Getting back in shape after an extended break from the gym requires careful planning so you don’t overdo it.
Nine steps for getting back into shape are:
- Reset your expectations
- Set small, reasonable goals
- Choose workouts you enjoy
- Find other ways to make working out more fun
- Follow beginner-friendly routines
- Keep training volume low
- Keep training intensity low
- Incorporate active recovery days
- Track your progress
Despite how excited you may be to get back in shape, you don’t want to rush to get back to your previous fitness levels. Doing too much too soon can leave you injured or burned out and force you to take more time off from working out.
In this article, I’ll talk about how long it takes to get back in shape after a long break and provide tips on how to get back in shape safely. I’ll also provide a list of mistakes to avoid when getting back in shape.
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How Long Does It Take to Get Back in Shape After a Long Break?
It can take a couple of weeks to a few months to get back in shape. However, it depends on what kind of workouts you did previously and how long you’ve been away from the gym.
Suppose you previously trained for bodybuilding, powerlifting, or another strength sport, but it’s been over three months since you last worked out. In that case, it can take six to eight weeks to start regaining your strength and muscle mass. The time frame increases the longer you’ve been away from the gym.
Aerobic fitness can take longer to come back. Some studies show improvements in aerobic capacity after eight weeks of training following eight weeks of not working out. However, it can take 20 weeks to fully return to previous fitness levels.
This may seem like a long time, but it’s important to remember that it took longer than a few weeks or months to build your fitness in the first place. And if you were consistent with your training before your break, your body can readapt quickly due to “muscle memory.”
Muscle memory is when your muscles “remember” previous activities they used to perform. They can quickly regain the ability to do them again, even if you haven’t practiced them in a while.
So while it may have taken you years to build up to the strongest squat you’ve ever done or the fastest marathon you’ve ever run, it won’t take nearly as much time to return to those levels after a break.
Related Article: Missing a Workout: What To Do To Get Back on Track
9 Steps to Take to Get Back in Shape
1. Reset Your Expectations
Think about why you stopped working out in the first place. Was it because you started a new job with long hours and a long commute? Were you forced to take some time off because of an injury? Did you have a new baby who threw your entire schedule for a loop?
Whatever the reason, take some time to reflect on why you stopped working out. Then, reevaluate the phase of life you’re in now so you can set yourself up for success and avoid falling back into old habits.
It can be hard to adjust to different training methods if you’re used to long, high-intensity workouts. However, finding routines that work with your current schedule or physical limitations will make it easier for you to reestablish consistency.
2. Set Small, Reasonable Goals
Maybe you want to get back in shape because you miss how good your body feels when you work out consistently. Or perhaps you want to shed a few pounds of weight you’ve gained recently. Either way, setting goals can give you something to strive for and keep you motivated.
However, it’s important to set challenging goals that are still reachable with the body you have now when you’re getting back in shape.
This may mean setting a goal to run a 5k distance without stopping, even if you have previously run marathons. Or it could mean working back up to a 225lb bench press, even if your old one rep max is 300lbs or more.
When getting back in shape, any goals you set for yourself for the first couple of months should be things you can achieve without too much difficulty. Being able to hit small goals along the way will keep your motivation high at the beginning of your new fitness journey.
3. Choose Workouts You Enjoy
The thought of working out again after a long break can be intimidating. It’s also possible that your interests have changed, and you want to try a different type of workout than the one you focused on previously. For those reasons, I recommend picking an activity you enjoy now when trying to get back in shape.
For example, let’s say you used to train for powerlifting but now dread the thought of doing squats, bench presses, and deadlifts for most of your workouts. If circuit training appeals to you more now, try that instead.
Picking workouts you enjoy during your current phase of life instead of following a program you despise will make it easier for you to stick with your routine.
4. Find Other Ways to Make Working Out More Fun
In addition to finding workouts you enjoy, look for other fun ways to make fitness a part of your life again.
For example, you and your spouse can engage in some friendly competition to see who can get more steps in during the day. You can participate in a fitness challenge your local gym is running. Many smartwatches, wearable trackers, and mobile apps even have challenges you can join if you need some external motivation.
You can also choose something enjoyable to do during your workout if you find it difficult to get going. For example, you can catch up on a TV show while on the treadmill or listen to an intriguing podcast while lifting weights.
Combining your workouts with other pleasurable activities can help you look forward to training, which is essential when trying to reestablish a routine.
5. Follow Beginner-Friendly Routines
It can be frustrating to feel like you’re a beginner again. Still, a beginner-friendly training routine is a good starting point for getting back in shape. Since beginner routines focus on the fundamentals, they are great for rebuilding strength and consistency.
You don’t have to stay on a beginner program for long, though. After about 12 weeks, your body should be re-acclimated to training, and you can move on to a more advanced program.
Fitbod can help you create a beginner workout routine if you’re unsure how to get started. Once you’re ready to move on, you can adjust your experience level and get a new, more advanced program. If you’re ready to start working out again, download the Fitbod app and get your first three workouts for free.
6. Keep Training Volume Low
This next step piggybacks off the previous one. If you follow a beginner routine, starting over with low training volume is easier because most beginner programs are already designed that way. But if you want to create your own training program, it’s important to keep volume low when starting over.
This is because your body will be deconditioned after not working out for a long time. It’s best to regain your ability to handle large training volumes by gradually working your way up.
