Ilya Ilyin is a 2-time Olympic Champion and 4-time World Champion. After winning the 2012 London Olympics, Ilya took 15 months off from training to let himself rest and recover. At the end of this break, Ilya came to the US to do a series of seminars with Dmitry Klokov, Vasiliy Polovnikov, Nikita Durnev, Zygmunt Smalcerz, and myself.
Picking him up from the airport, I expected to see a thick strength athlete. Instead, an average, relatively thin guy came out. He looked small. His hair wasn’t spiky. I didn’t recognize him.
The next day during our first seminar together, our gang was demonstrating the lifts to the seminar attendees. Klokov and Polovnikov were snatching around 190kg. I was snatching 140-145kg. Ilya kind of looked like he was re-learning the snatch movement with a mere 40kg on the bar.
After the first seminar, I asked Ilya what his future plans were – whether he wanted to return to training and compete again. Ilya told me that he would begin his training again during our seminar tour, and continue for the following 10 months leading up to the 2014 World Championships, which he hoped to win.
Without disrespect, I called bullshit. He wanted to go from what looked like an average guy to being the strongest in the world… in 11 months.
Klokov and Polovnikov chimed into the conversation. They said that they also typically take at least a few months off every couple of years. They return to training also very weak (er, you know…relatively weak). After about 2-3 months of training, they get back to 90-95% of their best results, as will Ilya.
On the second week of the seminar tour, Ilya’s snatch went up to 70kg, and his clean and jerk went up to 90kg. His lifts increased by another 20-30kg on the third week, and again on the fourth. On the final week of our tour, he and I were lifting the same weights, competing with each other daily, snatching 140-150kg and clean and jerking 170-180kg.
Ilya and me in a snatch-off on the last week of the tour
At this time Ilya had been training consistently for about a month. Meanwhile, I was on my 8th or 9th consecutive year of never taking more than a week off from training. His strength was building quickly.
10 months later, Ilya won the World Championships, and set a new clean and jerk world record in the 105kg weight category. All Things Gym tracked his growth over those 10 months here. Ilya increased his clean and jerk by 71kgs. I increased mine by 2kgs.
This was 2.5 years ago. Since then, I have taken many non-consecutive months off from training, and have been able to return to 90-95% of my best results within just a few months of getting back into it.
Our ability to lift heavy weights develops over years of training. As soon as we stop, our bodies quickly adapt to a relatively stress-less lifestyle and our muscles decrease in size and strength. However, the foundation that we have developed over years of training doesn’t go away.
This foundation includes:
- Technique. When a movement is repeated many times, we develop a motor program that allows us to perform the movement without consciously controlling individual muscles. Once a motor program is developed, it remains relatively permanently.
- Muscle cell infrastructure. As we stress our muscles, the muscle cells get bigger, and the number of nuclei increase to support the larger demand for protein synthesis. When we stop training, the muscle cells decrease in size and strength, but the number of nuclei remains the same. Once we return to training, having a large number of nuclei helps the muscle cells regrow to their previous size faster than the first time.
- Confidence. Having lifted a heavy weight in the past gives us confidence in our ability to lift it again.
When we return to training, we already have the foundation we’ve previously developed. The investment required to rebuild to previous heights is much less than the first time. Of course, once previous bests are reached, every additional kilo will require more work.
Ilya Ilyin took a year off from training following each of the 2 Olympics he has won. And he was able to return to the top of the podium after each extended break.
And by the way, he’s a vegetarian. But more on that later.