T Nation

When Adding Back an Old Exercise


I thought of this a bit over the summer and was then reminded of it when I saw Professor X training with CT and going back to barbells shoulder pressing.

Lets say someone can barbell shoulder press 225x5 at some point and then for whatever reason has 6 months off from training. They come back and begin with barbell shoulder press again and due to muscle memory the size and strength come back relatively quickly. But I think most of us would agree that until he beats that 225x5 (assuming this is his main shoulder movement) he'll mostly be getting back lost size.

So in the case of someone just switching exercises and not taking time off (like Professor X), he may switch out BB shoulder press and go for machines. Over the next year or so he gets much stronger on the machines and his shoulders grow.

Then he switches back to BB shoulder press and due to so much time away from it he's currently down to 185x5 (not likely for beginners/intermediates but certainly advanced guys can come back weaker on an exercise even if getting stronger on other related ones). Even though he has even more muscle than he did a year ago so it's not like he'd be regaining lost muscle, would he not make any muscular gains from that exercise until he beats his previous best?

I'm not entirely sure, it's a hypothetical question really that I doubt many people could know for sure, but I'm interested to hear peoples thoughts. My thought would be that he wouldn't make muscular gains off that exercise alone until he gets past his previous best (assuming same tempo and other factors being the same) because he's mostly gaining neural coordination and whatnot until that point.

So it could be weeks/months before new growth from that particular exercise. Personally I have kept most of my exercises the same during my cut for similar reasoning (that my muscles would be more likely to be maintained than switching to new ones and just getting better coordinated with the movement, etc.)


IMO he would gain muscle simply as long as his muscles are being 'stressed' to the point where they have to step up their game. Not in terms of their previous performance levels, but in terms of what they are capable of the moment they set foot in the gym to perform that specific exercise.

Muscle do not understand weight, sets, reps.. they understand work, intensity, and 'holy hell this is painful'

Also note that it is because of the body's ability to constantly adapt and actually take away LESS of a stress response to a task that is repeated often enough that usually creates plateaus.



Well where would it end then? If he would gain more size while going back to BB shoulder press just getting back to his previous PR, then go back to machine press and having lost a bit of strength there make more muscle gains getting back to his previous machine press PR, then go back to BB shoulder press, etc...making gains never getting past old PR's? I would think almost all of the gains when switching back to an exercise, especially a free-weight exercise, would be from gaining the neural coordination for the lift. Personally anyway, like I said this is more for discussion since I doubt many would know 100% for sure.


I could rattle off the names of several natty pros I know who are not strong at all, yet they intelligently cycle their exercises and constantly ensure that they're applying enough stress to their muscles in order to elicit hypertrophy.



I used to cycle exercises a lot but I feel like thats why I didn't make progress for awhile. I would do a routine with some exercises, gain on those and when things stalled I would switch to new exercises, gain on those, etc..the net result after bulking (clean bulking, whatever you want to call it) and cutting was no progress.

It wasn't until I ensured actual strength increases on main movements for awhile that things went well. Just personal experience though and other things were going on parts of the time that could have factored in but I feel like the main point would be the same.


Well, I think the real benefit of experience is in knowing when to change exercises, and when you're just jumping around changing every variable before your body even has a chance to make any progress in the first place. In early years of training, weights and reps are all you have in terms of weekly indicators of progress of any sorts.



I think that's definitely at least partly true. It seems weird to me though that with every other factor being the same they could get growth from say 5x200 when they were previously doing 5x225 with the same form/tempo/exercise order/etc.

This is slightly off topic from the original post (still interested if others have opinions on it) but those relatively weak bodybuilders you mentioned, do you have pics and know what they could lift on main movements? I was thinking of everyone I know in person who lifts and the only people who are significantly bigger than me but weaker than me for reps (actually weaker, not just lifting lighter weights) either
1. used to be heavier/stronger than me and so have the muscle from that time period or
2. used PH's/Steroids


There are other variables involved in the process of gaining muscle. X amt of weight for X amt of reps are just two of them. Rest intervals, rep speed, pre-exhaust movements, diet, rest, frequency, strengths and weaknesses of other bodyparts and not to mention the effort being used that day and everyother training day. You can learn from others, but to be successful, you need to learn from your own experiences.


Right which is why I was saying if all of those other factors were held constant and you were just increasing weight back up to an old PR.

