Tips for getting back into the gym after a break
It’s happened to all of us. You’ve built up a great gym routine and then something interrupts it. Sometimes work gets in the way, or you’re busy with new relationship, or you simply lose your motivation.
But don’t panic, with the right preparation, mindset and motivation you can get your routine back.
I recently had a few months’ break from the gym due to a demanding work schedule and really struggled to find my way back, even when I did have the time. Something I used to do without thinking several times a week (and sometimes more than once a day) suddenly disappeared from my weekly schedule and it seemed impossible to get myself back into the routine.
This got me thinking about the best way to approach a return to the gym or other fitness, because it’s rarely as straightforward as simply turning up.
Below are my tips for getting your gym mojo back…
Remember all the benefits you felt when you were exercising regularly.
This is one of the hardest things to recall when you’re out of the habit, but trust me you probably enjoyed at least a few of the following when you were a regular gym-goer and it’s worth taking the time to recall them so you can get back into that mindset:
- The feeling of more headspace and creativity
- More energy
- Better sleep
- The smug feeling you get from walking around with sore muscles
- The sense of having your shit together because you go to the gym regularly
- Reduced cellulite
- Increased fitness levels
- The positive impact on your diet because you don’t want to ‘throw away’ your work in the gym
This is where you need to be brutally honest with yourself. We’ve all given up halfway through a run because you ‘literally can’t go on / will die’ or ‘you don’t feel well’ or ‘you’ve done enough, it’s better than nothing anyway’. You need to set some parameters around what you’re willing to accept from yourself in a work out because if you’re not pushing yourself you’re not going to see any changes.
BUT, that doesn’t mean you can’t give yourself a break when you need it. If you know (actually know, not ‘I’m sick of this so I’m making an excuse’) that you’re pushing yourself to do something that’s going to result in you having a bad work out which will ultimately impact your enjoyment and ability to get back there the next day, then don’t do it.
Not every work out goes to plan; sometimes you need to cut your losses. It’s like a great night out when you stay too late instead of leaving on a high and then the music gets worse and you leave feeling like the night was rubbish.
I’m not advocating quitting or patting yourself on the back simply for trying, but we all have those days that have soured us slightly to an activity. If you’re in a good routine then it’s not big problem, it’s just ‘shit happens’ and you move on and get back to it the next day, but when you’re working your way back sometimes you need to walk away to preserve your mindset. And that’s ok.
Have a plan
Not some vague notion that you might go to the gym later / tomorrow / this week, but an actual plan. Decide when you’re going to go, visualise doing it and decide what you’ll do when you get there.
I remember when I first joined a gym when I got my first job and I hardly ever went because I somehow couldn’t manage to get my gym kit together because I was always rushing out the house in the morning. It was the same reason I couldn’t prepare my own lunch. Like, actually how ridiculous is that? It takes 5 minutes of your evening to pack your gym clothes, water bottle, make up bag or anything else you need into a bag and leave it by the front door. So do it!
Once you’re there, you still need a plan- turning up won’t get your workout done. If you’re going to a class this is a bit easier because you just have to get yourself through the door at the right time and with the right gear.
If you’re working out alone in the gym with weights or cardio machines then you need an actual plan for what you’ll be doing. If you’re back after an absence it’s unlikely you will be able to perfectly recall your old routines; so write that shit down.
Preferably, get things out on a piece of paper so you’re not wasting time and focus searching for it in your phone when you should be working out. You will not be as a focused without a pre-prepared routine and will likely end up drifting aimlessly, resting too much in between sets or leaving early having not pushed yourself properly.
If you’re in the gym at the busier times of day then it’s also worth having thought through a plan B. It’s easy to lose your way and get discouraged if you’re not on form and you arrive to discover the equipment you need for your workout is busy or otherwise unavailable.
Use it as an opportunity to work on your form
It’s likely that getting back to fitness is going to mean you’re doing fewer classes with less intensity, or lifting lighter weights or running / rowing / cross training slower. Whatever your choice of exercise, a return to the gym is going to take some easing in. Instead of thinking about what you’ve lost during the break, think about how this is an opportunity to work on your form.
You will need to ease yourself back in so don’t go back to the weights you were lifting before and find a way to still lift them by ‘cheating’ or hurting yourself. Start lighter and really focus on doing those exercises properly so you can progress safely and with good form as your strength and endurance grows.
It might even be worth having a few personal training sessions or even just a refresher gym induction to remind you how to use equipment safely and how to perform certain exercises- you might even learn something new to incorporate into your new routine.
Record the small wins
If you’ve been struggling to turn up to the gym because of certain hurdles and you’ve managed to get back once a week then be proud of that and recognise the progress you’ve made. Don’t think it’s not important or not an achievement because you used to do 6 sessions a week; recognise that you’ve made an improvement.
For this reason it’s really important to track what you’ve been doing in the gym so that you can see progress instead of just seeing the deficit from where you used to be. With this in mind I’ve made some templates you can download and print to take the gym to keep track of each workout.
