Going too hard too soon is a recipe for disaster. Here’s what to do instead. 

By Julia Malacoff
Jul 16, 2020 @ 10:00 am
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With some gyms starting to reopen, many people are wondering how to get back to their normal exercise habits after months of home workouts, outdoor workouts, or completely taking time off from exercising. No matter the reason for getting out of your old routine, there are some guidelines for ramping things up again safely and effectively so you don’t get injured or discouraged right off the bat.

So whether you’re transitioning from no workouts to home workouts, home workouts to gym workouts, or anything in between, here’s what trainers want you to know about how to get back in shape (or just back to your usual workout sched) — the right way.

Set realistic expectations.

Regardless of your previous fitness level or how long you took off from your normal sweat sessions, be prepared for an adjustment period as you get back up to speed. In fact, the first one or two weeks are all about acclimating your body to exercise (or your previous level of exercise) again, according to Josh Bonhotal, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning coach and VP of Operations at Future. “And depending on how ‘out of shape’ you’re feeling, don’t worry if this acclimation period lasts as long as four to six weeks,” he adds.

Don’t overdo it.

“Taking your time to ease back into exercise by going for lower rep counts, lighter weight, and focusing on form will give your body the movement and surge of energy it's been missing — without putting you at risk for injury,” says Lauren Seib, a certified personal trainer. By keeping the demand lighter and steadily increasing difficulty over those first weeks, you’ll get back where you were faster than if you push too hard right out of the gate, Seib explains.

If you’re looking for specific numbers, start with whatever you’d consider to be your bare minimum routine pre-workout break, and then decrease it by 20 percent, recommends Kourtney Thomas, CSCS*D, a certified strength and conditioning coach. So if you like to run and a typical easy jog was a relaxed 5K, aim for a maximum of 4K for your first workout back.

“I’d also recommend steering clear of jumping back into anything super high-intensity immediately,” Thomas says. (So a ridiculously hard HIIT workout is probably not your best bet for your first workout back.) “Also, don’t feel like you need to jump right back into your five-days-a-week routine if that's what you were doing before. Start with two or three days and increase your frequency over a few weeks as your body readjusts.”

Have a plan.

“Create a plan for several weeks rather than taking it day by day,” suggests Nathan Mago, athletics director at F45 Training. For instance, you might set a goal to work out four days a week for the next month, even if some of your workouts are just 10 minutes long. Another way to plan: “Schedule your sessions in your calendar in advance to avoid letting last-minute things popping up and taking away your focus,” Mago says.

Skip the negative self-talk.

It can be tough to come to terms with feeling like you’ve backslid in terms of your fitness level. But being harsh on yourself will make it harder to stay motivated. “Try to start from a mental baseline of where you are currently and not judge yourself against where your fitness levels may have once been in the past,” Bonhotal advises. “Doing so will allow you to set smaller incremental goals that will push you, but are not so far out of reach as to be unrealistic.”

Focusing on short-term goals that are grounded in actions — for instance, exercising for 15 minutes every other day — can also make it easier to stick with your routine. Bonhotal advises against zeroing in on outcomes — like losing 10 pounds or achieving a certain PR — as you’re more likely to tap into the power of positive reinforcement by prioritizing goals that are within your control.

Get clear on your “why.”

“Spend a little time contemplating and understanding your 'why' for working out,” suggests Thomas. “It may have changed after a break, especially this particular break, because your priorities may have shifted.”

Try reflecting on what types of exercise you really enjoy and how you want to feel in your body. Then, build your workouts around what you’ve discovered, Thomas says. “Motivation comes from within, so make sure you know what’s driving you, what’s important to you, what actually fits into your life. If you ease back into working out from this place of self-awareness and kindness instead of guilt, shame, and panic, you’ll end up not only feeling better physically and mentally, but also with the foundation for lasting motivation.”

Don’t forget about mobility and recovery.

Taking a few minutes to warm up for your workout, cool down, and stretch can make all the difference when you’re newly working out again. “Not only will this make your workout go a bit smoother and feel a little less creaky, but it’ll hopefully save you a touch of soreness on the back end,” Thomas says. And don’t forget to take rest days, sleep well, hydrate, and eat to support your movement, she adds. Those foundational practices will put you in the best possible to position to get back up to speed.

Consider adapting your routine to COVID times.

“Entertain possibilities you may not have entertained previously, including a (virtual) personal trainer or some other kind of personalized program,” Thomas recommends. “There’s a ton more out there now, much of it more accessible than it once was.” There are plenty of amazing workout apps and streaming fitness platforms that make working out from home much easier and more fun — especially if you’re missing your usual workout classes but aren’t ready to set foot in a gym just yet. “If you’d been thinking about trying something, maybe that’s your ticket back to movement in a way that fits,” Thomas adds.

Recruit a workout buddy.

“Sometimes having a family member or friend to join you can help with accountability and motivation,” Mago says. “You’re less likely to cancel on a session if there's someone else expecting you, and you can bounce off each other’s energy and progress. It can also make your workouts more enjoyable if you have a good support system around you.” (And by the way, virtual workout buddies — ones you work out with over FaceTime, Zoom, etc. — count, too.)

Use this mental trick to stay in the game.

“Remind yourself of how you want to feel after a workout,” says Annie Mulgrew, CITYROW VP and founding instructor. Is it strong? Proud? Healthier? “Whatever it is, use that feeling as your motivation to stay committed — especially on days when you need a pep talk to get yourself moving.”