I mean hey, I hope Stu is right, that just means more muscle for us lol but I don't know..like I said I personally haven't experienced that. I dropped squatting altogether about a year ago and have stuck with movements that didn't hurt my back, my legs are bigger than they've ever been. My best front squat was 275x6...If I were to pick it back up I imagine I'd start with repping 225 or so, I feel like all gains until I got back up to my previous 275x6 would be my body getting used to the movement. Why would it add muscle when there are less taxing avenues (i.e. better balance, neural coordination, spine stability) it could take to achieve that same goal (lifting the load). Obviously since I had less muscle when I first did it my body doesn't need to add any muscle to get back to that point. Hell one could argue it would lose some which is part of why I haven't switched back during a cut. Playing devils advocate here tho...


IMO the strength would come back so quickly there wouldn't even be time for significant hypertrophy to occur. For instance I took 4 months off from seated military with a previous best of 315x3 and when I first tried it again I got something like 260x4. Four days later I trained them again and was up to 275x4 and within 3 weeks was already beating my old PR.

So, with all other variables remaining constant, no I don't think you would be gaining muscle going back to an old exercise as the "strength" loss is primarily a new movement pattern/stabilizers that are not used to it.


I remember Layne Norton also prescribing a program whereby u constantly switch excerises, for eg when one did flat DB bench and plateu, he would switch to say incline DB bench to continue to progress, and when one incline DB bench plateu, he would go back to flat DB bench and he would find himself stronger in that lift.

This will ensure continued gain in both strength and size I would presume, if one consume enough calories. However, I think the cycling of excerises shld be between similiar movements to have a carry over effects. Switching from free weights to machine is bound to cause a drop in strength imo.


I agree with this but yea there is definitely a large difference between switching between incline and flat DB bench vs. switching between BB bench and a machine bench. If one of those DB exercises goes up the other one should as well, but as you mentioned switching to a machine for awhile is likely going to cause a drop in BB bench. I have seen exceptions to this but in general that seems to be how it is.

Thats what I was thinking, that the strength would come back relatively quickly, but in that time the gains would be learning the movement pattern/stabilizers/neural coordination as you mentioned.


Training by its nature is neuromuscular, so you can't discount the adaptations of the nervous system as well as adding mass. I don't have the info on me, but there are graphs out there showing that (especially in beginning trainers) Strength will increase first and more rapidly than will lean mass gains.

Meaning that you could gain 40% on the strength side, but only increase your lean mass by 5%. (These are just numbers I pulled out of my ass for illustration, BTW)

So if you could Standing Press 225 at some point in the past, and cycle back around to it, you might simply be "learning" how to press 225 again and you might not even need to add muscle. Hell, the body REALLY doesn't like adding muscle mass, so if its "easier" to simply adapt neurally it will do that instead.

What I might do is something like this (again, using numbers from my ass):

Standing Press x 2 months: 185x5 ~> 225x5

DB Press x 2 months: 85's x 5 ~> 100's x5

Cycle back around:

Standing Press: 205x5 ~> 240x5 ( Started off weaker, but ENDED UP stronger over all)

DB Press: 90's x 5 ~> 110's x 5

So the key is to END UP higher than the last time you used that same exercise, even if when you come back you are weaker in the beginning.


Couldn't find the journal or anything, but here is a graph that shows what I was trying to explain. Basically you get good neurally faster, then when you are efficient at "firing" to those muscles, the muscle mass comes.


IMO the body puts on muscle if it's convinced that it needs to.

If I ditch seated free-weight front presses for a while, and instead progress by a good margin on a fairly similar exercise (SHIPs for example), then go back to front presses... I may now have bigger shoulders and lateral/medial tris... The body will not require more muscle mass esp. as I'm lifting weights the muscles are easily capable of... I am lacking in the neural department mostly, the body has to
a) relearn the new(old) movement which will put me back to where I was before and make me more stable and then
b) learn how to apply my newfound potential (what I got from the other exercise I did in the meantime) to the new(old) exercise, which will take me beyond my previous PR (unless my alternative exercise choice was dumb or I didn't make enough progress on it)... Maybe giving me some size gains depending on how I train
c) After that I'm making completely new gains in strength and size

That's all with a powerbuilding approach in mind and just thinking of those two exercises. Whatever else you do may have additional effects.

And I'm pretty sure you're overthinking this as usual.


What stu said... Just got to figure it out and gain experience with this sort of stuff...

