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Today’s Flex Diet Podcast episode is an excerpt from the Iron Radio Podcast I recorded about my time helping the Special Forces In today’s podcast, I talk about the model I use for returning to the gym if you’ve been away for a week or longer. Everyone takes time off here and there. Learn how to hit the weights again safely.

Episode Notes

  • A plug for recreational activity

  • What’s your priority?
  • What is your mood?
  • What do you want to train?
  • What type of stress do you need?
  • What is a load spike?
  • Article: S4 Model for Returning to the Gym

The Flex Diet Podcast is brought to you by the Flex Diet Certification. Go to for 8 interventions on nutrition and recovery. The course will open again in the summer of 2022.

Rock on!

Dr. Mike T Nelson

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Dr. Mike T Nelson

Dr. Mike T Nelson

PhD, MSME, CISSN, CSCS Carrick Institute Adjunct Professor Dr. Mike T. Nelson has spent 18 years of his life learning how the human body works, specifically focusing on how to properly condition it to burn fat and become stronger, more flexible, and healthier. He’s has a PhD in Exercise Physiology, a BA in Natural Science, and an MS in Biomechanics. He’s an adjunct professor and a member of the American College of Sports Medicine. He’s been called in to share his techniques with top government agencies. The techniques he’s developed and the results Mike gets for his clients have been featured in international magazines, in scientific publications, and on websites across the globe.

  • PhD in Exercise Physiology
  • BA in Natural Science
  • MS in Biomechanics
  • Adjunct Professor in Human
  • Performance for Carrick Institute for Functional Neurology
  • Adjunct Professor and Member of American College of Sports Medicine
  • Instructor at Broadview University
  • Professional Nutritional
  • Member of the American Society for Nutrition
  • Professional Sports Nutrition
  • Member of the International Society for Sports Nutrition
  • Professional NSCA Member

Dr. Mike T Nelson

Welcome back to the Flex Diet Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Mike T. Nelson. And we are back once again this week. Today, it is just me talking about the model I use for returning to the gym. If you’ve been away for a week or even longer, what are some of the pros and cons, and what to do once you enter the gym once again, today, the podcast is brought to you by the flex diet certification.

We’ll open up again for enrollment in early June 2022, you can get on the waitlist by going to And once you’re on the waitlist, you will be the first to be notified when it opens. I’ll also usually have a cool fast action bonus for you there. And you’ll get all sorts of great information in the meantime. So go to flex for all the information and to get on to the free wait list.

Also, wanted to say coming up in the podcast, we’ve got lots of great interviews that are scheduled. So stay tuned for them, I think you will really enjoy them on a wide variety of topics, all things of how to add more muscle performance and improve your body comp without destroying your health in the process.

This is what I call the S4 model for returning to the gym. I’ll link to a shorter article that I wrote on my site about this also. But considering this happened to me, as I recently got back from our trip to South Padre Texas. As you know, from listening to this before, we generally go down there in fall and spring, primarily to work remotely, which we do all the time anyway. And kiteboard as much as humanly possible.

So of course, I would recommend if you don’t kiteboard you should learn go take a lesson to a lot of fun. It is kind of a steep learning curve, but I guarantee once it gets through that you will enjoy it. And I do think on a separate note. There’s a lot of positives for doing anything that is recreation, going outside of the gym. If this is even playing tennis, learning how to play golf pickleball catch Ultimate Frisbee. I’ve played Pinball for quite a while mountain biking, snowboarding, surfing, kiteboarding, whatever, pick something and you will be better off for it.

This is one of the questions I do consults with fitness professionals that, yes, go into the gym, and doing all those things is great. But I think spending some time doing new skills outside of the gym is beneficial. So the story I often use to illustrate this is the story of the sea slug. sea slug is this little critter that floats around in the ocean. And once it finds a rock, it attaches itself to said rock and then literally eats its own brain. Because it never moves from the rock again, so doesn’t have any reason to move. So it doesn’t need all those complex neural tracks and everything else.

I think as the older I get doing new forms of recreation or getting better at ones you already do is incredibly important for one, keeping your sanity doing something fun, and developing new neural pathways, keeping your brain nice and young. But today, we’re talking about the s four model for returning to the gym.

While I was in South Padre Texas, the previous podcast here I talked about my experience with the Special Forces experience helping them with their eight day process in northern Idaho. And during the time it was pretty crazy and pretty busy. So we were kind of going every which way. And we were in the mountains of Idaho. I didn’t really do any formal training. I did a couple of walks, I think I did like one run and did a few random lunges and push ups and bodyweight squats here and there, but didn’t do a lot of any formal training.

