Here’s how to start working out again after a break

Here’s a little secret of mine about being a personal trainer: Despite fitness being at the center of my world, I’m a fairly unimpressive physical specimen. I’m not particularly strong, not exceptionally fast, not genetically gifted in any way. In fact, I’m not even that hard of a worker in the gym.

One thing I am, though, is consistent. In two decades, I’ve rarely gone more than a couple of days without breaking a sweat.

That is until recently, when a series of nagging injuries conspired with a case of COVID-19 to put me on the shelf for just under a month. Even though my COVID symptoms were nearly non-existent, I listened to my doctor and took a break from training.

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It turns out that some time off was exactly what my body needed (imagine that!); I recovered from the infection quickly, and all of those lingering injuries-related aches and pains are, for the most part, gone. Not long after, I even managed to complete a workout, my first in a month.

Thoughtful and consistent effort may be the not-so-secret recipe for achieving your fitness goals, but we have to make room for unplanned interruptions. Whether it’s an illness, an injury, or a major life event that takes up all your mental and physical bandwidth, bouncing back after an extended layoff can feel like an onerous task. It doesn’t have to, though.

Here’s the strategy I use to rebuild all that lost momentum whenever my workout schedule comes screeching to a halt.

Assess the situation

After recovering from COVID, my hands and wrists, my hips and knees – everything hurt. Those pains have since disappeared, but the rust from all that inactivity needs to be addressed. This is why your initial workout after a break shouldn’t really be a workout at all.

Instead, treat your return as a long, meticulous warm up, one in which you’re paying extra-careful attention to physical cues. How does your body feel? Slow and sluggish or responsive and ready? How about your head? Are you able to focus or is your mind distracted? Even if you’re at an advanced training age, it’s important to first assess how your body will respond to low-level stress before turning up the intensity.

Along with assessing our body’s readiness, we also need to tap into that fabled mind-muscle connection. Basic mobility exercises are great for refining proprioception (your body’s sense of awareness and control as it moves through space), as is a light yoga session. Pick movements that focus on the hips, spine and shoulders, and move with deliberate intent.

Work your strengths

Maybe 15 minutes of movement is all you’ve got the energy for, and that’s okay. There’s no need to rush right into an extended routine. But after completing your assessment, as long as there are no red flags warning you to stop, try dipping your toes into the deep end of the pool.

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Now’s not the time to tackle a new goal or practice an unfamiliar skill. What are your strengths? Which exercises are you good at? Focus on those, with the understanding that you won’t be setting any world records just yet. Allow yourself to rack up a couple of wins before launching your official comeback.

Calisthenics and deadlifts are my methods of choice. If I can complete a few sets of pull-ups without grinding my way to the bar, and if I can easily deadlift my body weight for 10 reps, then I know I’m ready to resume training. If my grip feels weak or if I grind my way through a set, I know I need more time. It’s that easy.

Take it slowly

The human body can be unpredictable. One day you may feel like a million bucks, the next you may struggle to get out of bed. This Jekyll and Hyde act can become worse with age and is even more pronounced after an illness or injury.

Which is all to say, take things slowly. It can be a real challenge to minimize your exertion, especially if you’re used to performing at a high level. But what’s worse is asking for too much too soon.

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A handful of short, successful sessions over the course of a week or two is the most productive approach. If this seems easy, well, that’s the idea.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ontario.

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