Getting back into a workout routine can seem more challenging than starting one for the first time.
Depending on how long the break from working out was, the results you worked so hard to achieve may have diminished; the momentum you built may have vanished. Rather than having “nowhere to go but up” like when you started working out the first time, it feels like you’re starting from a point of regression, and this can be frustrating.
But it doesn’t need to be.
Whether you’ve missed a week, a month, or several months of workouts doesn’t matter. This is where you are now, and what other choice do you have but to move forward?
How to Get Back to Working Out after a Break: Step 1
Don’t lament the situation. Don’t concern yourself with any results that have diminished. Don’t engage in self-flagellation. Don’t experience guilt for skipping a few workouts or even “letting yourself go.” This is not some dire situation worthy of your pity or frustration and there’s no need to catastrophize it. Heaping on guilt or frustration won’t help you get back into working out.
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Life happened, you missed workouts, and you’re here now, ready to take the next step. That is all that matters. So shake off any sense of guilt or frustration and get to work.
How to Get Back to Working After a One-Week Break
If you were working out regularly for months and then missed a week of workouts due to illness, extenuating circumstances, or something more enjoyable like a vacation, that one week off can feel like a setback.
Let’s make this clear: an occasional week off from working out is not a big deal, so don’t turn it into one. If you work out regularly, consistently, then a few weeks off scattered over the course of an entire year, for example, is like taking a few drops of water out of a bucket. There’s no visual affect.
The best thing you can do is not get upset about missing a week of working out and pick up where you left off as if nothing happened. (This is assuming you missed a week from a minor illness, vacation, or something else. If you had surgery or experienced an injury, that’s a different story.)
You may be stronger or have improved performance after the brief break (because fatigue had more time to dissipate), or your strength may take a small hit (due to a reduction in coordination). Either way, it doesn’t matter. Start back immediately and do what you can. You may need to perform a couple workouts to return to your prior level, or you may perform better than you did before the break.
To summarize what to do if you miss one week of working out: resume normal activity like nothing happened and adjust the workouts if needed. If the weights need to be reduced with the strength training workouts, do it. A decrease in weight and intensity may be necessary if you missed workouts due to an illness, like a severe cold or flu. If you need to scale back the duration or intensity of cardio sessions, do it. It’ll return to prior levels quickly.
How to Get Back to Working Out After a 2-4-Week Break
After missing one week of working out, most people can resume activity as normal with little or no modification needed (unless there was an illness in which case some modification may be warranted). If you miss two to four weeks of working out, a recommended modification is scaling back the total volume of the first several workouts, and perhaps start back with weights that are a bit lighter than you were using previously, around 5-10% less is a good guide.
Scaling back the total training volume — performing fewer sets for each exercise or performing fewer total exercises per workout — will help you ease back into working out so you don’t get too sore. As an example, if you were performing four work sets for each exercise before the layoff, perform two work sets for each exercise and use lighter weights the first few workouts.
This way you get back into the habit of working out, you don’t overwhelm your recovery abilities, and you get comfortable performing the exercises again. After a week or two you should be close to your previous strength levels and can continue as if the break didn’t happen.
How to Get Back to Working Out If You Don’t Know How Long It’s Been Since You Last Touched a Weight or Cardio Machine
Start doing something, literally anything, as soon as possible. Today. Now, preferably.
If there’s an activity you enjoy doing — strength training, cardio, or a hobby that involves moving your body — then start there. The best thing you can do is get started, then you can decide what path to take going forward once some momentum has been built.
To get back into strength training after an indiscernible layoff, a good approach is to revert to beginner status: use a few basic exercises, use weights you can dominate to reestablish confidence with the exercises, and resist doing too much too soon out of impatience.
Trying to jump back in at full speed after a long layoff isn’t smart. Getting brutally sore doesn’t make the results come any quicker; in fact, it can slow down progress because your body will be too busy repairing the damage just to get back to baseline, and therefore you won’t improve performance or build muscle.
Don’t be in a rush to get back to your previous performance, or bodyweight or shape. Give yourself room to progress in the workouts by not doing too much too soon. Give your body time to rebuild strength and work capacity.
Why Did You Stop Working Out in the First Place?
Most people don’t ask this question after a long layoff from the gym. But they should, and, likely, you should too.
Perhaps you had to deal with a crucial real-life matter that took priority. Maybe you used your usual workout time to perfect a work project. If your break from working out was a result of more important life demands, get back into the habit of working out with your preferred routine.
However, if your absence from working out was because your previous regimen was unsustainable (i.e., it didn’t fit into your lifestyle; your life revolved around the program, so you quit), you often dreaded the workouts rather than look forward to them, the workouts took too much time to complete so you ended up skipping them, you were constantly sore or spent more time managing aches and pains rather than working out, then it’s time to adopt a new approach to get back into working out.
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If any of those scenarios describe you, don’t just restart. Restart with a better plan that fits your preferences, goals, and lifestyle. Set yourself up for success this time.
Choose a physical activity or workout that you would enjoy doing. Use whatever equipment you prefer or feel comfortable using. Perhaps focus on getting strong instead of burning calories if the latter is all exercise has ever been about for you. If time isn’t a luxury you may simply need workouts you can perform within 30 minutes so you can complete an effective workout and then get on with your life. (If this is you, check out the article How to Make Short Workouts More Effective.)
Fitness should be a lifelong pursuit; do what you can, now, to make sure that happens.
The One Rule That Rules Them All
Regardless of where you find yourself right now — having missed a week of workouts or you haven’t done any structured exercise in a year or more — the next step is the same: start immediately. Get back to feeding the workout habit.
Given my tremendous bias to lifting weights, that would mean performing some type of strength training workout, whether it’s with barbell exercises or dumbbell exercises. Ease into it if you must: use light weights you can dominate and focus on using efficient technique and get reacquainted with what it feels like to push and pull weights around again.
Not sure if you’re performing some of the basic exercises correctly? Use these tutorials to get you going:
- How to Squat
- How to Deadlift
- How to Bench Press and Perform the Standing Press
- How to Perform the Barbell Row and Chin-ups
Or maybe you prefer cardio; that’s great too. Go for a walk around your neighborhood to get started, if that’s the easiest option.
To get back into working out after a layoff, especially a lengthy one, it really does not matter what you do, only that you do something. Then keep doing it.
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