Fitness Series: Illnesses and Injuries, Make a Contingency Plan

Date: 2020-02-03

Time to Read: 7 Minutes



Photo By: Victor Freitas

It happens. It happens to everyone. What do I mean by “It”, I mean “Injuries and Illnesses”. But honestly it could be any event that disrupts your diet and/or workout schedule. And what do I mean by everyone? I mean even lifters and athletes whose sole focus is developing a flawless execution of their various lifts. 

Notable lifters like Layne Norton, Steve Cook, and Jonnie Candito have suffered setbacks for one reason or another. These weren’t ego-lifters hitching some obviously too heavy weight using poor form. These are incredibly experienced and strong individuals. It’s simply the nature of lifting heavy weights (or sometimes not even heavy weights). 

Then there are sicknesses, these temporary interruptions that are somewhat out of your control that can stall or even reverse the trajectory of your progress. Many describe fitness progress as oscillating on an upward trajectory and if you don’t allow your demoralizing emotions to ultimately lead you to quit entirely, these setbacks should only serve as simply local minimums along an upward trend line. 

But it’s tough. If you’re a natural lifter who isn’t particularly gifted with amazing genetics, your margin for error is fairly thin and any setback can feel devastating on an emotional level. I can speak to this on an emotional level. Toward the end of my last fitness related post, I was nearing the end of a bulking phase that saw progress in both size and strength and even better, for over a year I had suffered no setbacks except for the occasional plateau. I was primed and ready for my next phase: cutting and maintaining my strength the best that I could.

I had my routine planned, 5/3/1 BBB, alternating with weeks focused on calisthenics. I would be re-introducing cardio multiple times a week. This would be a slow cut so I would reduce my calories by a relatively small amount and re-adjust every 4-6 weeks until my goal weight was met. I would abandon the forced progression of the 5/3/1 routine and simply focus on working within the weights that my last cycle had finished with. Only reducing them if I could no longer accomplish the minimum prescribed reps (which I had anticipated would only become an issue as I neared my goal weight).

And sure enough, the first month and a half into this phase, everything was going as planned. And then it started, I had gotten sick with a fairly basic common cold (in the summer no less) and thus began a sequence of 6+ months where I would not sustain a single month without some sort of ailment appearing. Though it was never anything major, nevertheless it left me scrambling in my decision to pause my cutting diet in favor of recovery and recapturing the strength loss I had suffered. I became frustrated and discouraged with working out altogether as I watched my 10 rep working weight immediately become my 5 rep working weight. 

In a foolhardy fashion, I tried to force my post sickness body to produce the same as my pre-sickness body and I became bitter and hopeless from the result. It was at this point that I realized that I had no contingency plan for these situations, no system to remove my emotions from continuously tinkering and/or bailing out as I encountered these situations. 

So I have decided to develop such a system to handle these occurrences. 

First, your nutrition protocol changes.

  • If you get sick while trying to maintain a calorie deficit, I would recommend temporarily increasing your calories back to your maintenance level or possibly up to 500 calories more than your maintenance level with a balanced macro-nutrient split to ensure that your body has enough nutrients to help fight off the illness and to possibly stave off any excessive weight loss that might occur. This isn’t quite as much of an issue when bulking, I would imagine.

Second, your training protocol changes.

  • When you first get sick, you have a decision to make. You can continue your workout schedule for the week or you can simply take a week (or weeks off) to allow your body enough rest to recover. Unfortunately, for most people, any extended amount of time off in combination with the effects of being sick will have a noticeable impact on your strength levels when you return.
  • If your sickness occurs mid-workout week, I would simply discontinue the remainder of the week and make that decision for the next week.
  • If you decide that at most you’re going to take a partial week off (if you started getting sick mid-week), then you should adjust your lift’s maximum weights to 95% of their original value for the next week.

