First Time Working Out in a While? 12 Expert Tips to Get Started Again

Life always seems to add more responsibilities and changes that can affect our motivation to workout.

Somehow, our workout routines seem too easy to cast aside and even the best of us occasionally lose motivation to reach for our fitness goals.

(Or sometimes a nagging injury forces us to take some time off.)

You may have stopped working out recently, or maybe it’s been a while since you hit the gym. Either way, the only way to get back in the groove of things is to get started again.

Fortunately, all of your fitness progress is not lost completely. You will be able to get back to your former self faster than the first time with the help of muscle memory!

To help you get back into working out for the first time in a long time, I asked a few personal trainers what someone can do to stay motivated, stay healthy, and see quicker results. They recommend:

  1. Start with moderate intensity
  2. Assess your current activity levels
  3. Take frequent rest days
  4. Start with familiar exercises  
  5. Prepare for muscle soreness
  6. Have realistic expectations
  7. Set practical fitness goals
  8. Workout with a gym partner or personal trainer
  9. Bring the correct gym gear 
  10. Eat a balanced diet and stay hydrated
  11. Do an active warm-up
  12. Get enough sleep 

Let’s take a look at each of these tips and help you get back on track.

1. Start with moderate intensity

While you may want to get back into things at full speed, personal trainer James Shapiro says:

“Don’t think that you have to burst through the walls and push your workouts in the first two weeks. Be moderate, take time for your rest intervals; make sure you get adequate rest and recovery between sessions.”

When you are first getting back into working out, easing into it will reduce the soreness you feel the next day.

Keep things at a moderate intensity that will work up a sweat but not make you exhausted for the rest of the day.

When you are getting back into working out, the first few weeks will be a feeling-out process to see where your current fitness level is. As you learn where your limits are, you can properly adjust your workout routine to challenge yourself and grow.

2. Assess your current activity levels

Getting back into working out will look different for everyone.

Personal trainer Billy Daniels noted this by saying:

“The first thing someone should be aware of before working out is how active have they been on a day to day basis. If someone sits at a desk from 9-5 every day and doesn’t move much, then they will want to be sure to start slow.”

“If someone walks a lot, then they may be ready for a little bit more than the desk jockey. If someone was once an avid exerciser, they might find that their ability to get back into the flow of their workouts is easier than someone who has never exercised consistently.”

Before you get started working out again, take some time to think about what your lifestyle has been like recently. Have you been walking often?

If you have been doing indirect exercise for work or other situations (like if you have a physical job) you will be able to get back into shape faster.

Be honest with yourself, and if you haven’t been active lately, you can still get back into working out. However, you will need to lower the intensity until you can build yourself back up.

3. Take frequent rest days

To help you get set up with a good fitness plan to get back into working out, personal trainer James Shapiro recommends:

“Build a program that you can sustain with rest between days each week for the first month. This will be a stepping stone to push you to a different program your second month where you can start pushing the limits a bit more.”

As your body gets reacclimated to your workout routine, it will need rest days for proper recovery.

Taking rest days often may feel counterproductive, but this is when your body will grow and adapt to your new workout routine.

During your rest days, you should get sufficient sleep, eat plenty of nutrient-dense foods, and do some light recovery work like foam rolling or stretching.

3 intense workouts per week is usually plenty to see results. You can add in more work when your body is ready.

4. Start with familiar exercises

As someone working out after a long hiatus, you may feel a bit intimidated stepping foot in the gym again.

To give yourself some familiarity, try to use some of the exercises you remember most.

Using familiar exercises will make you feel more confident while doing your workout. You will also know that you are performing the exercise correctly.

Once you have started with the exercises you know, you will quickly get your confidence back — not to mention, you’ll quickly reach your previous levels of performance again.

Once you have gotten the ball rolling, you can start to experiment with new routines, exercises, and movements safely and with confidence.

5. Expect muscle soreness

Soreness will be an inevitable part of your return to working out. However, it doesn’t have to be something that has to be extremely painful if you take the proper measures.

Personal trainer Billy Daniels gave some insights into what muscle soreness says about your workouts.

“A little soreness is normal when getting back into exercise, but it isn’t a great guide to determine if you had a great workout or not. It is simply an after-effect.”

“But, too much soreness does mean you overdid it a little, and you should back off or rest for a day or two. Remember that recovery is the key to getting stronger.”

Along with keeping the intensity moderate, there are a few things that will reduce the muscle soreness after your workouts. Some of the most effective are:

  • Cooldown routine: After you’ve finished up your workout, stretching afterward will speed-up recovery and improve blood flow, according to a study published by The Journal of Physiology.
  • Supplementation: To give yourself a helping hand in your recovery, dietary supplements such as BCAA’s, glutamine, and L-arginine all can help to reduce muscle soreness.
  • A relaxing massage: treat yourself to a relaxing massage to help soothe your aching muscles. A professional masseuse will be able to loosen tight muscles and reduce soreness! Or, try a massage gun at home for some targeted relief.

By following these tips, you may feel some initial muscle soreness, but it won’t be anything unbearably painful.

You should be giving your muscles enough of a workout to grow, but not so much that they can’t recover within a couple of days.

