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It’s bound to happen at some point. Between work commitments, family emergencies, lapses in motivation, and everything in between, breaks in your fitness routine are normal.
Starting back up can be, too. Whether you’ve been out of the exercise groove for a few weeks or a few years, the best time to return to it is… well, now. We talked to certified personal trainers for actionable, expert-backed tips on how to start working out again—and feel strong to boot.
How Long Does It Take To Get Back Into Shape?
It depends. If it’s been a few weeks or months, you may get back into shape within a month or two. If it’s been a few years, you can expect it to take longer. Either way, take your time and respect your body’s process.
Use Mindfulness To Get Motivated
When you start to feel like you’ve lost momentum, it can be daunting to try and start it back up again. But mindfulness can go a long way to build your body confidence back up. First, take a moment every day to visualize yourself getting stronger and more fit. “Close your eyes and see yourself enjoying your cardio work,” says Kelly Najjar, NBC-HWC, CES. “Watch yourself lift heavier weights. Feel how proud you are of yourself. Enjoy the confidence you’re gaining through this process.”
Next, practice gratitude, which can boost your mindset in and out of the gym. “Start by thanking your body for being stronger each day, thank your mind for being motivated, and thank your heart for being dedicated,” she says. Finally, thank yourself for doing the most challenging part—showing up.
To carry your confidence from one session to the next, Najjar recommends taking stock of all you’ve accomplished at the gym before bed. “At the beginning, it might be tough to see all the good you’re doing, but there is something there,” she says. “Learn to identify what you did well. It can be anything. Maybe you hydrated well or did a really great set of squats. Find at least one thing you can be proud of and meditate on it.”
Double Down on Your Warmups
If you used to devote a couple quick minutes to haphazard warmups, now’s the time to put those dynamic moves in the spotlight. Warming up properly will BMC Medicine “The effectiveness of neuromuscular warm-up strategies, that require no additional equipment, for preventing lower limb injuries during sports participation: a systematic review” View Source , activate your Journal of Anatomy “The role of muscle proprioceptors in human limb position sense: a hypothesis” View Source (sensory receptors that strengthen your mind-body connection), and prime your muscles and joints for physical activity. “A good warmup slowly increases your heart rate and blood flow to the muscles, providing your muscles with the extra oxygen they need,” says Najjar. Luckily, there are several ways to prime the body for safe movement.
One easy, effective way to get warmed up for any kind of workout, according to Victoria Brady, CPT, is walking on a treadmill for five minutes. Start at 1.5 miles per hour (MPH) and increase your speed every 60 seconds by 0.5 MPH. Your warmup would look something like this:
- 1 minute at 1.5 MPH
- 1 minute at 2.0 MPH
- 1 minute at 2.5 MPH
- 1 minute at 3.0 MPH
- 1 minute at 3.5 MPH
For another well-rounded, full-body warmup, Najjar recommends getting on an elliptical for about seven minutes. This activates both the lower and upper body and provides low-impact movement on your joints. Following that, she recommends one minute each of arm circles, shoulder rolls, high knees, butt kicks, and side shuffles. This type of warmup will leave you feeling “energized and ready for the rest of your session.”
Go Easy on Yourself
One quick way to wind up back where you started—that is, back on the couch letting your gym membership go to waste—is to do too much too soon. “Take it easy, lower your intensity, and meet yourself where you are today,” says Najjar. “Approach this opportunity with a beginner’s mind. Check in with yourself and consider how each exercise feels new and different this time around.”
Lofty goals are a great way to keep you motivated in the long term. But it’s also necessary to have smaller bite-sized goals to help you feel accomplished every day. Brady recommends something feasible like a daily mile-long walk or a 30-minute workout four days a week. Be sure to incorporate plenty of modifications in your workouts when you need them. This could mean reducing the load of your squat to a lighter dumbbell, going bodyweight-only, or lowering the speed of your walk or run.
Focus on the Big Five Exercises
Feeling a little (or a lot) overwhelmed by the limitless movement patterns you can perform as a born-again gym goer? Don’t complicate things. Whittle down your workout using the five main movement patterns: push, pull, squat, single-leg, and rotation.
“Focusing on the five movement patterns aids in mastering functional strength and your ability to complete daily activities more efficiently, such as bending down to pick up something you dropped,” says Brady. “Additionally, focusing on these five movements ensures you’re following a complete workout regimen or that you’re working out all parts of the body.”
Try incorporating these five exercises into your routine to effectively target each major muscle group:
- Push: Like push-ups. (You can modify on your knees). This works the chest, back and triceps, and can help strengthen bones, improve posture, and help you move against your own bodyweight in activities of daily living.
