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How To Start Working Out Again After A Long Break

3 ways to kickstart your comeback.

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One of life’s beauties is that it’s an adventure, but when life throws you a curveball, it can disrupt your routine or derail your usual plans.

Although we try to be consistent with our fitness routines, sometimes, life’s twists and turns force us to take an extended break from regular exercise.

Whether you’ve had an illness or injury, moved house, welcomed a new baby, taken a new job, or had some other circumstance that caused you to step away from your exercise routine for several weeks or more, getting back into shape and resuming your workout plan can be overwhelming.

In this guide, we will discuss how to start working out again after an extended break and the factors that will affect your comeback. We will also share some new workouts for getting back into shape fast, whether your goal is weight loss, mental health, or overall health and wellness.

A person flexing her biceps after figuring out how to start working out again.

How Do You Start Working Out Again When It’s Been Awhile?

It can be frustrating to see your fitness gains start slipping away when you have to stop working out, so let’s find out how to start working out again when you are good and ready to take another stab at your fitness journey!

When you start ramping up your physical activity, your body begins to make various physiological adaptations.

You begin to increase muscle mass, decrease body fat, strengthen neuromuscular connections, strengthen your heart and lungs, and increase your stroke volume and blood plasma, among other health benefits.

These adaptations improve your cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, muscular endurance, body composition, and overall health and wellness.

Your body will continue to improve and adapt as long as you exercise consistently and employ the principle of progressive overload, which involves gradually increasing the intensity, load, reps, duration, or other factors of your workouts to keep your body challenged.

However, these physiological adaptations are reversible; if you stop working out regularly, you will lose this progress, and your body can revert to a less trained state.

Detraining, or a loss of fitness,1Mujika, I., & Padilla, S. (2000). Detraining: Loss of Training-Induced Physiological and Performance Adaptations. Part I. Sports Medicine30(2), 79–87. can include a decline in aerobic endurance or stamina, VO2 max, muscle mass, muscular strength, muscular endurance, changes in body composition and “definition,” and a decrease in power and speed.

So, how do you get back into working out after time off?

Ultimately, the answer is simple—you have to start working out consistently again. However, simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. You’ll need to start small and progress gradually to minimize your risk of injuries.

Set realistic goals that are appropriate for your current fitness level and comprise an exercise program (alongside a personal trainer if possible) that will fit your needs, schedule, and objectives.

A person tying their shoe.

Factors that Affect How to Get Back Into Shape

Once you’re ready to start working out again after a break, there are a few things you should consider to help you get back into shape.

Factors to consider when returning to a workout routine include the following:

#1: How Long You Were Inactive

How much time you took off from working out has a significant impact on how you’ll need to approach getting back into working out. The longer you were inactive, the longer it may take to regain your fitness, and the more gradual your approach should be. 

One study2Coyle, E. F., Martin, W. H., Sinacore, D. R., Joyner, M. J., Hagberg, J. M., & Holloszy, J. O. (1984). Time course of loss of adaptations after stopping prolonged intense endurance training. Journal of Applied Physiology57(6), 1857–1864. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.1984.57.6.1857 demonstrated that aerobic fitness can drop significantly in just a matter of weeks. The study found that VO2 max dropped 7% after three weeks of inactivity.

Most studies show that cardio fitness drops after about two weeks, and strength declines3McMaster, D. T., Gill, N., Cronin, J., & McGuigan, M. (2013). The Development, Retention and Decay Rates of Strength and Power in Elite Rugby Union, Rugby League and American Football. Sports Medicine43(5), 367–384. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0031-3 after three weeks of inactivity. 

#2: Why You Stopped Working Out

How to get back into shape and regain fitness after time off needs to consider the reason why you stopped working out in the first place.

If you were simply busy or chose to take a break but had no physical issues, you can conceivably approach your return to working out more aggressively.

However, if you had an overuse injury, other injury, or an illness, your body went through a healing process and it’s prudent to take a more conservative approach to getting back into exercising.

If you’ve been sick with COVID-19, a respiratory illness, or some other long-term illness, for example, your body may be weaker, and you may have some residual symptoms that will make breathing during exercise more challenging when you go to do your first few workouts.

When returning from an injury, it’s important to consider the cause of the injury. If your injury was caused by the sport or exercise you’re returning to, you’ll want to be especially mindful of how the area feels when you decide how to start working out again.

For example, if you had a tibial stress fracture from running, once you are cleared to run, you’ll want to increase your volume slowly and gradually, gauging how your shin feels during each run and in the 24 hours following each workout.

You may even consider starting back up with low-impact crosstraining before you jump into running again.

A person with a towel and water bottle.

#3: Your Experience and General Fitness Level

In general, the fitter you were before stopping working out, the faster your fitness will return and the more aggressively you can get back into shape.

