How to get back into working out after a break from fitness

 by Liesa Huppertz
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Christmas holidays were probably the best excuse to take a little time off your workout routine. However, if you feel you have completely fallen off your fitness track now, it might be pretty intimidating starting all over again. We all know how easily three days of stopping to workout become two weeks of not training. Lifting weights again after a long time can feel like lifting weights for the very first time. Still, it’s important to get on the fitness waggon again. In this article I will tell you how to do it and what to consider when starting again.

When do you experience fitness loss

Skipping a workout for a few days or even a week isn’t gonna hurt your fitness too much. Every now and then it’s ok to take a break from working out and that can even be healthy. To a certain degree, exercising is always stress for the body. Thus, rest days are important especially after an intense workout. There are even benefits to active recovery and total rest. The biggest risk, however, is of mental nature. As a beginner you need to establish a routine in order to keep your workout rolling. If you break with that routine or haven’t even established it, it’s quite hard to motivate yourself for fitness. It’s important to establish a habit of working out.

experiencing fitness loss

How much did my break set me back cardio-wise

As I said, not working out for a couple of days isn’t gonna do too much. Within about two weeks of not being active, however, aerobic conditioning starts to decline noticeably. With your cardio exercises you train your heart and the lungs. The take in, transport and the use of oxygen during a workout is called the VO2 max. Working out improves your VO2 max because the lungs and the heart become more efficient in delivering oxygen and blood to your body during your training. When stopping to workout, however, the VO2 max declines. How much that is can vary.

Generally speaking: if you took a few weeks off, your cardio fitness won’t have suffered too much and you almost haven’t lost any of your strength. If you took a year off and were in good shape before, you’ll have lost at least 15 % of your cardio fitness and your strength will be about half.

How much did my break set me back strength-wise

The good news: strength doesn’t decline as quickly as your cardio fitness. Even after a month you’ll still have most of your strength and „power“, meaning the strength in quick movements, e.g. squat jumps. Even after a year you may still have about half of the strength you originally gained. If you work out regularly and lift a few times a week, taking some time off won’t do too much harm. Strength and muscle mass usually don’t change too much within a couple of weeks. You can go anywhere from four to ten weeks without exercising, without looking much different muscle-wise from the times when you worked out, if you put on a significant amount of muscle mass before. If you’re well trained you can retain strength gains during short periods of inactivity (about two weeks) and even retain significant portions of strength gains (about 88 to 93 %), if you’ve been inactive for up to twelve weeks. Also, your heart will still be strong and your lungs will have greater capacity than before you started working out.

Signs of detraining show much sooner the fitter you are

That sounds unfair, doesn’t it? The reason why signs of detraining show much sooner the fitter you are is that your body is more adapted to constant training at a higher level. Thus, you’ll notice the difference much sooner than someone who doesn’t work out on a regular basis. Someone who is a highly trained runner will see a huge aerobic drop in the first one to three weeks. After that the losses will be more gradual. Someone who is less trained will instead not show a lot of loss in those first weeks. However, after four to eight weeks the fitness is more likely to go back to zero. The more trained ones will keep their abilities much longer than the beginner.

Better squeeze in a few short, high intensity workouts than skipping your workout all together

You know it: doing a little is always better than doing nothing at all. If you stop working out all together, the losses can be significant and it’s much harder to gain back your fitness. Instead of skipping your workout all together, maybe it’s wiser to cut back the days of workout and intensify the workouts on those days when you train. Short high intensity interval trainings are a great option. They are short, they are intense and they are fun. Also just a little stretching here and then is already better than nothing.

squeezing in a workout

How long will it take to get the fitness back

The level of your progression is based on the reason for your dropping out. It makes a difference if you stopped working out because of an illness, a surgery or because of time issues. Also the total time off and your level of fitness prior to your drop out are important. If the break was only a few weeks long, it might only take a few easy sessions to get back to speed. If you’ve been on a break for a year or even more, it’s definitely not gonna take a year to get back where you were. However, if you’re a lifter, you need to adjust the weight. Back off between a third and half of the weight that you lifted before and take some time to get back into a regular routine. Realistically, you’ll be back to your normal weight within about two months. That also applies to cardio fitness. However, don’t put too much of a pressure on you and don’t demand too much of yourself. Otherwise the risk of getting injured might be quite high. Listening to what your body tells you is always important!

Create a schedule for your „Reboot week“

The first week of going back to the gym or starting to workout is always the hardest. A good idea is to create a schedule with all those exercises you want to complete and when you want to do them. Also write down the number of repetitions. You just have to get through that list without changing anything, without any excuses of why you can’t do your workout today. You’ll be much more motivated to workout if you see it all written down on paper. As with everything, the key to success is consistency. I also have those days when I feel like I absolutely don’t want to workout. If that happens, I remind myself of the feeling I have when I successfully finish a workout - it’s awesome, isn’t it?!

The best comeback workout

When preparing for your comeback workout, always remember that you’re not in as good of a shape as you were before your fitness break. Thus, take it slow and don’t beat yourself up if you’re not getting back your old fitness just as quickly as you would like it.

Starting out with flexibility workouts is a good idea

For the beginning of a comeback workout, some flexibility exercises would be a good idea. This increases the blood flow and circulation and improves the range of motion and joint mobility. I often have the impression that a good flexibility training is highly underrated these days. The benefits of a good stretch a manifold. A flexibility at the beginning of your comeback workout will allow your body to readjust to new demands. A yoga workout really helps to build up flexibility as well. You can check out some of my favorite yoga stretches.

comeback workout light strething

Light cardio after the stretching

Next, you can incorporate some light cardio into your workout. A 20 minute walk for example is a good idea. The fresh air is good for you and your body will get into moving mode again. Good indoor alternatives are the treadmill, a stationary bike or the elliptical.

cardio outside

And finally some strength workouts

After light cardio and stretching, you can start with a strength workout again. At the beginning, focus on improving your posture, on developing core strength, and on activating muscles throughout your gluten and hamstring region. Good exercises that activate those areas are squats, bridges, lunges or stability ball mobility.

I would also suggest starting with compound movements and workouts that focus on working out large muscle groups e.g. squats, deadlift, pull-ups or row. Start light with three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions with weight that you could lift 25 to 30 times. At the end, however, you must listen to your body. You know best what weight feels right and how many repetitions you are able to do. Always take care and try to build up a habit again.


If you're looking for gentle workouts to get back into the fitness routine, I can highly recommend these:

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