Returning to the gym after a long time off is a strange feeling. You’re either weaker than before, or you’re fit in a different way (maybe you didn’t lift while your gym membership was on pause, but you ran a lot), yet you still remember your old weights, your old paces, your old routines.
Hopping back in as if you never left is a recipe for disappointment, and possibly even injury. Fortunately, the human body is resilient and adaptable. Follow these tips and before long you’ll be back to your old routine.
Ramp up over time
If you do something repetitive, like running, your greatest risk lies not in what you do on one specific day, but more likely in the total amount of work you’re doing. Beginning runners suffer injuries at far greater rates than experienced runners, and most running injuries are overuse injuries—the kind that creep up on you over time.
As we discussed in our guide to avoiding injuries as a beginner runner, you don’t actually need to worry too much about your form or your choice of shoes. What matters more is keeping most of your mileage at an easy, slow pace, and increasing your total workload over time rather than jumping straight into running every day.
Other repetitive activities can follow the same pattern. If you decide you want to swim 50 laps every morning, don’t be surprised if your shoulders get achy after doing that for a week straight. Instead of fast-forwarding right to your goal routine, start off with a shorter workout a few times a week, and increase a bit each week as long as you’re still feeling good.
Don’t try to max out on your first day
Testing your strength is fun, but it’s probably best to think of test days as a privilege that you earn via the hard work of training.
You can hurt yourself by lifting heavy weights incorrectly, but something being heavy is not enough to make it an injury risk. Rather, your body adapts to the stresses you’re putting on it, so what you lift should be something you’ve trained to lift.
If you’ve been getting plenty of practice squatting 170, 180, 190 pounds, it’s not too big a jump to ask your body to do 200. But if you’ve been squatting zero pounds and then you load up 200, your body may not be ready for it.
Instead of trying to test your strength right away, start by giving your body a base level of work for a while to let it adapt. You’ll still make gains within this time, so don’t rush the process. Within a few weeks, you’ll be feeling like yourself again.
So you’ll need to hold back your first day in the gym. Bummer. But don’t get so attached to that fact that you forget to challenge yourself.
The truth is, beginners can make huge gains in almost every domain of fitness fairly quickly, whether we’re talking about strength, speed, endurance, or anything else. And if you’ve previously been experienced, and now you’re back to beginner numbers again, you’ll probably be able to make those same gains even faster.
Make a plan. You may not know exactly how fast you’ll improve, so make it a point to listen to your body—not just to find out your limitations, but to find out whether you might be able to do more than you expected. Try to add a little weight each week and see what happens. Bump up your resistance on the elliptical by a few notches. Sign up for the intermediate class if the beginner level has been feeling good. You’ll never find out what you can do until you try.
We’ve already established that there are no prizes for setting personal records on your first day back at the gym, so how can you evaluate your efforts?
I like to think of it this way: Your goal at this point is to build consistency. Being consistent with your efforts is the foundation on which gains are built. So instead of thinking “How much can I lift today?” or “How high can I get on the leaderboard in this class?”, ask yourself “How does this help me build consistency?”
If you have a concrete answer to that question—something like, “I’m doing the beginner class three times this week, and next week I’ll sign up for two beginner sessions and one intermediate”—then you have the process under control, and you’re off to a great start.