How to Effectively Get Back to the Gym After a Long Break

James Logie
Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

You may hate time off from the gym, but a good break for a week every 3–4 months can help you come back stronger.

But what if you’ve been away for longer? What about more than a year?

Many people have been out of the gym for a year since they have been forced to close. This may be the longest you've been of since you started training.

But whether it’s been a few months — or over a year — there are certain things you want to pay attention to when you get back into a regular routine.

I’ve been a certified personal trainer for over 20 years, so let’s keep things basic and look at five points to keep in mind.

Start Slow

Ideally, you’ve stayed active during your time off. Whether it’s walking, hiking, or biking, you’ve hopefully kept your body moving.

When it comes to strength and muscle, there are many great bodyweight exercises you can do to keep the muscles stimulated and active.

Push-ups, chin-ups, bodyweight squats, lunges, and planks are all simple ways to keep your muscles engaged.

Then, there are endless amounts of HIIT circuits you can put together to keep your fitness boosted.

Activity like this also helps you keep up your tendon and joint strength. This will serve you well when you get back into lifting heavier weights.

As enticing as it is to go straight back into your old routine — it may be best to dial things back a bit.

If it’s been a really long layoff, start by just going 2 to 3 times a week for the first week or two. Start with a simple Monday-Wednesday-Friday routine.

Monday could be an upper body or push day, Wednesday a lower body day, and Friday a back or pull day. And that leads to the next point.

You Won’t Need as Much Volume or Stimulation at First

When you want to make gains in strength and muscle, you need to stress the body more.

If you’ve been training for a while, it may take some more volume to stimulate more muscle growth.

If you haven’t been strength training for a while, you won’t need as much volume or muscle stimulation at first.

If you haven’t touched a bench press in 6 months, it will not take much to stimulate the muscles of the upper body and tear down the tiny fibers.

Keep things to just a few sets per body part. Start the whole workout with a good warmup and some dynamic stretching to get the heart rate up and blood flow to the working muscles.

Start each exercise with a warm-up set to get the muscles ready for the workload. Don’t worry about doing a lot of sets per exercise.

This is about getting the muscles back into a state where they will be continually stressed with a regular strength training routine.

You also don’t need to be in the gym for a long time after the time you’ve been away. Honestly, 20 to 30 minutes used correctly can be enough after a long break.

Gains in strength and muscle are just a response to the stress we put on them.

Since you haven’t been stressing them with heavy loads for a while, it will not take much in those first few days back to create a response in them.

Don’t Worry About Training to Failure

This goes along with the last point. After a while, you can get back into taking sets to failure (which may not even be all that important anyway).

The muscles are going to be pretty taxed from the new workload they are experiencing, so you don't need to push things too far by training to failure.

This isn’t the time to worry about things like big supersets, or drop sets. Save that stuff for when you’ve reached plateaus and need the extra stimulus.

Take the first week or two to get your form back on track. Focus on working through a full range of motion.

Be conscious of the muscle you are training and get familiar with the mind-muscle connection again.

Don’t Worry About the Weights at First

This is often the most frustrating thing about a long layoff: you can’t lift what you did before.

If you have taken a regular week off every three months, you know you may actually come back stronger than before.

Your body has had a chance to heal, recover, and you’ve given your nervous system a bit of a break.

But if it’s been quite a while since you’ve been in a gym, strength will no doubt be lower than when you left.

Don’t worry: it will come back. Muscle memory will also help in getting your physique back to where it once was.

Since strength levels may be down, so this isn’t the time to try to put up personal bests.

Start with lighter weights, and again, focus on form, range of motion, and feeling the muscles.

Remember, even the stimulus of the lighter weight is still going to break down the muscle tissue — especially if you haven’t touched a weight in a year.

It’s almost like being a beginner in the gym again — and that’s not a bad way to approach it.

Remember when you first started working out? I’m sure you noticed even some small results relatively quickly. This is because it was a whole new stimulus for your body.

Think like a newbie when you get back to the gym after a long break. The difference is, you have that muscle memory and previous strength history.

That background will help you get back quickly to where you once were.

Focus on Recovery

You will no doubt be sore after your first few workouts back. This is a good time to put extra focus on recovery.

Try to give each muscle group at least 3 to 4 days to fully recover before you hit them again.

Keep in mind, it will not take as much volume or stimulus for those first few workouts. Make sure to stretch at the end of each workout to help jumpstart recovery.

Make sure to really hold the stretches, too. A quick 5 second stretch for each body part isn’t ideal. Make each stretch comfortable and hold for at least 15 to 20 seconds.

No surprise here, but nutrition is of course paramount after a long layoff — as it is year-round. Focus on adequate protein intake, and don’t neglect your water.

Make sleep a priority so your body can properly heal and repair itself.

You may want to play around with some foam rolling at this time to further help the recovery process.

If you haven’t had a recovery routine in the past, this can be the time to put a good one in place.

Wrapping it Up

You may have got used to home workouts, and don't even miss the gym that much.

But if you're heading back to the gym, you may feel slightly hesitant about those first few sessions back, as they can be frustrating. However, it is manageable.

If you’re in this situation, it helps to have a game plan in place to ease back into things:

  1. Start slow
  2. Keep the volume lower at first
  3. Don’t worry about training to failure
  4. Lighten the weights
  5. Focus on recovery

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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