This printable is in two parts. The first is somewhere to record your ultimate goal (if you have one- but who says you can’t enjoy the gym without a fixed goal?!) and a place to check in each week with your progress, although you might choose to check in only once every 2 weeks or longer- this can sometimes help you see more compelling progress. There’s a blank column in each grid so you can add anything additional you might want to measure as you go along.
The second sheet is to track each work out so you can keep a consistent log of what you did in the gym (so you’ll need to print looooaads of these for all the gym sessions you’ll be doing…)
It’s so easy to keep turning up to the gym and putting the work in, thinking you’re not getting anywhere and getting disheartened, but you will see progress if you keep a consistent log so that you can see that you’re running faster, doing more or lifting heavier.
And if you’re not seeing this progression then logging your activity is another great way to take an honest look at your workout and see if you’re continuing to challenge yourself. If you look back and you’ve been doing four workouts a week for a month and you’re lifting the same weight, you might want to re-evaluate whether you’re stretching yourself enough.
Workout check-in and goal setting sheet and workout tracker
You can download both of these here: Workout tracker
Beat yourself up
Don’t expect to go back to the gym and be where you were when you left off. It’s so easy to tell yourself that your session is a waste of time because you used to do x and y and z in a session or go to the gym multiple times of day, but it’s absolutely not a waste. It takes time to build back stamina in the gym and it takes time to build back the routine of going to the gym; you’re working your mind as much as your body.
Recording your progress will absolutely help with this because you can see yourself getting back into shape. There is absolutely no sense worrying about what would have happened if you hadn’t quit last time or if this hadn’t happened or that hadn’t happened – this is not a good use of your energy or focus!
The same goes for falling back off the wagon when you’re trying to get back on- recognise it, forgive yourself and crack on.
Use short term rewards as motivation
It’s so easy to ‘reward’ yourself and get right back into a cycle you don’t want to be in. If you’re doing well in the gym and toning up or losing some weight then don’t ‘treat’ yourself to food you shouldn’t be having. It’s fine to incorporate a regular ‘cheat’ meal (…within reason!) but don’t start rewarding yourself every time you go to the gym or losing a couple of kilos and then having a blow out weekend that eats up all your calorie deficit or sets you back down a path you don’t want to be on.
The same goes for motivating yourself to lose weight / tone up / bulk up for a specific event. It’s rarely going to be sustainable or good for your health, mindset or metabolism if you crash diet or over-exert yourself for the purposes of looking good on Instagram on your holiday or getting into a certain dress for an event.
What happens to your routine after the event has passed? It’s totally ok to use these things as inspiration and visualise yourself feeling and looking better on holiday or at a party- but these are all short term things and the longer term benefits of exercise will always be more important and, ultimately, more rewarding.
The whole point of lifestyle changes is that they’re just that, lifestyle changes. You’re working towards a longer term goal of health and fitness; your reward is your increased health, not a sugary snack or Instagram likes. If you successfully reach a fitness goal you’ve set for yourself then consider treating yourself to something that reinforces your routine like new gym wear or a sports massage.
Focus on small, irrelevant issues
Don’t get distracted by small things. Everything doesn’t have to be perfect for you to work out, try not to find excuses for not staying focused and working hard in the gym.
One of the great things about exercise is that it gets you out of your own head by focusing on something different, but don’t let yourself get distracted by small things like someone you know from work being in the gym, or someone doing something inconsiderate.
It’s really easy to latch onto things in the gym that are distractions (especially if you’re plodding through cardio which you don’t especially enjoy…like me) but try not to let it upset your workout. Got an itch? Shoe lace doesn’t quite feel right? You’ll cope fine, you don’t need to stop.
If you work out to music then bring your focus back to that or back to your form or rhythm and keep going.
Compete with other people
If you’re competitive, the gym can be a struggle as it can be difficult to keep your eyes on your own game. You need to stay focused on yourself and your own workout and not get disheartened by watching other people in the gym who run faster than you, lift heavier than you or just look better / happier/ younger…and it goes on like that.
This is especially hard with a return to the gym as you might see people doing things you used to be able to do easily and now it’s much harder. Use it as much as possible as inspiration instead of a reminder of your loss of form. It can be helpful and inspiring to see what others are up to but how you react to this needs to be right for you and should not impact your own focus or motivation.
Remember that everyone has their own struggles and everyone is at a different place in their fitness journey; remind yourself of that every time you catch yourself watching other people in the gym and comparing yourself unfavourably.
BUT…a little secret treadmill race never hurt anyone. If someone is going a bit faster than you, it’s also worth checking that you’re really giving it your all.
You didn’t put on weight or lose fitness in a fortnight and you won’t get fit or lose weight in a fortnight either. The only way you will get results and back to where you want to be is if you’re consistent and put the work in. This will take time but it will happen. As the adage goes; don’t be upset with the results you didn’t get with the work you didn’t do.