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Reacquiring Workout Proficiency Levels After A Layoff, by Matthew Romans

Several Total Results clients over the years have jokingly asked us just before they go on vacation for a week or two if they will be back at square one when they return. We make sure to tell them that while they may feel slightly deconditioned from a cardiovascular and metabolic perspective, they certainly will not start from scratch in their next workout. Sometimes we find that the time off (if it's only a couple of weeks) is actually a good thing, and that the time away allowed them to rest a bit and recover more fully. As a result, they are just as strong, if not stronger. It has been my experience that it is easier to relearn a skill than it is to learn it for the first time. I have seen it first hand in exercise and in other endeavors, and I believe that the old saying about never forgetting how to ride a bike once you learn is both appropriate and true.

I recently read an article on the website medium.com that discussed the three stages of skill acquisition. The first stage is the cognitive stage. This stage requires total focus on the part of the learner, and it is usually the most difficult stage. During the time spent in this stage, nothing is intuitive. The second stage is the associative stage. Here the learner notices environmental feedback (possibly from an exercise instructor) and is able to implement these directives. This is where deliberate practice happens. Finally, there is the autonomous stage. The learner is able to perform effectively with less thought; things become more fluid and movement is more economical. The autonomous stage can be somewhat dangerous from a developmental perspective, since one's skill level can plateau if deliberate practice ceases.

The first several sessions for a Total Results client represent the cognitive stage. The client is learning something that is most likely very unfamiliar to them, so they will probably struggle initially with speed, pace, smoothness of movement, and turnaround technique. It is about building skill rather than intensity at this point, since there is no way to maximize intensity without first learning proper form. We usually start new clients with a generic beginner routine, so that they can learn the handful of exercises that are the most important and easiest to master. As they progress into the associative and autonomous stages with this generic routine, we normally will introduce additional exercises that will be alternated from one workout to the next. Trainees will start in the cognitive phase on these newer exercises, but will soon move into the associative and autonomous stages on them as well. This is how proper exercise intensity and an optimal exercise stimulus are achieved.

What happens with clients who leave Total Results and then return months or years later? My experience has been that returning clients know what to expect, so they have some advantage over novice clients. There is what is known as muscle memory, and it is one of the few exercise terms found in the general lexicon that is truly accurate. People who resume Total Results workouts usually don't have the feeling of being overwhelmed by learning something that is completely new; there is a sense of familiarity. Unless there has been a catastrophic injury or illness during their time away, even after a few years away from Total Results, clients will not be reduced to their starting levels of strength or skill. A few former Total Results clients have recently resumed workouts with us after extended time away, and they have attained excellent form and muscular effort in less time than it took them to achieve the same levels when they first started. The body understands that muscle is a precious and useful resource, and the longer you have used certain skills or motor pathways, the longer it takes for them to dissipate. The same thing happens to musicians. Jerry Garcia, the late singer and guitar player for the Grateful Dead, lapsed into a diabetic coma for five days and very nearly died in 1986. When he came out of the coma he had to relearn how to play guitar, which he was able to do within a few months. It took him nearly 30 years to achieve the level of proficiency he had prior to the coma, and only a few months to regain that level after the coma.

If you are a former Total Results client that has thought about resuming workouts with us, but are worried that achieving your former levels of strength and conditioning is too tall a task, let me ease your mind. It is easier and will take less time to reacquire skill than it did to acquire it in the first place. Once you have achieved something, you already know that you can do it. Getting back to where you were will require effort and focus, but what has been done once can be done again. One or two twenty-minute workouts per week will give you your best chance for success and enable you to live your best life going forward. No matter how long you have been away, it is never too late to start.

Posted December 08, 2020 by Tim Rankin