- Pull: Like rows, using dumbbells or a TRX. Depending on your exact positioning, this works back muscles like the latissimus dorsi and posterior deltoids. These help you pick things up and strengthen your grip.
- Squat: Like dumbbell or bodyweight squats. This works your quadriceps and gluteus maximus, and helps your hips, knees, and ankles work through a wide range of motion to assist in various activities of daily living, such as moving heavy loads. Keeping the core engaged and spine aligned during a squat also strengthens the abdominals as it aims to resist rotation.
- Single leg: Like bodyweight front and back lunges. These work your quadriceps and glutes, which help provide balance and stability when getting up and down from the floor.
- Rotation: Like Russian twists with an optional dumbbell. This works your abdominals and obliques, which can protect your back during rotational movements like putting on a seatbelt or swinging a golf club.
Between the shortness of breath, burning muscle sensations, and parched lips, part of working out comes with inherent discomfort. Don’t let your outfit contribute to that feeling. Brady says it’s thus crucial to “wear workout clothes you feel comfortable exercising in.”
At a baseline, this means stretchy, supportive, often-synthetic gear, like leggings, sweat-wicking socks, sports bras, and tops. You probably already have these in your closet, but if your body has changed since you last worked out or you simply want new apparel, focus on what works for you. That could mean eschewing popular trends—like tight cropped tops or tiny bicycle shorts—and finding something that allows you to move through your own proper range of motion.
Remember How It Feels When Something Isn’t Right
When working out after a long break, you may be eager to push through any pain to make up for lost time. This will hurt you—rather than help you—in the long run. Najjar says it’s crucial to determine the difference between “minor aches that go away after a couple of days” (which are unlikely to be anything to worry about) versus “pain that lasts longer than a few days or that comes back,” which may be cause for concern.
Because you’ll just be starting (or restarting), it’ll take a little longer for your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones to strengthen enough to support your new habit. “If the pain is more than a nagging ache, is accompanied by swelling, or is preventing you from walking you may want to call your doctor to have your pain checked out,” she says. “It’s better to play it safe and address a potential injury quickly.”
Structure Breaks Into Your Workout
While your motivation for endurance training might be at an all-time high (you’ve had weeks or months to recover, after all!), breaks are still an integral part of your new routine. “Breaks allow you to catch your breath and reset in between circuits or intervals, but more importantly, it helps with building strength or endurance as your muscles repair themselves and build during the rest periods,” says Brady.
But how long should you rest in between sets? “It depends on the type of workout you’re doing,” says Najjar. If you’re performing, say, a standard strength workout, your break should be between two to five minutes between sets. For circuits or HIIT training, breaks are much shorter at around 45 seconds of work followed by 15 seconds of rest.
Remember to work longer breaks—aka rest days—into your routine, too. The amount of rest days you take depends on your preferences (and your schedule). You can aim to have one every third or fourth day, or just when you’re feeling overly sore or fatigued.
Grab a Friend
There’s power in numbers. That’s true for a lot of things—especially getting yourself back into working out after a long break. “Recruiting a workout partner is a great way to keep you accountable, especially if you’re meeting up with them to exercise together,” says Brady. “Having someone who is supportive and keeps you accountable with your goals is encouraging, making you more likely to show up for your workouts.”
What’s more is that a workout buddy provides a change of scenery and change of pace to your workout—which may help you stick to it for good this time around. “[They] help keep things interesting [and] bring their own experience and exercise ideas to the table which can keep things fresh,” says Najjar. “Working out with a friend is fun and brings a social aspect into the experience. A workout goes by quickly when you’re catching up with a friend.” She also notes that a workout buddy provides an element of competition, which can help motivate you to maintain the habit in the long run.
If you don’t have many fitness people in your life (or you’re just feeling shy about working out around your friends), sign up for a workout class. People tend to emulate the workout intensity of those around them, according to a study published in the Journal of Social Sciences “Effects of Perceived Fitness Level of Exercise Partner on Intensity of Exertion” View Source , so a class may help you rev up. Another option is working with a personal trainer, which ensures that you’ll have expert guidance and one-on-one time with another human.
Leave Room for More Setbacks
Counterintuitive? Perhaps. But while it’s important to embrace a growth mindset and see “challenges as opportunities to grow,” according to Najjar, it’s even more crucial to be gentle with yourself. You might sleep through an early morning yoga class, pause workouts when you’re on vacation, or just decide you don’t want to go to the gym one day—and that’s fine. “Life happens, and when it does, a missed workout is not a failure and is not the end of your journey,” Najjar says. Just pick it back up the next day (or the day after that) and you’ll set yourself up to keep going.