    • What do I mean? If you read my previous posts, my prescribed weight for certain lifts (Bench Press, Squats, Overhead Press, and Deadlifts) are based on Wendler’s 5/3/1 routine where you take 90% of your current max for each lift and treat it as your “training max” which is the value that your actual working sets use to determine their values (based on whatever week it is, 5-rep, 3-rep, 5/3/1, etc)
  • For every subsequent week that you take off, simply reduce that number by 5%.

    • For example: If your deadlift max was 500lbs and you underwent some illness that kept you home for three weeks then when you return, your numbers should be based on (95% - 5% - 5% - 5% = 80% of your original max) or 400lbs (which could change your maximum working weight from 380lbs to 340lbs.
  • This might seem like an overkill but I would argue that it would be better to allow your body to ramp up from a significantly lighter weight than to immediately load it up post-sickness with whatever you were meant to lift prior to getting sick.
  • Now depending on your progression scheme (forced progression or otherwise), I would change my maximum lift value based on the calculated max of that new weight for as many weeks as I had taken off before resuming whatever the original progression scheme was.

    • For example: Let’s say that you at most only took partially a week off. Then your next week’s weights will be based off of 95% of your original week. The week after that week will resume your typical progression scheme based off of the maximum weight calculated from your last AMRAP set of that first 95% week.
    • Let’s see this in action in two scenarios to clarify the protocol:

      • Scenario 1:
      • Your deadlift max is 500lbs, your training max is therefore 450lbs, and your top AMRAP 5+ Rep Weight (85% of your training max) is 380lbs.
      • You get sick but it isn’t too terribly bad so you at most take the remainder of the week off.
      • Now that you’ve returned, your deadlift max is now 475lbs, your training max is 430, and your top AMRAP 5+Rep Weight is 365lbs.
      • You accomplish 365lbs for 10 reps which calculates to a max of 487lbs, your progression scheme starts anew with a max of 487lbs (13lbs less than your original).
      • Scenario 2:
      • Same as above, but this time you’ve suffered 3 weeks of missing the gym. So your deadlift max is now 400lbs and your working weight is 340lbs.
      • Your first week back, you accomplish 340lbs for 10 reps therefore your calculated max is now 453lbs, that becomes your new max for the next week.
      • You repeat the previous step for two more weeks, adjusting your new maxes based on the calculated one rep max from your AMRAP set each time, this will be your ramp up phase of three weeks. After these three weeks, you start your progression scheme with the latest calculated max.
    • In short, for every week that you take off, you use a week to gradually ramp back up before resuming your original routine’s progression scheme. (With a minimum of one week)
    • I think you may want to set a floor of 75% though as the most that you’ll reduce your original max by regardless of the # of weeks taken off.

If you have an injury or illness that may result in a much longer period of absence than simply a month at most. You may want to start from the opposite direction.

  • First, ensure that you accomplish the body weight or bar only movement with very little pain.
  • Second, keeping your original maximum in mind, start as little as 10% of your original max and at most 25% until the same requirement above can be met.
  • I would trying to gradually increase from 25% to 50% using the same little to no pain requirement.
  • Once at 50% with no pain, I would use to same calculated max based off your AMRAP set to determine your progression until you’re comfortable enough to resume your original progression scheme.

None of these approaches guarantee that you’ll return to your original strength level immediately after finishing them. However, they are meant to give you guidance on how to manage your recovery in a way that puts you in a better position of resuming your routine without the frustration of trying to force yourself to lift the same previous workload after suffering a setback.

As for injuries, I would of course recommend that you see a physician to determine the exact details of your injury before undertaking any resistance training based on the severity of the injury. I would also further suggest that you see a physical therapist to help you recover to at least a baseline of performance before attempting to re-enter the gym in any capacity.

Anyway, good luck with your fitness goals of 2020 and perhaps this post might help you if you do suffer from an unfortunate setback along the way.

Fitness Series

03 February, 2020
A short series detailing my current workout regimen and how I document and track my progression toward fitness goals.
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Blake Adams is a writer, software developer, technical consultant, and financial independence enthusiast living in Oxford, MS.

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