And when I was in South Padre this time, I did do some am running on the beach, lots of walks, getting like I said, as much kiteboarding as I could. And then I changed it a little bit this time on days that I wasn’t kiteboarding at all. I went to the gym or in the past I would kind of double up on a lot of days. And I don’t know I felt pretty beat up by the last time I got back in November. So some of that had changed my training up to be a little bit more prepared.

But this time I played around with lower volume Trying to keep the intensity of work high, and actually did a little bit less aerobic training. And when I came back, I think overall, it worked out a little better. I did bump up my protein a little bit more. But I still ate lots of sun each day had some pop tarts after kiteboarding Of course, dark beer. My favorite dark beer of this time was the coffee infused Guiness, which was amazing. And then being down South Padre, having a few Shiner Bock or Dos Equis was always good times with friends too.

Step one is just pick a priority. If you’re going to be gone on vacation, and you know that you’re going to have time off, I like lines to decide ahead of time are you going to train or not. Most of the time, even when I’m on vacation, we went down to the Hard Rock Cafe with Carrick Institute crew this past December, and it was awesome. So a very nice all inclusive place.

And even while I was there, I still still train some form every day, we weren’t doing a lot of other things got in some good walking and hanging out. But already decided before I left that, since I was not going to be super active during the vacation that I would train while I was there, which was fun. Again, when I do more active vacations like kiteboarding personally done a little bit less training as of late.

So step one, before we get to the actual s four model is to decide, are you going to train on vacation or not. Now again, I’m not gonna say there’s a good or bad, but some type of movement, I think overall is going to be better, also depends on the length of vacation, if you’re gone for a few days, I wouldn’t worry about it, you’re gone for more than a week, I think something is going to be better than nothing.

What I found is even literally as low as one or two sessions a week can be enough to keep everything and kind of hit the ground running once you come back. If you’re going to be gone or have a layoff period for several weeks, even just getting in those one or two sessions a week, I found makes a huge difference. Big difference between even one session a week and zero sessions a week. So something is going to be better than nothing, even if it is a very low volume.

This time, the left part is you know, what is your priority on vacation. So when I go kiteboarding My priority is to kite board. So if the wind is good, I’m gonna go kite board. And that may mean I might skip the gym that day. And that’s okay, because my main goal is to kite board. And I’ve got a little device on there, shout out to woo sports that measure some metrics.

I like to have some rough goals to hit. So my goal was to hit a 20 foot vertical jump didn’t quite make it. My max right now is still at 16.7 feet. But I made progress. Towards the end, I was landing most of my bigger jumps over 12 to 14 feet. So that was great, you’re definitely moving in the right direction. And I also did set a PR for a maximum jump distance at just over 111 feet of flying through the air attached to upside down looking parachute thing.

Overall, the trip was great. And of course, would have wanted a few more higher wind days ended up using my 70 meter kite most of the time, but nothing you can really do about that. So enough yammering about kiteboarding and the S four model for returning to the gym from a layoff period.

Number one is your state. So the first step is to make sure your state or mood is good. And then go left. I know sometimes on vacation or even coming back from a layoff. It can be hard to just get to the gym. And I’m a bigger fan of you know finding the reason motivation ahead of time to get there so that you are in a better state once you get there. Now again, you could argue that just getting there is going to be step one that kind of goes without saying, but I found that people tend to disregard their state a little bit too much.

You can change your state or mood via nutrition. I like using music. I’ve even sometimes program for clients or myself what is their favorite day in the gym? That’ll be their first day coming back. So if you really love upper body, bro day, then your first day back to the gym is Monday. Yeah, move into Monday May have to fight for some bench presses from people but that will give you something to look forward to get you back in To the groove a little bit faster, as opposed to maybe you hate doing back squats, putting back squats first in your program. So step one as for state, before you go to the gym to make sure that is good.

Step two is specific. Now I know this kind of goes without saying that you want to get better at the things that you’re training. So if you want to increase your benchpress, then you benchpress I know it sounds really obvious, but especially in the past, when I’ve looked at some people’s programs, they had just a crap ton of accessory exercises. And they were kind of missing, doing the thing that they wanted to get better at.

If you want to get better at deadlifting, then you should deadlift if you want to get better at a 2000 meter on the concept to rower then you should work on that. If you want to increase the size of your glutes, then you should do some glute based exercises. Again, I know this seems like overly simplistic, but a lot of times I see with fancy programs and looking for the super secret Russian squirrel program to get to your results. People tend to get a little bit too fancy right away. I think it was Morgan Spurlock that said, you know fancy gets broken.

