Figuring out how to start working out again after a long layoff is a challenge most active people face at some point - be it post-injury, after a holiday break, or in this case, following a global health pandemic.
With nationwide gym closures and collective stress levels through the roof, you can be forgiven for falling off your regular training routine. In a sense, lockdown has brought us together in the same boat, uncertain about the future and unsure how to get back into working out.
Below you’ll find some simple strategies and easy workout routines designed to help you get back into shape and (safely) hop back on the gain train
Getting Back Into the Gym: Setting Expectations
Inevitably, the post-lockdown gym environment is going to look and feel different, and your body will have likely changed too.
If you were impacted in any way by the pandemic, or you simply weren’t one of the lucky ones with a fully kitted out home gym, it’s perfectly normal to have lost some strength, endurance, and muscle mass.
So, if you find yourself worrying about how to start exercising again, the good news is that having a few months off doesn't mean your hard-earned results are completely down the drain. In fact, a study from earlier this year suggests you can rebuild sharpish.
A group of older males went through 12 weeks of full-body resistance training, followed by 12 weeks off, and then another 12 weeks of training. Although there was a loss in 1 rep max strength after the de-training period, it took less time to regain and surpass that level of strength (just 8 weeks) due to muscle memory .
In other words, if you're wondering “How long does it take to get back in shape after three months of eating pizza and watching Tiger King?”, it’s likely going to require less than three months of training to get back on track.
Just know that as you start getting back into the gym, you’ll almost definitely feel an increase in post-workout muscle soreness - the infamous DOMS . You might crave the endorphin rush, but jumping back in at your previous intensity or volume probably isn't the best idea. Err on the side of caution, be patient, and the results will come.
Key takeaways: You’ll likely be somewhat deconditioned and experience more DOMS when getting back into working out, but it won’t take long to adapt.
Easy Workout Routines: Revisiting The Basics
Whenever we’re talking about how to start a workout routine after time off, our priority is to revisit the basics with a beginner’s mind. We’re looking to establish a strong foundation and build sustainable momentum, incorporating easy workout routines in three main areas:
Arguably the best way to start working out again and rebuild strength is to pick a few whole-body, compound movements that recruit the most muscle groups and signal the biggest adaptation response .
Limiting your initial workouts to just a handful of exercises may not sound that exciting, but it’s a great way to streamline your training, removing unnecessary distractions.
Your strength-based easy workout routines could be based on the following template:
Strength Workout A
- Back Squat
- Bench Press
- Bent-Over Row
Strength Workout B
- Deadlift or Hip Thrust
- Overhead Press
If you’re looking to keep things simple and sustainable, or if you’re completely new to training and wondering how to start a workout routine, that might be enough for now. However, feel free to add accessory exercises and core work after the main lifts.
To ease in, start out with 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions using a lighter weight than you usually would, and focus on correct form.
As your body begins to adjust after a month or so, you could then play with increasing the weight, upping the sets to 3-5, and lowering the rep range to 5-8.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a decent way to get a lot of work done in a short timeframe. However, when you're exploring how to start working out again after a long break, beginning with some easier cardio may be wise.
As the name suggests, HIIT is intense, placing a lot of stress on the system. If you’ve lost fitness during lockdown, jumping straight into a savage HIIT session without the prerequisite strength or endurance could lead to an increased injury risk .
Instead, the best way to start working out post-lockdown may be to focus on rebuilding base strength in the weight room and keeping your cardio at the lower end of the intensity spectrum.
Walking, jogging and cycling are all great outdoor options that many have recently started. At the gym, treadmills, cross-trainers and rowers can all work well.
Aim to keep at a conversational pace for 30-60 minutes, before incorporating some more HIIT style workouts after a month or so.
Mobility is often neglected but is particularly important when getting back into working out.
You might have stayed active during the lockdown, but for many people, staying indoors has meant more time sitting.
Being a couch potato isn't a crime, but prolonged sitting can cause a number of postural adaptations, including tight hips, a stiff mid-back and sleepy glutes. These adaptations may have a knock-on effect on your form, which isn't ideal.
The good news is that incorporating some simple mobility exercises into your warmup, cooldown and off days will make it easier to adopt more stable positions and may reduce your injury risk while in the gym or out running . So when you find yourself wondering how to start working out again, ensure to make time for some joint TLC.
