stored throughout the body primarily in the muscle cells and in the liver. Glycogen is one of the primary sources of fuel you use when you are exercising. Also occurring at the cellular level is a decrease in mitochondrial density within your muscles cells. The mitochondria is the power house of a cell, it produces the energy needed for the cell to carry out its specific function. A person with a higher mitochondrial density will be able to exercise longer and at a higher intensity than one with a lower density. This allows you to burn more fat and sculpt the body you are striving to achieve.
All of these issues can compound and contribute to a lower fitness level once returning to the gym. Typically when returning to the gym following a layoff you may feel dizzy, light-headed, nauseous, short of breath, or a general weak feeling. These symptoms occur due to the reasons I have highlighted above. First, your body has become less efficient at bringing in and using oxygen and less efficient at dispersing the byproducts of exercise: carbon dioxide and lactic acid. Lactic acid is generally associated with the burn you feel while exercising. The more you workout the more efficient your body becomes at eliminating these byproducts of exercise and subsequently you can exercise at a higher intensity longer to burn more fat. Another adaptation of exercise is the body’s ability to store glycogen more readily. Having higher storage levels of glycogen enables you to workout for longer and harder.
As I stated above, when you take time off from the gym your VO2max decreases. This is a measurement used in the exercise physiology field to describe a person’s highest level of oxygen they can use during sustained aerobic efforts. A higher VO2max is generally correlated with having a higher level of fitness. Intense exercise whether it is cardiovascular in nature or resistance training derives adaptations in your body to become more efficient. In general, your body gets better at bringing oxygen to the cells and taking the carbon dioxide out. All of these adaptations allow you to exercise at a higher intensity for a longer period of time. This in turn burns more calories and helps you become leaner.
The best plan of attack to returning to the gym is to start at a lower intensity in which you can complete a specific workout. From there you can establish a baseline fitness level and progress your workouts.Workouts can progress by increasing any of the following: duration, workout intensity, and workout frequency. An effective method to progress your workout routine is by manipulating your work to rest ratio. For any given exercise you may work at a 2:1 work to rest ratio. Meaning you work for twice as long as you rest. For example, if you were performing step-ups, a proper work to rest ratio would be 2:1, meaning you would perform the exercise for twice as long as you rest; thus, if you exercised for 60 seconds you would rest for 30. As you become more fit you would change the ratio to where you are working much more than you are resting. For someone returning to exercise a 1:2 ratio would be appropriate. You would then progress to 1:1 and so forth. This method can be utilized with any type of exercise whether it is resistance based or cardiovascular in nature.
Another very effective method of exercise progression is lactic threshold training. Using lactic threshold training you exercise using a progressive program that gets harder the further into the workout you get. I like to describe these workouts in terms of pushing back a curtain, an expression I learned from Juan Carlos Santana, a strength and conditioning coach who trains several high level athletes. The curtain is your highest perceived level of exercise you can reach. The workouts in which you are pushing back the curtain you push yourself to the point of reaching the curtain and pushing it back slightly. Each day you push this curtain back a little further. However you do not want to break through the curtain because more than likely you will not be able to complete the workout which will not allow you to be progressive.
Returning from a layoff can be physically and mentally challenging. You return ready to work at the same intensity as you left, however your body has changed and you may not be able to reach the same levels.Take it slow at first, to gauge your fitness level, and then continue to progress from there. You will be more successful than diving headfirst into the same routine expecting to pick it back up instantaneously. The most important piece of information you can take from this article is to be patient. Patience and consistent hard work will lead to the results you are seeking. Always remember the story of the tortoise and the hare.