If you’re following a lifting program, you may want to start with 3-4 exercises and 3 sets of 6-10 reps. After about 4-8 weeks, you can add a couple more exercises and increase your working sets to 4.
If you’re doing cardio, you may want to start with 15-20 minutes and take breaks as needed. Over time, you can aim for longer work periods until you need to rest. Once you can go the full 15-20 minutes without stopping, you can add 1 minute to your workouts each week.
Starting with a low-volume program will give you more room to make progress over the next several weeks or months without risking injury from doing too much too soon.
Related Article: Missing a Day of Lifting: Will You Lose Your Gains?
7. Keep Training Intensity Low
In addition to keeping training volume low, I recommend keeping training intensity low when getting back in shape. You won’t be at the same levels you were at when you were working out consistently, so you shouldn’t expect to be able to jump right back into it.
For example, your previous one rep max back squat may have been 350lbs, but it won’t be the same if you haven’t squatted in over a year. As such, you shouldn’t start a new lifting routine and base it off that old rep max.
Instead, take 80-90% of your previous one rep maxes, then take 60-70% of those numbers and base your routine on those. After a few weeks, when your body has acclimated to training again, you can start to train at a higher intensity.
The same goes for cardio or endurance activities. Start with a low to moderate intensity that feels challenging but doable, and stick with that for a few weeks. Once you’ve rebuilt your cardiovascular base, you can push yourself to train harder or faster.
8. Incorporate Active Recovery Days
You’re bound to feel sore and more tired than usual when you start working out again. Adding some active recovery days to your routine can help with this.
Active recovery includes low-impact activities that get your body moving but don’t cause much muscular stress. Some examples are stretching, walking, or riding a bike.
Staying active, even on non-training days, has been shown to ease muscle pain and improve recovery. Because it keeps your body moving, it can also go a long way in helping you build up your fitness levels again.
Related Article: 3 Differences Between LISS Cardio and HIIT (#3 Is Cool)
9. Track Your Progress
You likely tracked your gym progress when you worked out previously. Doing it when you restart your fitness journey will allow you to see how much stronger, faster, and fitter you’re getting again. That can motivate you to keep going if you are frustrated by a seeming lack of progress.
Tracking your progress will also give you a good gauge of how long it takes to reach the new goals you set for yourself. You can use this information to inform how long it may take to achieve future goals and the adjustments you need to make to reach them.
4 Mistakes to Avoid When Getting Back in Shape
1. Working Out Every Day
If you’re excited about restarting your fitness routine, you may be tempted to work out every day. However, this can quickly lead to overtraining and cause injuries.
It’s best to start with three days a week for the first month or two. Once your body adapts and you’re no longer sore after every workout, you can add an extra day or two.
If three days a week doesn’t feel like enough, incorporate two to three active recovery days, as I explained above. This will help you stay active without putting your muscles under extra stress.
2. Rushing Into Competitive Events
It’s great if you want to sign up for a marathon or CrossFit competition when you decide to get back in shape. As I mentioned earlier, setting goals is an excellent way to rebuild consistency and stay motivated.
However, rushing to prepare for a competition when you haven’t worked out in months or years can be a recipe for disaster. You may become injured or burned out if you don’t give yourself enough time to work back up to your previous fitness levels.
Don’t sign up for the very first race or competition you find just because it’s happening soon. Give yourself at least a couple of months to adequately prepare for whatever competition you may want to do.
I also recommend starting small for your first competition after a long break from training. For example, instead of trying to prepare for a marathon in two months, start by training for a 5k instead.
This way, you’ll still get the motivation of training for a specific goal, but you don’t have to rush to get yourself into competition shape.
3. Trying To Do It By Yourself
Getting back into shape can be difficult if you try to do it alone. Finding a workout buddy or hiring a personal trainer can give you the external support you may need as you work on improving your lifestyle.
You don’t even necessarily need to find someone to work out with you. But you should at least tell your friends and family about your desire to get back in shape and share your ideal workout schedule with them.
This allows them to hold you accountable for sticking to your routine. It will also ensure that someone else can watch your kids, cook dinner, or help in other ways while you’re working out so you don’t have to handle all other daily responsibilities alone.
4. Not Eating a Healthy Diet
Getting back into shape isn’t just about working out. If your nutrition habits have also fallen to the wayside, cleaning up your diet can help you feel more energized and prepared to tackle your workouts.
If you find it overwhelming to overhaul your nutrition and restart a workout routine simultaneously, start with small changes. For example, start by preparing healthy lunches ahead of time that you can take to work instead of getting takeout. Once you’ve established that habit, try reducing your daily glass of wine to one glass on Saturday nights.
By changing one thing at a time and gradually making additional adjustments once you’ve mastered one habit, you’ll avoid getting overwhelmed and giving up.
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try Fitbod for free.
Getting back in shape may feel intimidating. It can also feel frustrating when you realize you’re not as strong or fast as you used to be.
However, taking things slow is important when you restart a fitness routine. Consider how your goals and training preferences may have changed, and tailor your program to fit your current lifestyle. Keep training intensity and volume low, avoid working out every day, and lean on your friends and family for support.
Before you know it, you’ll likely be at or close to the levels you were at previously. It may take a few weeks or months, but practicing patience will allow you to make progress without burning yourself out or getting injured.
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.