Dear Swole Woman,
I am writing for encouragement/tough love/whatever. I am wanting to get started getting swole, and I am planning to do it with the Stronglifts 5x5 plan.
Here's my trouble, or my mental block: I previously did the stronglifts 5x5 for quite a while, but not as consistently as I could have…but that was a while back, and now the app wants me to start over. I feel discouraged that I have to start over, and I want to jump in at a higher weight and not redo any of that work.
In part of my head I know that if I start over at 45 pounds for each lift, and just follow the plan, I'll be back up above 100 pounds for the squat/deadlift/bench in a month. But another part of me is having trouble getting over the discouragement and I just want my body to be exactly where I left off.
Can you help me understand my mental block and get over it?
Start all over, make a new beginning?
When I started to lift for the first time, once I worked through all the self-consciousness and feelings of gym awkwardness, it was thrilling because I got stronger so quickly, thanks to the way that human muscle biology works, and it was way easier than I expected. While the individual sessions weren’t that hard and it’s not like I was exponentially gaining mass (as I’d irrationally feared I would), it was still a lot of showing up and putting in the work to do something I felt proud of—and that made me feel like it existed for a reason other than to be as thin as possible and look good.
So the first time I had to take a break, naturally, I panicked. I didn’t want to, because I’d put so much time into getting the teeny amount of jacked that I did. If I had to go backwards it would surely constitute some kind of failure on my part. I didn’t come all this way to go back some or all of the way; that you could go backwards by standing still was not fair, made no sense, was a particular targeted attack at me and my best intentions, etc etc etc.
While we all have to take breaks from everything sometimes for a number of reasons, now we’ve all had an incredibly long forced break from normal life that has had nothing to do with our own will and intention and everything to do with the fact that the government won’t give the people the guidance and assistance it owes them during a global pandemic. Now we are trying to pick up some pieces from a life we did not break but nonetheless are forced to clean up.
All this said, we never really do get our choice of when our lives get messed up and we have to do some form of reset; this is part of the overall injustice of being alive. Considering the entire arc of a life, I think very, very few people go through it on a steady upward trajectory with no eminently dumb, senseless, unfair setbacks: Someone you depended on dies; a break-up; a lost job; let’s throw in “wildfires due to climate change” and “hurricanes and flooding due to climate change” as a couple more examples.
We are allowed to be mad about this; having to start over in these scenarios is, in some sense, a waste of time. However, there are opportunities within a reset that don’t exist in other stages of progress, and it may not feel like it, but those opportunities are valuable in their own way.
Think of it this way: Suppose you built a plane and now you’re flying it. Mid-air, you realize you forgot to install… I don’t know, I don’t really know planes, but I love the word “flaperons” and know it to be a plane part of some kind. So let’s say you were able to take off without your flaperons installed only to get into the air and realize, fuck, I thought this flight was going kind of poorly and now I realize it’s because I do not have any flaperons installed; everyone knows you need your flaperons. The smart thing to do would be to land the plane and install your flaperons and get going again, but maybe you’re already late to wherever it is you built your plane to fly to. You can get through without the flaperons, but the journey will surely be more difficult and stressful, but you are highly disincentivized by the circumstances to take the time to pull the brakes, as it were, and give yourself the flaperons you needed.
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In another situation, maybe you crash because you don’t have the flaperons. Maybe a lightning storm strikes and the decision of what to do about the flaperons is removed from your hands. Either way: Your flight has been thoroughly ruined, but now you have the opportunity to install the flaperons and improve your overall flight experience going forward. What I am saying is, the way to think about having to start over is as an opportunity to go over your metaphorical plane and install the metaphorical flaperons.
This relates to lifting and athletic stuff because lifting, like a lot of physical activity or really anything in life, is easy to do but hard to master. It’s easy to get into a relationship but hard to make it last, as married people are very fond of telling us; it’s easy to start lifting but hard to be good at it. Sometimes we get involved in these things and then think because we are not good at them right away that we are not meant for them, and I feel, personally, that nothing could be less true in the entire world. Everything in life just is hard and you have to expect the work and know it will be worth it.
