Getting Back Into the Gym: How to Plan Your Return

Getting back into the gym after some time away is hard. Learn how to get your strength back, and more, without sustaining any injuries.

It’s happened to almost all of us at one point or another. You take an extra day off to rest, which turns into a week, then you’re taking 2 weeks off from the gym. Before you know it you’ve been out of the gym for much longer than you'd like to admit.

If you’re like most lifters you are looking forward to getting back in the gym and making up for the lost time. Perhaps you need to shift some unwanted weight you’ve picked up, or you’re just eager to get back on the gain train. Rushing back and trying to pick up where you left off is a mistake. It will most likely lead to frustration and injury.

A calculated, patient and progressive approach to your return to the gym can help you make fantastic progress and open up a window of opportunity for long-term gains. With the right guidelines, you’ll learn how to start working out to get back in shape fast, and without injury.

Recommended: Need help building muscle? Take our Free Muscle Building Course

The reality of several months out of the gym without access to heavy weights is only a blip on the radar in the grand scheme of an entire lifting career. In some respects, time away from the gym will have created the potential for better gains.

If you get back to your previous habits and routines you will very quickly reach and surpass your previous best. To recognize this potential there are a few important factors to understand:

  • Your body is probably more receptive to the effects of normal training AKA making gains easier to come by (temporarily)
  • The threshold to provide an effective stimulus is also lower AKA you can get more from less (temporarily)
  • Your need and tolerance for volume is lower than it was before
  • When you start back in the gym muscle damage, fatigues, and DOMS will be higher than usual
  • Your injury risk is slightly higher

All of that means that diving back into full-on training after a layoff isn’t smart. Instead, you should gradually ramp things up. This will minimize your risk of injury and maximize your long-term gains.

Assessing Your Risk of Injury

Are you at an increased risk of injury after a layoff?

There isn’t a wealth of data on injury risk after returning to training in the gym after months away. The best advice I can give is that assuming your previous injury history is about the best predictor we have.

So, if you’re young, healthy, and haven't had any significant injuries in your training career to date then, your risk is relatively low.

I’d say most lifters will be fine and have a very low risk of injury as long as they exercise some common sense. Sadly, common sense often isn’t that common. Here are a few exercise tips to help you manage your return to the gym to stay injury-free…

Related: The Science Behind Optimizing Injury Recovery

Rep Speed and Range of Motion (ROM)

Rep speed and range of motion (ROM) are two key factors when it comes to muscle and tendon injury. Performing fast reps when a muscle is under a loaded stretch tends to cause more muscle damage and muscle damage correlates quite well with muscle strains.

Tendons are also placed under high levels of stress when stretched under load at high speeds. This does not mean you have to do super-slow partial reps, but you should be aware that chasing extreme ranges and explosive reps immediately while getting back into working out might set you up for injury.

Girl in purple tank top performing trap-bar deadlift with coach in blue shirt

Getting injured and having another enforced layoff from the gym really would suck!

In your first few weeks getting back into the gym, I would suggest you generally use moderate tempos. Focus on controlling the lowering phases of all your lifts, developing a good mind-muscle connection, and avoiding the use of momentum. Incorporating paused reps is one way to achieve this.

Be wary of exercises that place an extreme stretch on a muscle. For example, good-mornings, RDLs, and DB flys. A better choice for hamstrings would be leg curls and 45-degree back extensions. Performing pec deck or cable flys would be preferable to DB flys too.

You could gradually build up your range overtime using modified versions of exercises to transition from partial to full range. For example, beginning with a pin or board press before shifting to regular bench presses. You could build towards back squats by beginning with box squats.

Related: The Best 10 Minute Yoga & Mobility Routine For Weight Lifters

Importance of Rest Days

Having been out of the gym for so long it’s tempting to be in there every day once you’re back to it. That would be a mistake! Recovery is part of the training process. You don’t get bigger and stronger from lifting weights, you get bigger and stronger from recovering from lifting weights. Think of it this way:

Stimulus (training) + Recovery = Adaptation (Gains)

Don’t sabotage your gains by undercutting your recovery. Even though you are taking a day off, it doesn't mean that your body isn't growing. It is working to repair itself to build bigger and stronger muscles.

