Back Under the Bar

For the past 10 weeks, Brentwood Barbell has been shut down. Your gym probably has been too. Real-time platform coaching has been non existent. Immediately following the shut down, we loaned out many barbells and plates to our members. Some continued to train, many did not. Turns out, folks who frequent gyms need not only intelligently designed exercise programs, they also benefit tremendously from accountability, community, and structure. The social obligation to show up and “do the program” each week cannot be overstated. Indeed the gym model works great for a lot of people.

The gym during the COVID-19 shutdown

Strength is Persistent

If you love the gym like we love the gym, you might be itching to get back under the bar. Despite your good intentions, many of you will make a common mistake. In an effort to “catch up” or “get your strength back”, you’ll want to do too damn much. And what’s worse, if you were training previously, you actually can do too much. The interesting thing about strength is that it’s persistent. While the neurological component (coordination) can be fleeting, the structural component (muscle) tends to stick around for a while. Suffice it to say, despite your recent layoff, you’re still quite capable of lifting pretty heavy weights, wobbly as they may feel. What you need to know now is that walking into the gym and loading up the bar with your previous work weights is a bad idea.

Adapting to the Program

Think back to your first day in the gym. If you had a good coach, he/she picked a few exercises and walked you through how to perform them with reasonable efficiency. Then, you probably added a little bit of weight each set and worked up to a load that presented a challenge but still allowed for this “reasonable efficiency”. The weights probably weren’t all that much since you were new and newbies tend to be quite far from their physical potential. The next few days, however, you were sore. The work was new and the contractions performed by your working muscles involved stretching (lengthening) under a loaded barbell. This is a great recipe for soreness … initially. But you, being a human demonstrated the amazing ability to adapt to this workload. Steadily increasing your weights each session forced your body to get used to the idea of performing this work. Eventually, you got to the point where soreness was a thing of the past and only showed up when a new variable was introduced into the program. A consequence of having done the program is you being able to lift much heavier loads without getting sore. This adaptation always happens, provided the program is sensible and the athlete is consistent in performing it.

Easy Come, Easy Go

What we need to discuss now are the components of your tolerance that have gone to shit. I’ve already mentioned the neurological component, let us now look into the stretching component. Basic muscle anatomy revolves around the idea of the sliding-filament theory. Heavy resistance training has been shown to increase the cross-sectional area of a muscle by increasing the number of myofibrils (long cylindrical fibers) it contains. This increase in cross-sectional muscle area often results in increased force production potential (strength). Upon further investigation of these myofibrils, one would find a series of longitudinally repeated units known as sarcomeres. These sarcomeres contain filaments that slide back and forth over one another resulting in muscle lengthening (stretching) or shortening (contracting). What we have done thus far is covered basic muscle anatomy, now we need to put this information into a practical understanding of what has happened due to your previous training exposure.

  • You improved your coordination by performing the exercises routinely, this initially helped you lift heavier weights.
  • You (slowly) increased the cross-sectional area (size) of your muscles by exposing them to progressively heavier weights.
  • Over time, your body adapted to the workload by increasing the number of myofibrils you have as well as their tolerance to being stretched under load.

The improved tolerance to stretch under load represents your improved work capacity, specific to the task of lifting heavy weights. But alas, the work capacity aspect of training doesn’t last all that long if it isn’t being constantly stimulated. The situation you will soon be faced with, as you head back into the gym, is one where you are capable of lifting pretty heavy weights but don’t really have the tolerance to do so. The hardware (muscle) has hung around but the software (coordination, tolerance to stretch under load) isn’t available.
weighted dips are a great “stretch under load” for the shoulders

A New Baseline

Unlike your actual first day in the gym, this time when you head back, the weights can be heavy. You’re no longer completely untrained, you’re just out of shape. The first session is important because we aim for you to come back and train again in about 48 hours. This won’t go well if you’re too sore from the first day. Our approach will be to work up to a single work set for each exercise being performed that day. We’ll be doing sets of 6 reps for each of the exercises. Below is what this could look like for a lifter whose previous work sets were (squat x 6 reps @ 275, press x 6 reps @ 135, deadlift x 6 reps @ 315.

Our lifter has worked up to top sets of 6 reps at what he (and his coach) deem to an 8/10 effort. We want the lifter to “feel” like he could easily do at least 2 more reps, additionally we’re looking at his bar speed. Our top sets should produce a very slight reduction in speed as the lifter completes the set. With this 8/10 effort level, we’ve likely found the area where some work is happening but he won’t be terribly sore. Additionally, this level of effort should result in reasonable technique. For the next session, we would likely keep the weights similar and add additional top sets. Depending on the lifter, this building up of work sets may take 2 workouts or more. Again, we’re aiming to keep you coming back. If the initial session went well, there’s also no reason why weight couldn’t be added, it’s really lifter specific and this is precisely why you want a coach on the platform with you. Finally, you may have also noticed the lifter did 6 reps for all his warm ups. This method is the easiest way to find your top set of 6 reps for the day. As the lifter gets back into regular workloads/volumes, we may tailor the warm up to better suit his needs but this is how we start.

Work Capacity

A final note needs to be made regarding general work capacity. Continuing to train every few days will build your specific work capacity but there is more that can be done if the task is approached sensibly. Our recommendation is to add a single day of easy aerobic to your week upon returning to the gym. This work can be done riding a stationary bike, pushing a sled, or rowing. In the future you can add more aggressive modalities but the ones listed here all contain very little eccentric contractions. Eccentric contractions are precisely the type we’ve been discussing up this point (stretching under load). Adding additional work like this too soon would render our conservative approach with the barbell futile. Sore is sore, and it doesn’t matter how you got that way so resist the urge to jump back into aggressive conditioning work.

Hopefully you’ve found this article helpful in getting you back under the bar. For many of you, training at home, with lights weights has been less than inspiring. As you make your way back, keep your eye on the prize: steady, consistent lifting and the gainzZz will come.

Good luck with your training!



Rippetoe, M. Starting Strength, 3rd Edition. Basic Barbell Training. The Aasgaard Company. 2017

Zatsiorsky, V.M. Kraemer, W.J. Science and Practice of Strength Training, 2nd Edition. Human Kinetics. 2006

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