So when the lifting app tells you you have to start entirely over with lifting weights, I know it feels discouraging, but it’s not the end; it’s just time to focus on a different kind of growth than adding even more weight to the bar than you were doing the last time you lifted, weeks or months ago.
Coaches and programs will always recommend that someone starting to lift again after a long break start with a much lower weight than they were working with when they last lifted for a few reasons. One, you need to re-solidify your form, and you’re not going to come back with your squat or bench in perfect working order. If you use weights that are too heavy before you’re used to working out again, you could end up hurting yourself because your body will have forgotten how to move in the correct ways, so you need to give some space and time to that. Two, your muscles are not used to working hard, and if you use weights that are too heavy, you will be extremely sore for no good reason, possibly even so sore you will feel like you have to skip working out for another week, thus setting yourself back even further. You have to trust that you are still doing something worthwhile even if it’s not “the absolute most you could ever potentially do.”
You should know that many (maybe even most) athletes start over, so to speak, with training, sometimes on a yearly basis; this is called having an “off-season,” in the case of pros. Some of them take that time to cross-train and get better at other things, some of them do nothing at all (because taking breaks is good) but in any case when they return to their sport it’s a time to rebuild a newer and better version of their skills. Inside and outside of lifting, the reset truly comes for us all.
Do you have to start over from the bare barbell, like the app says? Maybe not; the app tells you to do this probably out of an abundance of caution, because no one ever got hurt starting too slow. But a fairly standard formula for getting back into lifting is to start your first week back at about 50 percent of whatever your one-rep max was when you left off, then 60 percent the next week, then 70 percent the following week. This means by week four, you’re probably back to right about where you were when you had to take a pause. So if my one-rep max squat was 120 pounds (you can calculate this number from the five-rep sets you’d be doing in a starter program), I’d start my first week back doing sets of five for 60 pounds, then 70 pounds the following week, and so on. However, if you feel like your form was terrible when you were last lifting and you could use some time to work on it, you can spread out this process way more, start with just the barbell, and follow the same rate of progress as you did when you first started lifting, adding 2.5-5lbs every training session.
It’s possible you’re still going to be frustrated because you feel like everything was going perfectly before and there’s nothing for you to work on, or in other words, maybe you think you had no flaperon-related opportunities at the time your flight was impeded. You could be right. I doubt it, though.
It is not an indictment of you or a moral failing to admit that you lacked flaperons or even forgot about the flaperons, though many people see things this way and will take off into metaphorical flight again, in willful ignorance of their lack of their flaperons, because they feel it would be a weakness to admit they forgot the flaperons. (By now, I hope—for even the people who know what “flaperon” means and are mad that I’m using it wrong—the fact that I’ve used it so many times means that it no longer has any meaning). In my opinion the flaperon-ignorers are free to go on with their flights without the flaperons, but their flights will always be unnecessarily difficult until they learn to value and install the flaperons. The important thing is not to get attached to any conception of yourself as someone who never gets anything wrong or needs to work on fundamentals. No one is an exception to this, not even the greatest athletes.
This might surprise you to hear, but once you get accustomed to checking for and installing the flaperons, THAT process can become as addictive as flying more and more and higher and higher, metaphorically speaking. It’s important to strike a balance between checking for the flaperons and actually flying the plane to see if there is anything else the plane should be doing that it isn’t. You might even miss this part of the process—the starting over part—because it’s usually pretty straightforward and easy, compared to the flying of the plane/lifting actually heavy weights.
But doing both of these things forms a positive feedback loop that allows us to shamble along in the general direction of “progress”; even the worst and most toilsome parts of doing anything, or doing them over, are not a waste if we’re learning something. I know it can feel shitty to have to start over, but don’t think of it as starting over; think of it as time to reset. Suddenly you’re not a failure, you’re actually the most diligent and dedicated student of The Cycle.
Thanks to muscle memory, you’re never all that far from being as strong as you ever were, and how strong you are has nothing to do with your last workout. Embrace the process. I can say from experience, someday when you’re facing a one-rep max attempt, you might even miss these simpler times.
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.
You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.