Imo beginners and lower intermediates shouldn't cycle exercises over longer periods of time, but either stick to mostly linear work (at least on your main movements for each muscle-group) or cycle exercises over the course of a week (at most two, and not when you just start out).

The more experienced (and especially stronger) you become, the more used you get to the exercises, the more exercises you can cycle through and profit from it I'd say...

You also have to cycle between exercises that feed off each other... (look at westside, or DC... You cycle exercises that hit the same muscle groups overall, but perhaps with slightly different focus each time, or exercises that train a part of the ROM of the main lift you want to improve, or that sort of thing).


Good point. A beginner can milk HUGE gains out of a Bench Press or a Squat because they can add HUNDREDS of pounds to them. But someone who has already added hundreds of pounds, and maybe can only add another 10-30 pounds over the next several YEARS has to find new exercises, or new ways of adding more stress to the muscle with the same weight.

But I'm with you on what your other post said as well. If you cycle back around to an exercise, only the pounds you add after you pass your old max are "worth" anything in terms of building muscle mass (as opposed to just relearning the exercise from a neural stand point)


I agree with pretty much all the points above.

The key issue this touches on is the obsessive debate about the timecourse of strength and hypertrophy.

It figure from Lonnie above is not necessarily accurate anymore; its very much the traditional view of resistance exercise and training gains.

This could turn into bit of a rant, just bear with me (need to get some thoughts out).

Muscle strength (force output, whatever) is a product of,
1. excitability of pathways in the brain
2. ability to recruit the motor unit pool
3. frequency of motor unit recruitment
4. type of motor units (I or II) available
5. coordination of motor unit recruitment (i.e. balance between antagonist/agonist/synergist muscles)
6. size of muscle fibers
7. geometry of muscle fibers (angle of pennation)

whew.......but hopefully you get the drift about how complicated strength, and strength development is.

In contrast, the process of hypertrophy is achieved through stimulating local muscle protein synthesis (MPS). This is best achieved through stimulation of protein synthesis in the type II muscle fibers. Many pathways available to hit MPS, via local contraction, local contraction + hormonal/immune stimulation etc.

But you get the drift - lots of aspects to producing and developing strength, that you could say don't always have much to do with what is needed for hypertrophy.

Goal for us in this forum - stim type II fibers as much as possible.

How? Well that's the part everyone argues over for days and days for which there are many many ways. See the sage advice from Stu and Whitwell above about finding your own way.

Moral to this story is not to equate strength gains with hypertrophy gains.


That's exactly what I was saying (you later say "what stu said", but this is different) and how I would generally go about things. As you both mentioned (and Lonnie your reasoning and even the graph is pretty much exactly my thought on it, but I didn't want to search for a graph lol). The body doesn't want to add muscle so until it gets back to it's old PR for that exercise (assuming everything else is constant) it won't add muscle. It will use the muscle it already has since it's capable of lifting that weight and make nueral/other changes first.

CC this is overthinking it, if I was actually very concerned about it, I'm not though...I just think it's an interesting topic. The only relevance it even has to my current training is not wanting to switch my leg exercises until my cut is over because switching back to an old exercise (e.g front squats) will result in neural changes to deal with the weight rather than really making my muscles need to be held on to as much as my current leg exercise (theoretically).

GG, good points.


The assumption here is that you will only add muscle in an effort to progress strength, which is ignoring the process of hypertrophy.

Assuming whatever weight you are lifting is stimulating enough of your type II motor unit pool, you will add size.

If it takes time to re-learn the movement, coordinate other muscles, to lift your PR again, this may have nothing to do with stimulating tissue growth.

If, for some crazy reason, you just can't recruit much of your motor unit pool at all for a given movement, and only end up lifting a very light weight (for that exercise) so not recruiting the type II units, then hypertrophy probably wont' be stimulated.

An untrained person is incredibly inefficient at recruiting their entire motor unit pool, hence the whole neural adaptation thing with training and significant delays till they can stimulate hypertrophy.

A trained (well skilled) person is often VERY efficient at performing the movement, which at most sub-maximal levels means they also will not be recruiting the maximal amount of motor units available. This dictates the need for more trained people to lift very heavy, for as much volume as possible.

Someone bouncing around from program to program is probably not developing sufficient skill to maximize motor unit recruitment for any given task, limiting both their ability to develop strength and hypertrophy.

Someone who sticks to a program for a significant period of time, and doesn't just drop an exercise 'cold turkey' but gradually introduces the new exercise movements into their training before progressing entirely, is not so likely to experience problems.