And if you’ve got an extremely complicated program, and you don’t need to be that complicated, it’s much easier to just not have any of it happen. So keep it very simple, simple as you can, and specific to what your goals are going to be. Again, this is the fastest way to get back on track. Also, after some time off, it is hard to do that sometimes because your performance will be down. A

nd what I’ve noticed and some people is let’s take the example of a benchpress they were on vacation drinking margaritas on an island somewhere for two weeks, never even saw weight number did a single push up. So they want to come back. And they still want to increase their benchpress. But they know the benchpress is going to be down so they just keep avoiding it for several weeks. And as you figure it out, it’s not gonna probably get magically better, right, so suck it up, do the things that are specific and go from there.

Number three in the s four model is stress. And this is where it gets a little bit more specific. So what I’ve found over the years is I want to get higher amounts of stress, which I’ll define here and make it specific to my goal. But I’m also going to be a little bit in a D train state. And some of my muscle and especially soft tissue may not be at the exact same status as when I left. So I don’t want to load up everything and go for a crazy one rep max, if I haven’t looked at a weight in three weeks, that’s going to be a recipe for injury.

The next thought is okay, well how do I add more stress, but do it in a safer manner. So what I like doing in general, then is to shorten the range of motion. Let’s say I’m going to do a deadlift. And normally I’m dead lifting with the 45 pound plates. Side note, there’s nothing magical about 45 pound plates, if you need to change the size of them for your mobility. Please do less you’re trying to do this in a competitive state once you will have to deadlift using said 45 pound plates.

But coming up back after a time period where I haven’t done any heavy deadlifts. So I had a period of almost six weeks where move I didn’t do a single deadlift. I think I did some already else with dumbbells, but even that was very light. I did 315 for a few reps at the Onnit gym on the way down. But even that I left to be pretty conservative. So other than that, I didn’t really do any heavy, heavy lifting for deadlifts.

I haven’t really experienced that level of stress even though my body was used to it before I left. So what I like to do then is to go a little bit heavier, but limit the range of motion. So on a deadlift that’s relatively easy to do, you’re just gonna move the bar closer towards you. So this could be a rack pole, right? So you’re setting it up in a power rack, you’re gonna move the pins so that your range of motion is less, ie the pins are a little bit higher up.

Or you can use some type of platform to put under the weights to make it higher. I have some wagon wheels, which are just a larger diameter plate that you put on the end and that automatically brings the bar closer up. So if you look at a lot of strongman training, a lot of times farmer’s bars depending upon how they’re set up, they will be a little bit closer to you, or have something which is called a higher pick point, right, the point at which you’re going to pick up the weight off the floor.

I may even go up to, you know, nine inches, or in some cases 12, or 14 inches, so quite a bit higher than what I normally use. So my progression, then is I’m going to take more warm ups to make sure that I feel good. And the progression over time is to leave the weight relatively static, and then decrease the height that I’m starting that, again, I found good luck by doing three quarter inch, the rubber farmstyle nets you can find at Fleet Farm and other places, I’ve just cut those into small strips, so you can stack those, and they work quite nicely to change it.

If you can find some old phone books, I’ve done that and just duct tape them together. Sometimes you can find like silence or pads or even use other 45 pound plates, lots of ways you can get creative in order to do it. So when I came back, this time, I use the trap bar, and then just worked up to 365 or 400. But it was a pretty high pick point. So pretty high up. And then what I’m working on now is slowly lowering that over time, so I’m doing more work.

But I’m giving myself the mechanical advantage to start off with, but I’m still holding a heavier weight at the top. My thought process is I want to try to get my muscle soft tissue recruitment patterns, everything use to the higher stress. But I’m gonna do it from mechanical advantage to start and then lower it from there. So what I found just anecdotally, by doing this, I’m able to get back to heavier loading sooner. Whereas if I just started off of the floor, I usually my max loads are quite a bit off from where I were was in the past use that find this is more on any sort of axial loaded deadlift type squat variations, I don’t find that happens quite as much with bench press or overhead pressing. Yeah, maybe that’s because I do a little more of that while I’m traveling.

Or you can always do push ups etc. I know you can do bodyweight squats, but it’s not quite the same, you can do single leg work, too. So that’s what I’ve done to accommodate and have more stress, and to try to get back to where I was sooner than later. And one of the main reasons for this, too, as I mentioned, is we want to make sure we’re doing this in a safe manner.

