Ramp Up the Right Way
Been a while since you worked out? No shame. Just follow these tips to ease back into your routine safely—and sustainably.
Quarantine, an injury, a demanding job, a big move—there's no shortage of reasons your workout routine can go AWOL. At some point, even the most committed exercisers let up, says Nike Master Trainer Courtney Fearon.
The longer you take off (or do very little), the more physiological adaptations—which can be neurological, muscular, skeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory and/or hormonal—you lose, and the harder it is to bounce back. Even just one week without exercise can leave you feeling low. At this point, most people who regularly go for it describe "feeling a difference"—as in, they say their energy, mindset and/or mobility feel off, so managing even one run, WOD or another workout requires a little more effort than it otherwise might, says certified strength and conditioning specialist Alex Rothstein, the coordinator of the Exercise Science programme at the New York Institute of Technology.
Even just one week without exercise can leave you feeling low.
Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Research from the University of Liverpool reveals that just two weeks of inactivity can leave you with muscle loss, lower cardiorespiratory fitness, an uptick in body fat, a decline in mitochondrial function (the body's energy source) and an increased risk of health issues.
After three weeks of lying low (whether you've quit training completely or just scaled back), you'll need a short build-up period to return to your previous fitness level, because you're at a greater risk of an overuse injury like shin splints or a hamstring strain, says Rothstein. And if you've spent six or more weeks away from training, you should consider yourself "detrained", he says. That's not to say you've lost all your fitness and are back at square one. But you do need to work slowly and cautiously to return to your former intensity safely and effectively.
What does a solid ramp-up look like? This:
01. Assess the situation objectively.
You need to know where you're starting from to get where you want to be. For example—as Nike Master Trainer Joslyn Thompson Rule explains—if you want to build back up to a fast or frequent 5K, your first step would be to run-walk that distance and see how long it takes. If your goal is to breeze through push-ups again, drop and see how many you can do. This is considered a benchmark workout, and it gives you a way to measure your progress each time you repeat it.
Warning: You may be tempted to compare your present state with a former, fitter you. Don't, says Fearon, as it can get you too hung up on chasing results and potentially lead to injury if you speed up too soon. "When someone realises that they are not able to do as much as they did before, there's an emotional letdown that often results in a negative response and a decrease in motivation", he says. Plus, people tend to remember a specific workout as being less difficult than it actually was, so when they revisit it with less prowess than they had previously, they can feel even more frustrated, he says. That could make you beeline back to the couch … for good. Instead, use your past as fuel: Know that you've been fit before and can get there again.
02. Have a plan and stick to it.
When you gather the right ingredients and execute recipe instructions step by step, you (usually) end up with what you set out to make. The same is true with exercise. Plot precisely what you'll work with and how, and you'll be more likely to get the results you want. This can help keep you from taking on too much at once and getting overwhelmed, says Fearon. It can also help you stay on track when something (a time-draining project, a bad week with your partner) gets in your way.
To cook up the right plan, ask yourself what you're trying to get back to doing, whether that's maintaining a routine or remastering a skill. Then consider outlining a weekly goal (as in, train three days a week), a monthly goal (think: increase deadlift strength) and a three-month goal (PB that deadlift), says Rothstein, who recommends planning your workouts at least a week in advance.
He suggests starting with just two or three low- or moderate-intensity workouts for the first three or four weeks to break your muscles down without actually breaking them, figuratively speaking. From there, you can add a weekly workout, then another and another, until you're logging up to six each week—probably the most you would have been doing at your peak. Once you're consistently able to work out at least four days per week, you can pick up the intensity for two or three sessions a week, tops.
You'll know you're ready to add more weight or scale up a movement when you experience less or no soreness up to 48 hours after a workout that used to make you sore, says Rothstein. When it comes to cardio, Rothstein recommends focusing in the beginning on moderate-intensity workouts lasting 30 to 45 minutes to create aerobic improvements. You can add five minutes to your sessions each week, then when you hit a duration that feels good to you, aim to maintain that while increasing the intensity. Either move faster, add resistance or incline, or take shorter and fewer rest breaks.
03. Set check-ins—a lot of them.
If you don't monitor progress regularly, you might overlook some of your smaller, less obvious improvements and be tempted to throw in the proverbial gym towel. "Sometimes progress doesn't even seem like it's happening", says Fearon. You might think you've plateaued, but maybe you have more energy, you're jumping higher when you play basketball or you're sleeping more soundly. Those are all wins. Use these two ways to self-assess your victories:
- Ask yourself three questions after every workout, says Thompson Rule: What did I do well? What would I do differently? What am I going to do better next time? This, she says, forces you to pull a positive out of every training session while still being honest with yourself about how things are going and what tweaks you can make to your workouts so you can move forwards, faster.
- Repeat a benchmark workout every four to eight weeks to see how your fitness is tracking overall, suggests Rothstein.
You should start to feel your fitness return after a few consecutive weeks, says Thompson Rule. Still, use the first month as a grace period that's all about "integrating your routine back into your life", she says. Things like finding the gear that makes you feel your best, figuring out a convenient time to work out and just feeling comfortable with your new routine probably won't fall into place right away, and you may need to make adjustments until you get it right.
Bottom line: Taking your training back to its previous state isn't easy. But training isn't ever easy. It's always worth it, though—and the sooner you start up the ramp, the sooner you'll get to the top.
Words: Rozalynn Frazier
Illustration: Gracia Lam