The key to reaching your fitness goals is consistency over the long term. Right now you can get gains doing very little so, pick a sustainable training approach with room for doing more. You’ll need to do more eventually.

Be realistic about your current situation and the frequency of training needed. Keep listening to your body and tracking your gym performance. Build a solid foundation and continue adding to this. If you take the patient and progressive approach your body will thank you for it!

Related: 3 Simple Recovery Methods

Putting a Plan Together

Now that I have covered some strategies on how to avoid injury, let’s move on to how to capitalize on your time away from the gym and optimize your training to get back on track. If you do this right, you’ll rapidly regain any muscle and strength you’ve lost, while leaving plenty of runway for continued long-term progress.

Rather than trying to plan your training on what you were doing in the gym before your time away, you should start from where you are now. Base your training off what you’ve been able to do most recently and gradually scale it up. Think of it as bridging the gap between where you used to be and where you want to be.

To do this optimally there are a few key strategies I suggest you implement:

  • Ignore your previous maxes when planning your new working weights
  • Manage intensity by utilizing Reps in Reserve (RIR)
  • Reduce Volume, Intensity, and Frequency from your prior training
  • Increase your workout frequency first

There are a few more important things for you to know when planning your fitness routine. These factors will help to manage your expectations, but should also help you to see light at the end of the tunnel and that you will soon be back to your best and beyond.

  • Higher skill movements will have the greatest performance drop
  • You will be able to add weight to the bar from session to session without effort levels climbing much as the skill of complex lifts is regained

You will not walk back into the gym and hit PRs. And depending on how long you’ve been out, you may not even come close to your old lifting numbers, right away.

That’s perfectly normal, and it may take a couple of weeks to get back in shape. Go back to the gym with your eyes wide open and prepared for this fact. It will save you from an avalanche of disappointment.

This will be most obvious with the more complex lifts. The higher the skill component of a lift, the greater the drop off you’ll see on session one. The good news is this skill will come back, and likely come back fast!

Man in black shorts squatting heavy in gym

Strength is a skill. To get good at a skill you need to practice. To display that skill, you need to practice it frequently. Sadly, going months without touching a barbell meant your skills will have fallen off slightly.

Consequently, your squat, deadlift, and bench press won’t be at all-time highs when you finally get your hands back on the bar. These lifts will probably feel a bit rusty. You won’t feel in the groove like you did before.

The good news is that a workout routine using lighter weights will still represent an overload while you’re getting back on track. This means you will be stimulating the muscles without beating yourself up and giving yourself time to reacquaint yourself with optimal technique.

Reps In Reserve (RIR)

Much like RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion), RIR is based entirely on your ability to feel out the weight. While your RPE scale 1-10 is how you rate the difficulty of a lift, determining your RIR is how many extra reps you could perform if you had taken your lift to failure.

While re-grooving your technique with lighter loads than you were used to, I suggest you use RIR to determine your intensity. You don’t know what your capabilities are when stepping back in the gym so rather than chasing pre-determined sets and reps at a given weight it would be smarter to let RIR determine your training.

After warming up, choose a weight you think is good for a set of 8-12 reps (be conservative with the weight selection). This rep range gives you a reasonable margin for error. Then select an RIR target.

In week one I’d go with 4RIR on the compound and free-weight lifts, and 3RIR on isolation and machine-based exercises. So, you stop the set when you have three reps in the tank. Do this for all your sets.

Related: Auto-Regulation and Percentage Based Training: The Hybrid Approach

Stopping at 3-4RIR is challenging enough to provide a stimulus to start getting back in shape, and leaves you with a runway to progress. You could change nothing else with your training but reduce the RIR each week to provide a progressive overload to build back towards normal training. For example:

  • Week 1 – 4RIR
  • Week 2 – 3RIR
  • Week 3 – 2RIR
  • Week 4 – 1RIR
  • Week 5 – 0RIR

As I said earlier, the learning curve on complex lifts will be quite fast. Because of this, you might find that you can add weight to the bar each week without your RIR changing for a given number of reps.

For example, on your first session back you might squat 225lbs for 10 reps with 4RIR. The following week you might add 5lbs and still hit 10 reps with 4RIR.

