4-Week Routine for Coming Back From Forced Layoffs

Sometimes "stuff" happens that forces even the most dedicated lifter to take a significant break from training. For the guys who live and die by their PR's, this serious break can be due to a serious injury, which ranks up alongside squat-rack biceps curlers and Ke$ha on the sound system as something no serious lifter ever wants to deal with.

But needing to take some time off can stem from almost anything, like starting a new job, a new relationship, ending a relationship, having a child, or just deciding that the lure of the couch and the Stanley Cup playoffs (aka Canadian maternity leave) is just too damn hard to resist.

So while it isn't a crime to back off from the gym once in a while, it usually isn't advisable to just pick up where you left off once the smoke clears. Resuming an intense, high-volume routine after six months of little to no training is a recipe for having to replace your staircase with a wheelchair ramp.

Trust me, there are smarter ways to get back in the game.

If it's been six months or more since performing any regular exercise, the following plan isn't for you. Use a more "beginner" style workout like Starting Strength and slowly work your way back into it.

This is also NOT the workout to follow immediately after surgery. Take recovery slowly, making sure things heal properly and return to normal functioning.

This system is perfect for that in-between stage, when you're close to finishing up rehab (usually eight weeks or so post-surgery, possibly more), but not yet ready to resume balls to the wall training. It's also ideal when your fitness level has dropped noticeably due to inactivity.

What's different about this workout from most is that it focuses on timing the sets instead of counting the reps. Each interval (set) is going to last for 1 minute – part of that time will be spent working, the other part resting.

Here's the outline. Spend just 3 minutes on each exercise.

  • Week 1 – 45 seconds work, 15 seconds rest x 3 sets. (Straight sets.)
  • Week 2 – 30 seconds work, 30 seconds rest x 4 sets. (Straight sets. Increase weight from week 1.)
  • Week 3 – 15 seconds work, 45 seconds rest x 5 sets. (Straight sets. Increase weight from week 2.)
  • Week 4 – 5 seconds work, 55 seconds rest x 6 sets. (Ascending sets, ultimately end with more weight than week 3.)

Here's an example. The trainee is using a chest press machine and has a pre-injury 1RM of about 200 lbs.

Week 1

  Exercise Sets Weight Work Rest
A Chest press machine 3 60 lbs. 45 sec. 15 sec.
Warm-up with 45 lbs. for 8 reps
B Next exercise 3 45 sec. 15 sec.

Week 2

  Exercise Sets Weight Work Rest
A Chest press machine 4 90 lbs. 30 sec. 30 sec.
Warm-up with 60 lbs. for 6 reps
B Next exercise 4 30 sec. 30 sec.

Week 3

  Exercise Sets Weight Work Rest
A Chest press machine 5 120 lbs. 15 sec. 45 sec.
Warm-up with 60 lbs. for 8 reps, 90 lbs. for 5 reps
B Next exercise 5 15 sec. 45 sec.

Week 4

  Exercise Sets Weight Work Rest
A Chest press machine 6 5 sec. 55 sec.
Warm-up with 60 lbs. for 8 reps. Then use 90, 105, 120, 135, 150, 160 lbs.
B Next exercise 6 Ascending 5 sec. 55 sec.
  • You can use this method with some or all of the exercises in your routine. I prefer to use it with them all.
  • Machines and controlled movements work well and are often used in the earlier stages of rehab.
  • This works with any frequency or general routine you might follow. (A sample is provided below.)
  • Start light! I hesitate to give percentages given the post-surgery/lay off context, but the first week needs to be less than 50% of your 1RM, often closer to 25-30%. Each week increase the load by 10-20%.
  • Listen to your body, particularly if recovering from injury. If something feels weird or weak or very painful, modify accordingly.
  • Use a timer. 5 seconds up or down makes a difference on this routine. The clock in your head doesn't count.
  • If you absolutely hate lifting for time, then lift for reps. Go for 22 reps on week 1, 15 reps on week 2, 7 reps on week 3, and 2 reps on week 4. Continue with the prescribed rest periods. This rep range is just a broad guideline; a lifter will get fewer reps in a given time with exercises that have a longer ROM than those with a shorter ROM.
  • The workouts below can all be completed in an hour or less, and should be followed by stretching the injured area to ensure full ROM is regained.

Upper Body

  • A. Chest press machine
  • B. Cable fly
  • C. Seated row
  • D. Straight-arm lat pulldown
  • E. DB lateral raise
  • F. DB shrugs
  • G. EZ cable curl
  • H. Triceps pushdown

Lower Body and Core

  • A. Leg press
  • B. Seated leg curl
  • C. Romanian deadlifts
  • D. Standing calf raise
  • E. Reverse crunch
  • F. Partial sit-ups with a tube/weight

Total Body

  • A. Incline press (barbell, DB, or machine)
  • B. Wide-grip cable row
  • C. Military press (DB or machine)
  • D. Rear delt raise (machine or DB)
  • E. DB biceps curl
  • F. Rope triceps pushdown
  • G. Leg press or hack squat
  • H. Goblet squat

As a powerlifter, I'm hardly a fan of machine-based training, but it does have its place when trying to rebuild an area after a layoff or injury.

To be clear, this is NOT a routine to follow for weeks on end, and if you feel like a healthy ass-kicking T-Man it's not the routine for you, either; at least not right now. Tuck this one away for when you're not feeling so hot, or give it to that friend who just completed rehab after knee or shoulder surgery. You might find this to be just what the doctor should have ordered.

Tim Henriques has been a competition powerlifter for over 20 years. He was a collegiate All American Powerlifter with USA Powerlifting. In 2003 Tim deadlifted 700 pounds (at 198), setting the Virginia State Record. Follow Tim Henriques on Facebook