If you’ve been in the iron game for a long time, and/or have a history of playing sports, there’s a good chance that you’ve taken some time off from the gym at some point. Maybe it was an injury, or maybe it was life, but the point is your training was forced to take a back seat.
When it’s time to get back under the bar, one of the most psychologically challenging days you will face is your first day back in the gym. The realization that the weights you used to warm up with now might be your working weights, or even worse...might be too heavy for you. Where you are, compared to where you were, can be a hard pill to swallow.
So far we’ve looked at the principles of overload and individuality, as they apply to training the general population. In this next installment, we’re going to look at the principle of Reversibility through a case study of a long time Power Athlete alum, Big Daddy Carl Case.
Reversibility can be summed up in one simple phrase: you don’t use it, you lose it. Of all the principles, this is one of the easiest for folks to understand, because it has almost universal application. Just about anything that requires deliberate practice, to include playing an instrument, speaking a foreign language, even solving more complex math problems, will suffer a backslide in performance once you stop doing it.
If life or injury has benched you, or one of your athletes, you will feel the effects of this principle. But, as our Case study shows, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
“Case” Study: The Man, the Myth, The Legend
Carl is a long time Power Athlete coach, blogger, and practitioner. If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading some of his work, I suggest you first punch yourself in the face, and then correct this immediately. What some might not realize is that Carl is also a high-level field sport athlete, having spent 11 years on the rugby pitch; this is also where he suffered two ACL injuries. For our Case study though, we’re just going to focus on his first one.
Pre-Injury: Taking Big Weights for a Ride
Before injury, Carl’s numbers would place him at the top of ANY leaderboard. 475lb back squat, 305lb power clean, and a 520lb deadlift. These numbers represent years of hard work, dedication, and earning the name Big Daddy. Then...injury happens. A torn ACL sidelines Carl, and he begins his road to recovery. It would be about 5 months before he was able to get back in the weight room.
Post-Surgery: The Long Road Back
When he was finally able to get back under the bar, he opted to reestablish a solid Base Level of Strength. As Power Athlete Founder and CEO John Welbourn says, strength is not an adaptation, but the adaptation upon which all others are built. If you were to look at his numbers his first day back, you wouldn’t recognize him at all. He started with a back squat of 185lbs (61% reduction), a power clean of 95lbs (69% reduction), and deadlift of 175lbs (66% reduction). He’d lost over half of his strength across the board, after 5 months of forced non-activity.
In other words, he didn’t use it, so he lost it.
Performance is Remembered...but Traits Will Never Die
It doesn’t have to be an injury that takes you out of the gym. A new job, a new baby, staying up late blogging about the last season of Game of Thrones; some or all of these may come up in your life, forcing you to take a step back. But, there is a silver lining.
While your numbers are quick to disappear, the performance traits that took you to those PRs are not. It took months of dedication to get to the top of your own Iron mountain. In that time, you weren’t just getting jacked. You were training your muscle fibers, muscle spindles, Golgi Tendon Organs, and all the other components of your skeletal and muscular structure to handle those heavy loads. And, those traits take much longer to suffer the effects of Reversibility. For example, when is the last time you rode a bike? Even if it’s been years, do you think you could jump on right now and go? I’d vote yes; you might not be able to ride as fast and as far, but you could do it. This same idea can be extended to the weight room. Your 1RM back squat might go down, but your musculature knows how to eccentrically handle a load, and concentrically explode it back up.
Post-Recovery: Big Daddy is Back
After 10 months of dedicated work, Carl was back to the top of the leaderboards. 455lb back squat, 315lb power clean, and a 525lb deadlift. Yes, that’s correct. He came back stronger in two of the three lifts. What initially took him YEARS to develop, he was able to get back and surpass within MONTHS, because the traits that got him to where he was before were still there...they just needed a reminder of what they can do.
In my last article I covered the seven primal movement patterns (squat/hinge, step, lunge, vertical push/pull, horizontal push/pull), and how they are the basis of all human movement. Start looking at the lifts in your gym through this lens. A squat and deadlift aren’t two separate movements, but rather two different ways to load a hinge. A press and a dip, while they look nothing alike, both represent vertical pushing.
If life forces you to take a deload, it’s not the end of the world. You missed the killer WOD with push ups because the baby just wasn’t in the mood to quiet down, but made sure to hit bench day? Horizontal pushing, check. Missed muscle-ups, but hit your pull-up day? Looks like vertical pulls to me.
Similarly, if an injury sidelines you, don’t panic. If you’re cleared by your PT and doctor to start moving again, don’t focus on movements you can’t do, but rather look at movement you can do. For example, You can’t deadlift, but you can squat and swing a kettlebell? Cool, looks like you got your hinging in.
Snacks Versus Meals
Now, am I saying that preserving the same movement pattern is just as good as the movement itself? No. You will suffer a detraining effect if you can’t or don’t perform a certain lift; that’s unavoidable. I am saying that stressing an individual, or a set, of movement patterns, combined with those long-developed traits, can potentially prevent a dramatic backslide in your numbers. My good buddy and fellow Block One Coach Dr. Matt Zanis likes to call these snacks versus meals.
When you’re healthy, or when you are able to regularly get into the gym, you’re getting those big, meaty meals. When life or injury happens and keeps you out, you might only be able to get snacks. If you were told you couldn’t have any meals for a week, would you skip the snacks and pout? Hell no; those snacks might not be as satiating, but they’ll mitigate some of the effects of not eating.
A Short Reverse Isn’t the Worst
Yes, backsliding sucks, but unless earning your living depends on your performance in the gym, it’s not the end of the world. If life forces a deload, get those meals when you can, snack on those movement patterns when you must, and keep that trend line moving forward. And, when you can feast again, rest assured those numbers will come back with a vengeance.
EDUCATION: Power Athlete Methodology - Level One
BLOG: Principles of Training: Science vs. Practice by Tex McQuilkin
BLOG: GenPop Training: Principle of Individuality by Adam Campbell
BLOG: Rehab to Performance: Movement by Dr. Matt Zanis
He currently coaches at two gyms in San Diego, applying the principles from the Power Athlete Methodology to both general population and field sport athletes.