Whether you were sidelined by injury, a busy schedule, or sheer lack of motivation, getting back into a regular workout routine after taking time off can be an intimidating endeavor for a number of reasons. For starters, you really can't just dive right back in—it only takes about two weeks of sedentary life for your muscles to begin to lose strength, and simply picking up where you left off is a really easy way to hurt yourself. On the flip side, starting from square one can be frustrating, especially when you're all too aware of how strong you used to be.
So it's crucial to be methodical about your approach—for the sake of keeping both your body healthy and your motivation humming. For a general idea of what this might look like, we deferred to yogi, trainer, and THE/THIRTY contributor Claire Fountain for her tips and POV. Keep reading to find out how to get back in the swing of things.
If you took time off due to injury…
First and foremost, consult with your doctor and/or physical therapist on the best course of action for you. "You might also require a specialist or trainer who is skilled in knowledge of your injury to get back on it," adds Fountain.
Beyond that, just know that bouncing back will take patience and persistence—but once you make it to the other side, you can pretty much handle anything. "Injury is tough," says Fountain. "It's a big mental hurdle to go from active to not active, and the frustration you had while being injured only continues when you come back and can't do nearly the things you would like to—or run into scar tissue and other pains and aches from the body overcompensating in other areas while injured. Stay slow. Do not increase distance or weight by more than 10% or 15% from workout to workout. And stay aware of what's going on with your body. Pain is pain, and despite the fact some get off on super-intense workouts, pains are not gains."
Again—above all else, stick to your specialist's protocol, which might include icing or elevating after each session.
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If you took time off for any reason other than injury…
Consider yourself lucky, says Fountain—but you still need to take it slow. "If you get back to the gym with too much intensity too soon, you could put yourself at risk for injury," she says. "Sometimes guilt causes us to think, OMG, I am so out of shape—I have to go crazy today and redeem myself for not working out. Instead, accept where you are today and know you can make get back on a regular schedule with workouts."
If it's been a while (i.e., more than a couple weeks), chances are you'll have lost some endurance and muscle mass. With that in mind, "I would prioritize a comfortable segue back in over max reps or sets," says Fountain.
If you're struggling to find the motivation to begin again…
Here's a thought: Start with something you actually like, rather than a standard you used to hold yourself to. "Find something you enjoy that will prime your return to working out to be a good one," advises Fountain. "Having a good workout can boost confidence and self-esteem—key elements of getting back on the horse."
It also helps to remember all the reasons you love being in shape. "That sounds very simplistic, but it's different for each person," she explains. "I like feeling strong, and I miss that when I don't lift. Some miss the muscle pump that happens, some miss the energy they have from exercise, and some miss the mental health benefits. Figure out what you like the most and what you're missing now, and channel the desire for those feelings again to get back in there." Write those reasons on a sticky note for your bathroom mirror, or log them as an alarm on your phone so you're reminded first thing in the morning. Do whatever speaks to you most.
And then… just go. "Show up. Commit to one workout," she says. "It doesn't have to be anything daunting or overwhelming just yet, or there is a chance you fall off and feel bad about yourself for falling off—again."
If you're feeling extra sore during your first few sessions at the gym…
It's not all mental—you also need to prime your body to get back into it. "That means foam-rolling, warming up before a workout, and proper stretching and cooling down afterward," says Fountain. "You might also benefit from massages and relaxing in a sauna. As I've mentioned before when talking about rest days, you might also want to incorporate active recovery-type workouts in leu of heavier things for a while. I also think meditation can be wildly beneficial for people looking to practice patience with their bodies and beat the blues after an injury, or just channel more motivation and focus for getting back after a break."
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And if you want to avoid falling off the wagon again…
"Do the work mentally to figure out why you fell off in the first place," says Fountain. "Maybe it was life, maybe it was something else. Find ways that motivate you, and create habits so that getting back into a routine feels more like a lifestyle and less like a chore." Hint, hint: Start by choosing a workout you actually like—and then enjoy those mind- and body-boosting side effects.