If you were working out 5-6 days per week before you stopped, start back with three days the first week, four days the second week, five days the third week, and 5-6 days per week the fourth week, provided you feel well and are recovering between workouts.

Alternatively, you can start back with more frequent but shorter workouts.

If you were working out 5-6 days per week for 45-60 minutes before you stopped, start back with four days the first week for 20-25 minutes, five days the second week for 30 minutes, five days per week the third week for 40 minutes, and 5-6 days per week the fourth week for 45-50 minutes provided you feel well and are recovering between workouts.

Be sure to respect your rest days!

#4: What Type of Exercise and Workouts You Were Doing Before You Stopped Working Out

Evidence suggests that cardio fitness is lost faster than strength, so the type of exercise you were doing before you stopped and the type you’re returning to can affect how long it will take to get back in shape and the best workouts to do.

The intensity of your workouts also matters.

One study4Fatouros, I. G. (2005). Strength training and detraining effects on muscular strength, anaerobic power, and mobility of inactive older men are intensity dependent. British Journal of Sports Medicine39(10), 776–780. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2005.019117 found that not only does high-intensity interval training (HIIT) induce greater gains in strength, anaerobic power, and fitness, but these gains seem better preserved during prolonged periods of time off from exercise relative to fitness gains achieved by moderate- or low-intensity continuous exercise.

High-intensity workouts will get your heart rate up quickly and work that cardiovascular system. 

Start with steady-state workouts for the first week, then build back to interval training.

A person sitting down on a yoga mat.

#5: Your Fitness Goals

Your fitness goals will influence how you get back in shape after a break to some degree.

If you are a competitive athlete working with time constraints in terms of when you need to be prepared for an event, your approach to returning to exercising will probably be more aggressive than that of a recreational athlete.

What Are The Best Exercises To Ease Back Into Fitness After A Sedentary Period?

So, if you are wondering how to start working out again after time off and what workouts you should do, it is highly variable based on all of the aforementioned factors, but here we have a few general workout ideas to get you going:

#1: Total-Body Strength Training Workout

When you start working out again after a break, it’s a good idea to start with bodyweight exercises. You can gauge how your body feels without external resistance and then increase the resistance if everything feels okay in a day or two following the first workout.

For exercises with weights, use lighter weights than you used before you stopped working out. Focus on using good form, perform each exercise with its full range of motion, and be sure to hit all major muscle groups.

Here is an example of a bodyweight workout for how to get back in shape:

Bodyweight Strength Workout

Warm up with 10 minutes of light cardio and some dynamic stretching
Complete two rounds of the following :

  • 20 bodyweight squats
  • 15 push-ups 
  • 12 step-ups per leg
  • 30-second plank
  • 10 single-leg bridges per side
  • 12 biceps curls
  • 12 resistance band reverse flys 
  • 12 stability ball hamstring curls
  • 15 reverse crunches
A trainer fixing the position of his client.

#2: Cardio Workout

This cardio workout can be done on any modality (cycling, treadmill, elliptical, rowing, swimming, etc.).

  • Warm-up 5 minutes (rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of 5 on a scale of 1-10)
  • 5 minutes at RPE 6-7
  • 5 minutes at RPE 7-8
  • If you feel good, you can either stop and do a 5-minute cooldown at RPE 5 or do one more section at RPE 6-7 before the cooldown.

#3: Walk/Run Workout

Here’s a good walk/run workout if you are returning to running after time off.

  • Warm-up with 5 minutes of walking
  • 8-10 x run 1 minute walk 30 seconds
  • Cool down with 5 minutes of walking

Above all, when you decide to start exercising again after a break, listen to your body and err on the side of caution. Be patient and positive. You’ll get there!

If you want to set a specific running goal, such as a Couch to 5K or a marathon, check out our training plans and resources for guidance!

A pair of running shoes, water bottle, headphones, phone, apple, orange, pen and pad of paper.

References

  • 1
    Mujika, I., & Padilla, S. (2000). Detraining: Loss of Training-Induced Physiological and Performance Adaptations. Part I. Sports Medicine30(2), 79–87.
  • 2
    Coyle, E. F., Martin, W. H., Sinacore, D. R., Joyner, M. J., Hagberg, J. M., & Holloszy, J. O. (1984). Time course of loss of adaptations after stopping prolonged intense endurance training. Journal of Applied Physiology57(6), 1857–1864. https://doi.org/10.1152/jappl.1984.57.6.1857
  • 3
    McMaster, D. T., Gill, N., Cronin, J., & McGuigan, M. (2013). The Development, Retention and Decay Rates of Strength and Power in Elite Rugby Union, Rugby League and American Football. Sports Medicine43(5), 367–384. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0031-3
  • 4
    Fatouros, I. G. (2005). Strength training and detraining effects on muscular strength, anaerobic power, and mobility of inactive older men are intensity dependent. British Journal of Sports Medicine39(10), 776–780. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2005.019117
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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