How to Get Back to the Gym After a Long Break
April 8, 2018
Few feelings are as frustrating as making progress when you get back to the gym, only to see it all slip away.
You work your ass off, for a while. You reap the rewards, for a while. And then things go downhill in the “back to the gym” department.
You invest time and effort to get better. But the improvements can be temporary. This applies to business, relationships, and especially to physical training.
Most people are already busy with career and family. Sure, they were fit in the past. But they fell off the “get back in shape” wagon because something got in the way: life.
Months, or in some cases years later, they want to get back at it.
Maybe it’s the urge to build lean muscle and look good on the beach. Maybe it’s the desire to have more energy. Or be a role model to your kids.
But good intentions are not enough. There’s a problem. Getting back into shape is ten times harder than it was before.
An old college classmate Jeff and I were talking about this the other day.
Gone are the “good old days” when you’re nineteen and everything you try in the gym seems to work. Hell, you can’t even have a cocktail or glass of wine without feeling like someone hit you with a truck and sucked all the moisture out of your body.
That program that worked well in high school and college? It was a great program at the time, but it’s not ideal for you now. The unfortunate truth is as your body changes, your training must change, especially if you’ve had a long hiatus from the gym.
I asked Jeff (who’s now married with a one-year-old son):
“How long have you kept your workouts the same?”
“It’s been about four months since I re-started training. I’ve been using the same exercises, eating the same, as I did when I was younger. But I haven’t seen any results.”
Although I’ve never taken a long layoff from training, I’ve been in a similar situation. At one point I kept following the same overused programs ad-nauseum. Pissed and annoyed with “wasting my time,” I stopped a workout mid-set before one of my first coaches, Phil Morgan, asked what I was doing.
I went into the details of my program and told him how long I’d been sticking to it.
He instantly quoted Albert Einstein:
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
No matter who “perfect” a plan appears to be, if you train long enough you’ll hit a plateau. What has worked in the past won’t work forever.
And while I spew Facebook posts and articles on how important “consistency” is, the one thing separating successful transformations from yo-yo-dietings is the ability to change gradually over time.
Don’t look for a magic pill at the end of another 30-day challenge. You won’t find a miracle solution because frankly, it doesn’t exist.
Here are there major mistakes lifters make when they try to get back in the swing of things.
Fix these to regain your mojo in the iron dojo.
1. Don’t Lift Heavy Right Away
Strength is important, but rarely do you need to train like a 5’5” stocky powerlifter to accomplish your goals. Especially after a layoff, most lifters need to accumulate training volume before jumping directly into heavy lifting. By doing so, you will make progress and prevent injury.
It takes longer for joints, tendons, and ligaments to recover from heavy lifting than it does your muscles. After all, there’s a good chance you’re working a high-stress job with a busy family life. You probably aren’t getting all the sleep you need and eating as well as you could.
Sure, you may have crushed 500 lb deadlifts in college. You may have also drunk a gallon of milk a day (along with other stuff.) But you also didn’t miss training days, you had the hormonal profile of a raging bull, and you didn’t have a hectic job and family life.
Strength is still important, but take your time. Perform a 4-6 week accumulation phase where you’re focused on increasing training volume and getting back in the groove of training. This will provide a nice increase in lean body mass, improve your conditioning, and prepare your body for more intense work going forward. Gradually add in low volume strength work.
Sample Exercise: Squats
Week One: 2×10, rest 90 seconds
Week two: 3×10, rest 90 seconds
Week Three: 4×10, rest 60 seconds
Week Four: 3×8, rest 90 seconds
Week Five: 4×8, rest 60 seconds
Then, gradually add in lower volume strength work with an intensification phase. You’re still staying “light” (which I realize is a relative term) to gradually build up your tolerance to heavyweights.
Sample Exercise: Squats
Week One: 3×6, rest 120 seconds
Week two: 4×5, rest 120 seconds
Week Three: 4×4, rest 120 seconds
Week Four: 4×3, rest 120 seconds
Week Five: 5×5,4,3,2 rest 120 seconds
Don’t get me wrong: strength is still important. But after a layoff, you’re better off playing it conservative and giving your body time to adapt instead of doing what you used to do.
2. Living by the Body Part Split
Body part splits are great…for the 10% of advanced lifters who base their life around training and never miss a workout. If you can make the body part split work for you and never miss workouts, then, by all means, continue doing them.
But this isn’t right busy people like you who have a family and a career. In most cases, you’re better off adopting a training split that requires you train major muscle groups multiple times throughout the week.
This has two benefits:
(1) Better technique, faster. The more you perform a given exercise, the better your technique. As the great Vince Lombardi said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” By working through major movement patterns more after you’ll regain your technique faster than training a muscle/movement once per week.
(2) Improved training balance. Training balance is essential for avoiding the dreaded “chicken legs” look as well as preventing injury. Total body, push, pull, lower, or upper-lower training splits allow a more balanced approach to building a well-rounded physique.
Consistency and progressive overload are the most important factors for rebuilding your fitness and building your best body. Focus on ensuring those factors first.
Related: Four Training Splits to Build an Athletic Body
3. Be Patient
Building a strong, athletic, and aesthetically pleasing body isn’t a six-week challenge.
It’s a lifelong pursuit.
But after a layoff, you need to be patient. Focus on the process and persevere.
Ask yourself how long it took you to fall out of shape. It will take at least as long get back in shape.
Sure, hiring a coach or joining a supportive community helps, but you still must own the process day in, day out.
It’s natural to want the shortcut to success. In reality, the only shortcut is persistence, consistency, and discipline.
At the end of the day, you need to buckle down and put in work.
The best program for you isn’t the four-week challenge in your favorite fitness magazine; rather, it’s a program that makes fitness a part of your life but does not consume it.
Once you regain your focus and remake training into a habit it’s amazing how quickly “crappy genetics,” improve and how you suddenly have enough time to train.
Sure, you might not be able to do all the “beastmode” lifts you used to do in the gym, but that’s part of the game. Going forward, it’s time to find a sustainable approach: an approach which allows you to stay consistent and make progress even when you’re busy.
This is the key to transforming your body now and building the habits to build your best body over time.
Train hard. Train Smart. Stay Patient. And Stay Persistent.
How To Get Back to The Gym And Transform Your Body
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