Two simple mobility exercises for undoing some of the damage from sitting include:
- Lunge patterns - lunges and split squats are great for releasing tight hip flexors and reactivating the glutes.
- Thoracic rotations - standing thoracic rotations and a revolved high lunge pose can be great for opening up the mid-back and shoulders.
How to Start a Workout Routine: Sample Training Schedule
As we’ve established, the best way to start working out after time off is to ease in, which you can do with a “two days on, one day off” schedule:
Around 2-4 weeks after getting back into working out, your body will have started to adjust to the new demands. At this point, you might up your training volume or intensity, and shift to a 3 days on, 1 day off schedule:
How to Get Back into Working Out at Home & In The Gym
Like many others, you might have enjoyed a new form of training during lockdown, or even managed to get hold of some rare home gym equipment. So how do you go about integrating your at-home and in-gym sessions?
Here are a few ideas to help you get the best of both worlds when getting back into shape:
- If you got into cycling, walking or running, you can continue using them in cardio sessions, or to travel to and from the gym.
- Enjoyed follow-along yoga classes online? You could carry on doing so to support your mobility, or look to join in group classes at the gym when it’s safe to do so.
- You can blend home strength workouts with ones at the gym, performing heavier lifts in the weight room and accessory or bodyweight training at home.
Key takeaways: When you’re looking at how to start working out again, spend time re-building the basics with compound movements, steady-state cardio and mobility work. Gradually increase volume or intensity as your body adapts, and feel free to blend at-home and in-gym training.
How to Start a Workout Routine + Set Training Goals
Getting back into shape after a long hiatus can seem a daunting task, but it’s a great chance to take a step back and set some goals. Having something to focus on can make it easier for you to structure your training schedule and remain on track.
Goals can come in many forms, but it’s generally agreed upon that the SMART acronym is a good place to start - a goal that’s specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-based. Ultimately, the most important thing is that your goal makes you excited about getting back into the gym again!
One thing to consider when looking at how to get back into working out is accountability. Lockdown has been tough, but it’s invoked a strong sense of community, which is still important as we return to training. Having someone to share your goals with and even train alongside (socially-distanced) can mean up to a 95% success rate when it comes to tackling your targets .
Key takeaways: When looking at how to start working out again, incorporate goals and accountability to help you stay motivated and focussed on your training.
The Best Way to Get Back in Shape: Rebuilding Healthy Habits
As you begin to explore how to start a workout routine post-lockdown, it's more important now than ever to prioritise rest and recovery. Here are a few things to consider as you start getting back into the gym:
- Sleep. It’s during sleep that your body grows stronger from your training. As you’ll likely be upping your workout frequency, aim for 8-9 hours of good quality shut-eye per night.
- Stress. Stress levels are understandably high right now. While getting back into the gym will likely help, you may also benefit from slower practices like meditation or breath-work.
- Diet. Your nutrition provides the building blocks required to get back into shape and is just as important as exercise when exploring how to get back into working out. You may already follow a specific dietary protocol, but as a general rule of thumb, opting for mainly whole foods, staying hydrated, and consuming adequate protein will serve you well.
On the topic of nutrition, getting back into working out is a great time to resume or begin meal prep. Batch cooking meals for a week or at least a few days at a time means healthy food on tap and less risk of hitting up your favourite lockdown takeaways.
Key takeaways: Support your post-lockdown easy workout routines with adequate sleep, stress-management and a nutritious diet.
How to Start Working Out Again: Final Thoughts
While some people are excited at the prospect of getting back into the gym, it's also okay to feel a little overwhelmed.
Remember to start slow, ease into things with easy workout routines.
Have fun with your training, and stay safe.
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Luke Jones is a Movement Coach & Content Creator at HERO Movement. Through articles & online training, he explores and shares ideas in all things performance, wellness & adventure.
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- Ramskov, Daniel, et al. "High eccentric hip abduction strength reduces the risk of developing patellofemoral pain among novice runners initiating a self-structured running program: a 1-year observational study." journal of orthopaedic & sports physical therapy 45.3 (2015): 153-161. https://www.jospt.org/doi/pdf/10.2519/jospt.2015.5091
- American Society of Training and Development (ASTD). “Measuring and Evaluating Training”. (2010). https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/ASTD_Handbook_for_Measuring_and_Evaluati.html?id=mHTEkvyjaLwC&redir_esc=y