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is they try to start exactly where they left off, let’s say they’re gone out of the gym for three weeks, and they haven’t done anything, their muscle and especially their soft tissue is not quite prepared for that. Most of the time, if it’s a relatively short layoff, you’re not really going to have any loss of muscle mass, but you will lose some of the skill and the execution of the exercise.

And there’s some data to show that your soft tissue may kind of down regulate a little bit since isn’t accommodated to that heavier lifting. So I don’t like people to come back and jump right into high intensity intensity here being percentage of your one rep max, ie how much load you’re using, right away. If you’re gonna do that, my advance my bias is to do it from mechanical advantage. And again, like all things, make sure that the lift still feels good.

I tend to be more hyper conservative during this time period also aware, generally stay, you know, one, two, maybe three reps away from failure. If it’s some grip stuff, I may push that a little bit. But in general, I tend to be much more conservative, give my body several weeks time to get back used to the loading again. And like I said, unless you’ve had a really long layoff period, probably haven’t lost too much muscle, but your soft tissue could be a little bit different and you lose some of the skill just from not having practiced it.

With the s four model number four is a load spike. This is mainly based off the work of Dr. Tim gabot and others and you want to avoid a time period where your volume of work sees a sudden increase. So for more advanced or intermediate athletes even this generally happens after a period of a layoff. So let’s say they took two weeks off they were training at a pretty high volume before they left. They were staring at margaritas on an island for two weeks, never looked at a wait, never did anything at all, they come back. And they want to kind of start a new program.

And they get a little bit too aggressive on the total amount of work that has been done. So the previous two weeks, they literally had zero work. And anything up from that is going to be a pretty high load spike, especially if they’ve tried to hop into the point where they left off before. So in short, some of the data shows that your new tissue and recruitment patterns are just not used to it yet.

This can happen with programming if people are getting a little bit too aggressive with adding volume from one week to the next. However, I generally see this happen after a layoff or something happens to the athlete, they get super busy. And they had a program where there may be working up to let’s say, four sets. On Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday have five to six exercises.

So a pretty healthy dose of volume, something happens and they’re not able to make it to the gym, and then want to come back in and start at that same amount. One or two weeks later, I spent a lot of time with my online M three clients actually programming down volume after they’ve had a long period of inactivity, because I just don’t think it’s worth the risk. With that higher volume period.

Again, they want to ease back into time after a layoff. So number four would be load spike. So the four s model for coming back after a layoff number one would be state, make sure your state your mood is good before lifting. Even after you rearrange your program a little bit to put things that you like at the beginning, I think that’s fine.

The goal is to get back to the gym in a safe manner as soon as possible. Number two is specific. If you did not do anything that was specific towards your goal while you were gone, don’t try to run and hide from it. And you’re just killing time wasting time trying to do something that is specific as possible towards that goal. But make sure you’re doing it in a safe and progressive manner.

Number three is stress. I like using mechanical advantage at this point where I will leave the loads a little bit higher, again, still being safe, and then starts decreasing the range of motion there. This is done by changing the pick point normally on most lifts. Or if you’re doing a squat, you could maybe not go all the way down, you could do a box squat or even a high box squat.

Same thing with bench press, you can also work in some isometrics here possibly to this is just a heavier hold. Normally at a lockout position, those I find are generally a little bit more safe and allow a fair amount of loading and allow you to get kind of back a little bit sooner. Number four, again was a spike to run to avoid a load spike.

Like I said, this generally happens from a period of off or not to doing much of anything. And a lot of self motivated, highly motivated athletes are probably like yourself listening to this podcast or clients want to get back exactly where they left off. And I find that that can be a recipe for disaster. And even if they get away with it, the quality of their work I find usually just isn’t up to par. So I don’t think it’s worth the risk. So I will drop their volume quite a bit.

Again, I will try to leave the intensity or the loads as close to where they were as before, but knowing they are going to be below so we’re going to adjust accordingly and then go forward from there. So there you go. That’s what I use as the s four model for returning safely back to the gym. Hopefully reducing your injury risk and returning performance as fast as you can. Go and learn more about the nutritional aspects that you can incorporate to this.

Also, make sure to check out the flex diet certification. Go to flex It will open up again for enrollment in early June 2022. So Flex Thank you so much for listening to this podcast. Really, really appreciate it. If you have someone that is coming back after a layoff or this is yourself. Listen to this podcast or please forward it to a friend, family member, coach someone who could use this information to get their performance back in a safe manner. Thank you so much, greatly appreciate it. I’ll talk to you all next week.


Hey, what are you doing? I dropped my gum. Hey lady, would you toss my gum up? You could have taken it out of the wig first.

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