4 Strategies to Mount Your Comeback to the Gym
Written by Jared Putman

“Sooooo I’m back from a break.”

This is a phrase I hear as a coach all of the time. It is usually said in some tone of apology or carries some form of embarrassment.

I am usually chuckling inside when someone says this. As a coach, I see this more often than I see someone who is the model of picture perfect consistency. Having a hard time coming back from a break usually stems from a belief that absolute perfection is necessary to hit our goals.

I think that many clients and athletes (and coaches) hold some image of perfection up in their internal mind and beliefs and external actions:

“Once I sign up at the gym, I am committed to this schedule that I like and setup FOREVER. I will always go to the 4:30 p.m. class Monday through Friday from now until I die. And if I don’t then I should quit because I am a fat, lazy slob who is super out of shape.”

Yeah…Whoa there super-ego. You’re going to be just fine.

In the back of our minds, we all know that perfection doesn’t happen. Disruptions happen – whether it is a simple work project, family emergency, traffic, delayed meeting, change in your kid’s soccer schedule, an injury or a larger issue. Disruptions can even be positive things like vacations or traveling for the holidays.

Over the years, I’ve employed a number of different strategies to help ward off this “all-or-nothing” thinking that goes along with feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment about coming back.

Strategies for the “Comeback” Athlete

This one is the easiest and most helpful. That first step back in is always the hardest. There is never a dream “Perfect Day to Come Back.” Sorry, but you’re probably not going to look at the blog and see a workout that has all of your favorites, be that perfect length you love, and not have burpees in it. You are not going to magically get out of your 3 p.m. meeting early, and yes there could be traffic. You simply have to do what you used to do and just go. One single time. Not a hundred in a row all at once. Don’t cherry pick the workout (in fact: If I get into a rut of not going, I simply don’t look at the workout online and I just walk in).

Once I’m there my explicit goal is not to worry about hitting a certain time or weight, its just to be there and do the workout. Just get that first check mark. Sure, the first time back after a break is harder than you’d want it to be…annnnd it is still doable and survivable.

2. Recognize (then shift) your self-talk.
I don’t know about you, but my inner self-talk can get ugly in the middle of a break. Self-talk is just coachspeak for our inner voice or thoughts. Sometimes we talk to ourselves out loud, but sometimes self-talk is that quieter, inner dialogue we have in our head. Check in on what you are telling yourself and then highlight the negative ones and note their frequency.

“I used to go to the gym all the time” “Now it’ll be too hard.” “Everyone else will be way faster than me.” “I’m so out of shape now.” “I’ve taken too long of a break.”

Once you catch these thoughts, you can edit them. Now instead of the defeated tone (“I used to go to the gym everyday after work”), tack on “and I’m going to go again today after work.” “It will be hard to go back to the gym, but it won’t be as hard as it was when I first started.” Or change it completely “I took a nice break, but I’m excited to get back to the gym.”

3. Do you best to reframe or reset your PR’s.

Once you are back at the gym and moving a bit again, something that I see creep up is “Well I used to be able to do…” or “The last time I tested a heavy squat was 3 years ago so I don’t know.”

If you are coming back from an injury or a longer break…holding onto old PR’s can be discouraging. This is an example of my own self-talk last week: “Man, that 195# front squat felt heavy today. My old PR is 325#…Ugh! Getting back to that weight feels so far away.”

Instead of being happy that I front squatted the heaviest I have in several months AND it was pain free, I was already kicking myself. So I work to reframe the self-talk. Instead of kicking yourself like in the example above, try reframing your response: “I PR’d my front squat for this year.” Or, “That was the best pain free FS I’ve done in a long time.” Or, “That was the heaviest FS I’ve done at this gym/in San Diego.”

For me specifically coming out of an injury, I’ve shifted my thinking about squats to something closer to the above. I get a chance to PR in a new gym which acknowledges a huge move and transition that I wouldn’t want to take back, but also disrupted my training. By also saying that I am pain-free helps remind me of all the hard work and patience it took to get to where I am in PT and that I don’t want to just throw on a ton of weight and get hurt. Of course I’ll be super excited to hit a lifetime PR, but that’s not the goal right now, I’m just trying to get my wheels spinning again.

4. Zoom-Out.

“I used to come to the gym all the time. Now I’ve missed two weeks in a row and it’s so hard to get back into my old rhythm.”

This is getting right at that super-ego, perfectionist tendency right away. Remember the whole “I will do this perfectly at 6 a.m. every day until I die mindset.” All or nothing mentality really doesn’t work long-term. One of the strategies I do with people that are new or coming back is simple multiplication. If I’ve missed two weeks, but I can start coming back in twice a week, that’ll add up pretty fast. Over the course of a year, I’ll see that I’ve only missed 4 out of 104. So again, in the grand scheme of things, two weeks off is not that big of a deal.

Above all, and I’m pretty sure I can speak for the whole of the coaching staff here at Invictus. If you are worried about your coach giving you grief or teasing you, know that what we will say when you walk through that door (NO. MATTER. HOW. LONG. THE. BREAK) is “Welcome back. It’s great to see you and I’m glad you are here. How are you?”

If you take a break, enjoy it, and when you come back, we’ll be happy to see you.

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