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How to Return to Training After Taking Time Off

by Jen Kates, CPT, CHC

Whether your time away from your training is due to your gym being closed, an injury, or an illness, there is a better way to ease back into your training without risking further injury. Here are some tips to help you get back into training and your routine even easier.

Take it Slower Than You Will Want

Consider your ease back into regular training like an on-ramp to a fast highway: you need to ease and merge into traffic with a steady foot on the gas pedal instead of blazing onto the highway forcing other cars to avoid you. The same approach must be made to your training as you get back into the gym.

Even if you’re feeling good and are wanting to go full throttle into a set of intense hill sprints at 100+% of your FTE or max-out your deadlifts, you will want to take your time building the intensity and resistance in your workouts. Since you just took some time off from your training, you will need to ease into the intensity and volume since your body isn’t quite used to it.

Use a 4-Week Period to Increase Intensity and Volume

Since your body isn’t used to the previous intensity or volume you used to lift or perform in your sport before your break, you’ll need to allow your body to adapt to your workouts again. You can do this by slowly increasing your intensity and resistance over the first four weeks.

Start the first week of your training at a baseline level that is often around 50-60% of your previous weight used, as well as 50-60% of the previous intensity and training volume. This may mean less sets if lifting weights, or less mileage if biking or running.

Each week, take a moment to check in with yourself to see how you’re feeling and recovering overall. If you’re feeling good, without much post-training discomfort, then you can add 10% in weight, miles moved, and/or time spent training. Each week, continue to add no more than 10% and see how you feel.

For volume of weight lifted, ideally, you will want to aim for no more than 1.5 times the amount you lifted in the week before. What does this look like? Let’s use the trap bar deadlift as an example, at my favorite rep scheme of 5 sets of 5 reps (5x5). The first week of training may look like just 2 sets to start. The next week will have you lifting 3 sets of 5 reps each (which is less than 1.5x an increase in volume from the previous week), then 4 sets of 5 reps the following week, until you finally get to 5x5 on the 4th week of training. Try using this method of increasing volume for all of your heavier lifts in your training each week.

The moment you’re feeling more discomfort or difficulty recovering, stop there and remain at that level of volume and resistance for another week or two. Four weeks is only a minimal suggestion, so take as long as needed to get to your previous volume and intensity. Remember, with the greater frequency or intensity of workouts, be sure to increase your focus on recovery and sleep in order to ease your body into a more intense routine.

Take Ample Time to Warm-Up

Warm-up more than usual. This means you may need more warm-up sets prior to your working sets when lifting weights. This may also mean you ride or run an additional mile or so before you actually start your training for the day. Whatever feels good to you, make sure your body is warm by the time you start your training, and work through the full range of motion. This will allow you to check-in with your body to see if it is ready to handle the training for the day.

Use the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale Instead of Percentages

This is a popular method I use with my clients to allow them to get more in touch with their body and to allow them not to become obsessed with their power meters (cyclists, I’m talking to you). RPE allows you to adjust your intensity based on how you’re feeling each day, which can vary depending on stress, sleep, nutrition, hydration, the weather, and a variety of other reasons.

RPE is an intensity scale rated from 0 to 10, with 0 being sitting on the sofa eating Bon-Bons, and 10 being full-out effort that has you seeing stars if you do it for more than a couple of minutes. Aim to be around a 5 out of 10 at first until you see how your body is feeling; this is a moderate level that is fairly sustainable to you. You can find details on the RPE scale linked here to see how it relates to weight training. For anything cardio or endurance-based, you will want to perform at a level when you are getting slightly winded but can carry a conversation in short sentences. 

Do you have any other tips that work for you? If so, add a comment below to get the conversation going.

About Jen Kates, CHC, Pn2, NASM-CPT

Jen has been coaching for over 12 years and founded Shift Human Performance after working in the biotech research industry for 12 years. She specializes in coaching ambitious working professionals (like you) on how to unleash your full potential by optimizing your nutrition, fitness, stress management, sleep, and recovery, without spending countless hours in the kitchen or the gym.

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