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Steve Theunissen is a freelance writer living in Tauranga, New Zealand. He is a former gym owner and personal trainer and is the author of six hardcopy books and more than a hundred ebooks on the topics of bodybuilding, fitness and fat loss. Steve also writes history books with a focus on the history of warfare. He is married and has two daughters.

Returning to the Gym After a Layoff: Essential Tips

Taking scheduled layoffs from training makes a lot of sense. It allows you to recover more fully from your workouts, prevents mental staleness, and sets the framework for goal attainment through workout phases. These planned training breaks are referred to as STOP, which stands for Strategic Time Out Period. Other layoffs are less strategic, resulting from injury or a holiday.

Whatever the reason for your layoff, you have the challenge of returning to the gym when the break is over. In this article, We’ll lay out 5 tips on resuming your training the smart way.

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Why Take Time Off

Heavy resistance training is very demanding on the body. Your recovery system will be constantly at work to prepare you for the next workout. Without a break, heavy lifting can take a toll on your joints and nervous system. After a few months of training, even the most dedicated among us can start to feel sluggish, with constant muscle ache and flagging motivation. Scheduling regular lay-offs of a week or two gives your body and your mind a much needed break.

Personally, I take a week off every six weeks. After six weeks of intense training, I start to get a prolonged muscle ache, telling me that it’s time to take a break. Six week training phases also provide just the right length for setting goals around reps and weights used.

Easing Back

Don’t expect to simply walk back into the gym and pick up where you left off with the same weights and intensity level. You need to ease back into your training. The longer the layoff, the longer your lead-in time should be.

If your lay-off was just for a week or two, then your first couple of workouts back should be about 50 percent of the weights and intensity you were previously using. But what if you’ve been away from the weights for a month or longer? In that case, you should spread your build-up out over a couple of weeks.

Your mindset during those couple of weeks of lead-in time should be to reacquaint your body with the demands of training. Don’t worry about building new muscle or getting stronger just yet. There will be plenty of time for that later.

Here’s a workout you should try:

Light Cardio

You need to ease back into the cardio portion of your workout just as deliberately as you do the weights portion. Cardio should always take place before your weight training. For the first week, just exercise gently for 15 minutes at a low resistance. Gentle walking on a flat incline treadmill or a comfortable pedaling pace on an exercycle is perfect.

Move from the cardio area to the warm-up area and spend a few minutes stretching and using a foam roller. Even if you previously neglected this part of your workout before the layoff, you can’t afford to now.

Dress Wisely

You may not think that your choice of clothing is a factor in your return to the gym, but you’d be wrong. The vast majority of guys who take a lay-off will convince themselves that they have lost muscle mass or definition during that time off. When they go back to the gym in their usual tank top, they won’t be able to avoid staring at themselves and lamenting at how much smaller they are. That is a surefire way to ruin a workout.

The reality is that you are very unlikely to lose muscle after a short layoff, even if you are convinced otherwise. That’s why it makes sense to wear a sweatshirt or other clothing that covers up your muscles for the first few workouts back after a lay-off.

Start with Full Body Training

If you have been off for a month or more, you should begin with full body training, even if you were previously following a split routine. Do just one set per body part, with two sets of 20, then 15 reps. The entire workout should only take around 45 minutes. Don’t worry if the workout feels too easy - it is supposed to.

On the first set, use a weight that represents about 50 percent of what you would have previously lifted for 20 reps. Do this even if you feel as if you haven’t lost any strength during the time off. Remember, this is not about lifting to your max potential; it’s about easing back and getting your muscles used to contracting again.

On the second set, add 10 percent more weight and do 15 reps.

Here’s a sample full body routine that you can use to ease back into split routine training …

Exercise Sets / Reps
Squats 2 x 15-20
Leg Curls 2 x 15-20
Standing Calf Raises 2 x 15-20
Flat Bench Press 2 x 15-20
Lat Pulldowns 2 x 15-20
Dumbbell Front Raises 2 x 15-20
Barbell Curls 2 x 15-20
Triceps Pushdowns 2 x 15-20
Cable Crunches 2 x 15-20

Here’s a plan you should try:

Change Things Up

Re-starting your training after a lay-off is a good time to change up your workout. You might decide to introduce new exercises, new set systems (such as supersets, drop or pre-exhaust sets), and different rep ranges.

Don’t, however, drop exercises just for the sake of change. If you are doing exercises that are working for you, stick with them. Instead, change around the order that you do the exercise and adjust your training split so that you are working different body parts together. This will inject the variety you need to keep yourself mentally stimulated.

Summary

You should schedule periodic lay-offs into your workout program. When you come back, though, you need to ease back gradually. Follow these tips to make a successful transition back to your previous intensity levels …

  • Always dress warmly to prevent injuries.
  • Don’t attempt to pick up where you left off. Ease back into training.
  • Perform only one exercise per body part.
  • Keep the number of sets to 1 or 2.
  • Keep the rep range medium to high – 15 to 20.
  • Use only 50 to 75 percent of the weight your strength levels will allow.
  • Resist the urge to put more weight on the bar.
  • Experiment with new exercises and techniques after a few weeks of training.
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