Getting Back in Shape After a Layoff

by Brian on April 13, 2013

Whether by injury, choice, illness, being busy, or simple neglect, sooner or later we all wind up going for periods of time without working out.

It starts simple enough. You miss a day, then two days, then before you know it a few weeks or months has gone by (sound like what happened to your New Year’s fitness resolution?).

It can be even more crushing when the layoff is not your choice. I’d been training for one-arm pull ups for about 9 months until I got the flu recently. I was getting pretty close and suddenly found myself bedridden for weeks unable to work out.

The insidious part is that when you’re ready to get back into training you start putting it off because you don’t feel like you have the energy to do it. Except that next time you start gearing up for a workout you feel like you have even less energy. The longer you wait the harder it gets.

For many of us, the challenge of getting back in shape is more mental than physical.

Fortunately, with the right mindset and a little willpower you can get things kick started again.

All is not lost

First the good news.

For shorter layoffs (less than about 3 weeks) you can often jump back in just by backing your workouts off a little bit and building back up to where you were.

However, athletes of all stripes have found that even for longer layoffs all is not lost and you can quickly regain previous levels of fitness. You may still have to build up to that level gradually, but you aren’t starting over entirely from scratch.

Emerging evidence from researchers is starting to give us some clues as to how this works. For example, they have found that even though muscle volume decreases when you aren’t training, muscle nuclei remain a lot longer.

The right mindset

It’s so easy to say, “I’ll just start tomorrow.” Because tomorrow you will magically have more energy, more time, more willpower, and less stress… right?

It’s amazing how optimistic we are about the superhuman capabilities of our future selves. But it’s more realistic to think of your future self as having the same energy levels, same amount of time, same level of willpower, and same stresses as you do right now. If anything, life just gets more complicated.

Instead try adopting the motto, “it never gets easier than right now.” You’ll find this is true for just about everything in life, not just fitness.

The importance of the first workout

Like the first time you kiss a new lover, the hardest workout psychologically is the first one. Fortunately, unlike in your love life, there is no chance of rejection from your workout.

Since the first workout is the most difficult mentally, I like to make it the easiest physically. Set the bar low–really low–just to get yourself into motion.

I can do clapping pullups, archer pull ups, and all kinds of harder pull up variations, but when I started training again after the flu I started off with a humble workout of 2 sets of 3 regular pull ups. It doesn’t need to be fancy, you just need to be able to chalk up a workout on the board.

Just getting that first modest workout in can be enough to get you over the hump and back into a training routine. It’s more about confidence building than muscle building at this stage.

Eat more

Finally, you probably started eating less during the layoff. You may not have even realized it.

When you start training again in earnest you will need to eat more to keep your energy up–even if you are trying to lose weight. If you love food like I do, this will not be a problem.

Get to it

Now all that’s left is to get to it. If you’ve just finished reading this post and you’re coming off a training layoff, could you do a quick set of pushups and air squats right now?

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