6. Set realistic expectations

One of the best ways to stay motivated when getting back into working out is setting realistic expectations for yourself. If this is your first time getting back into fitness, it’s best to understand the estimated time frames to reach your previous fitness levels.

When asked what someone getting back into working out can expect, ACSM certified exercise physiologist Fiona Perkins said:

“Science has shown that… it will only take about six weeks to get back to their previous level of fitness,” after about 20 weeks off or so.

“Part of the reason for this is because the pathways in the nervous system have already been established, so getting them back to firing faster takes less time. This is where we get the term muscle memory.”

With this knowledge, you can start to set realistic expectations for yourself when getting back into working out.

While you will reach your previous fitness level more quickly, you shouldn’t expect to lift weights that you used at your peak during the first few weeks.

7. Set practical fitness goals

When paired with realistic expectations, setting practical fitness goals will give you something tangible to work towards.

These goals can be anything, from losing a specific amount of weight to reaching a new personal best on a weight lifting exercise.

One of the best ways to stay focused on these fitness goals is by using an app to track your progress. While at the gym, you can track how many reps, sets, and exercises you did to use as a reference for the next week.

The FitBod app is one of my favorite fitness apps you can use to track progress and develop a customized program.

It ticks all of the boxes for what you want in a fitness app and is an excellent resource for those getting back into working out.

8. Workout with a gym partner or personal trainer

Staying motivated is one of the most challenging parts of working out again.

Being disciplined in the beginning will be hard, but there is one way that seems to keep you accountable until working out becomes a habit again.

Work out with a training partner.

This person can be one of your friends or you can work with a personal trainer. Once you have someone else there holding you accountable, you will start going not only for yourself but also for them.

Working out with someone else is also an enjoyable way to share your fitness journey. They will be there to see you improve and also be there to motivate you when you are feeling unmotivated.

(For more on working with a personal trainer, here’s what to expect at your first session and a guide to the different types of fitness instructors you can work with.)

9. Bring the correct gym gear

If you haven’t gone to the gym in a while, you may have forgotten what you need to pack in your gym bag.

Bringing the gym essentials with you will have you looking like a veteran gym-goer, and you have everything you need for a great workout.

There are many things you might call essential for the gym, but to get started, you’ll want to look out for these five:

  • Proper gym clothing
  • Hygiene products (if you are changing or showering)
  • Headphones
  • Any workout-specific equipment you need
  • Gym bag

Keep it simple and don’t feel like you need to fill your bag with accessories and gadgets!

10. Fuel your body the right way

Your health is more than what you do at the gym or while working out at home.

It would be best if you pair your workout routine with a healthy diet as well. A healthy diet will give your muscles the nutrients they need to recover and improve your overall athletic performance.

This doesn’t have to be complicated and you don’t need a fad diet. Just eat the right number of calories for your goal (weight loss or muscle gain) along with plenty of protein and good, complex carbs.

Included in a balanced diet is staying hydrated throughout the day. Along with staying hydrated outside of the gym, it’s crucial while you are at the gym to bring a large water bottle.

You will be sweating heavier than you think your first few trips to the gym, so you will likely get dehydrated faster. And, if you are dehydrated during your workout, it will reduce your athletic performance.

So, you are getting back into working out—you should also get back to eating healthier if you haven’t been doing so lately.

(If you need help with this, check out what a nutritionist said when I asked her why healthy food tastes bad!)

11. Start with an active warm-up

To prep your body to workout after a long time, personal trainer Billy Daniels recommends:

“If you haven’t worked out in a long time (or ever), then the best thing to do to begin is to move your body through an active warm-up. This means actively stretching and moving each joint in your body before you touch any weights.”

A dynamic warm up is different from a deep, static stretch.

Think jumping jacks, lunges, push ups, and more.

With each dynamic warm-up routine he does, Billy uses a “ground up” approach by starting at his foundation, which he explains:

“I like to start with the feet and ankles, then go to the knees, then the hips, and work my way up the body.”

Once your body is all warmed-up, your muscles will be more relaxed and flexible for your workout.

Relaxing your muscles is a critical step for those who haven’t worked out in a while because it will reduce the likelihood of getting injured.

12. Get enough sleep

An often overlooked aspect of fitness, getting enough sleep is vital for your body’s growth and recovery.

Your body will be repairing itself from the workouts while you are sleeping, so be sure to get the recommended amount of around 7-8 hours per night.

You will not only notice a reduced amount of muscle soreness, but you will also see that you are having better workouts and feeling better overall.

Sleep is essential, so make it a priority when getting back into working out.

When paired with an effective workout routine and balanced diet, you will be back to your previous fitness levels in no time.

Wrapping up

Reaching your past fitness levels again can seem like a daunting challenge.

While you will still need to work hard to achieve your fitness goals, you aren’t a complete beginner. You will quickly realize that your body has remembered many of the exercises and movements of the past.

Once you have brushed off that initial rust from not working out in a while, you will get back to your old ways and start to feel good again. What’s most important is to take things slow, listen to your body, and set realistic expectations.

You may even come back stronger and better than before!

If you’re having trouble getting motivated, check out some of my favorite guides for:

Good luck!