As you re-engrain your technique and improve your motor patterns, you might find that for several weeks you can add weight and maintain reps without a noticeable change in RIR. That’s great! Take the easy gains available with this low hanging fruit.

On less skilled exercises this phenomenon is unlikely to occur. Exercises like leg extensions require less coordination and stabilization. This means your technique will probably be on point within a few sets rather than a few weeks. As a result, you’ll probably find your RIR changes weekly as you add weight.

Minimal Effective Dose (MED)

One of the keys to making progress in your training is being able to train. Duh! Don’t beat yourself up so much that you have crippling DOMS for a week or get injured. Do just enough to stimulate your body.

There are three main variables you can use to plan your training. These are:

  1. Intensity
  2. Volume
  3. Frequency

When you’ve been doing nothing, just doing something is enough. What represents an overload after three months off the gym is much lower than it was when you had been operating on full throttle for years on end. So, lowering your intensity, volume, and frequency will still get results.

By taking a MED approach you have created a larger window of opportunity for overloading training. The gap between your starting minimum effective dose (MED) and maximal recoverable volume (MRV) is now significantly larger than it was the last time you were in the gym.

By inclemently closing this gap you can extend the length of an effective training block. More effective training equals more gains over the long-haul.

Manage intensity by RIR as I outlined earlier. As for volume, start back with the least amount of volume to achieve the MED. If you previously hit a body part with 10 sets per training session, in week one you will need much less. Instead doing just 5 sets will be enough. Over time you should build this back up to where you were before.

Training Frequency

Of these three variables, the first one to return to previous levels should be frequency. Frequency is the variable you have the most scope to increase. In week one I’d go with only one session per body part per week. After only a week or two, you can increase this.

The reason not to do a higher frequency in week one is that muscle damage and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) are going to be off the charts! This doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. Nor does it mean this was an amazingly effective workout. Being sore when you get back to training is just because the activity is novel.

Related: Pumps & DOMS: Are they Important for Making Gains?

The best way to get DOMS is to expose the body to a novel stimulus – AKA perform a new exercise. Since the stimulus is new the body hasn’t adapted to it and, therefore, homeostasis is disrupted to a greater degree. Muscle damage and the subsequent repair processes (including DOMS) are ramped up.

Suffering from DOMS is a fairly good indicator that a muscle is still recovering. Training a muscle before it has recovered from your last session isn’t a great idea.

Given DOMS will be epic when you get back to the gym, giving yourself a bit more time between hitting a muscle group by using a lower training frequency makes sense.

When you get back to training, every exercise is “new” again. Then, every time you repeat this same stimulus the level of disruption is reduced and the DOMS are less severe. Consequently, you can reduce the time between sessions for a muscle group by increasing frequency. Within a couple of weeks, you should comfortably be able to hit each muscle group twice per week.

This will naturally increase volume because you are hitting muscles twice as often.

In weeks one and two you are performing 5 sets per body part. In week three you add a second session and your volume jumps up to 10 sets per body part. From week 4 onwards I suggest adding a set every other week for each body part until you’re back to your normal volume levels.

By scaling RIR in conjunction with volume and frequency you also increase intensity. Using this strategy means all three variables are logically ramped up to get you back to your previous size and strength levels in the most efficient and low-risk fashion possible.

Man in black shorts prepping to perform barbell deadlift

Planning Your Return to the Gym: Weekly Overview

Week 1-2:

  • Train 3 x week
  • Hit each muscle once per week using a Legs, Push, Pull split
  • Begin with 4RIR and progress from there

Weeks 3-6:

  • Train 4 x week
  • Hit each muscle twice a week using an Upper/Lower split
  • Continue to progress using RIR

Weeks 7 Onwards:

  • Continue transition to prior training and new heights by increasing volume, intensity &/or frequency.

Conclusion

Getting back in shape after a long break is a lot like your first time starting in the gym. Be smart and don’t try to lift the whole rack your first day back. Reduce your volume, intensity, and frequency for a few weeks, and scale things up slowly.

Use it as an opportunity to make those coveted “beginner gains”, with all the knowledge you wish you had your first time starting to workout. Before you know it your old plateaus will be part of your warm-up sets.