How To Get Back in the Gym: After a Vacation, Illness, or “Break”

Mono fucking sucks.

It would be more compassionate wishing a marathon of Uwe Boll movies on the most hated person in the world, then to wish they contracted mono.

Mono felt like I’d been hit by a fleet of Walmart trucks. Who then backed up and ran over me again.

After two months with very little physical activity, getting back into the swing of things was tough.

I didn’t realize how long the effects of Mono lingered until it took me almost half the season to get back into shape to play two full quarters of basketball.

Getting Back in the Game

I received an email recently with this question:

“What’s the best way to head back into the gym? After a vacation, illness, heavy workload, etc. you can sense you are gonna hate it at first but you gotta start back up. How do you do it the right way?”

I’m not sure there is a “right” way.

Depending on your ailment, vacation time from the gym, or the amount of stress you just crawled out from under (like grad school), how you should get back in the action will differ.

Below are four different ways I’ve used before to dust the cobwebs off after a long break, illness, or vacation.

Start Slow

I’ve been lucky. Besides the typical allergies in Spring or a brief stuffy nose as Winter descends, I haven’t had the flu or even the 24-hour bug in the last few years.

Being down and out for awhile due to illness or injury can wreck your fitness goals.

One of the best ways to get back on track, especially after surgery, is to start slow.

Let’s assume you’re climbing out of the hole the flu put you in and you want to start slow.

Do a quick morning warm-up to get the blood flowing. This is a quick 5-minute flow session of basic mobility exercises you can do while the coffee brews.

Bent Knee Iron Crosses

Fire Hydrants


Sumo Squat to Stand

Joint Circles

After your 5-Minute flow, you could hit this quick bodyweight workout:

Bodyweight Squat- 2 sets of 10-12

Jumping Jacks – 2 sets of 15-20

Push-Up – 2 sets of 8-10

Side Plank – hold for 20-30 seconds

If you’ve been out of the game for a while, and your doctor urges you to start slowly the above might be a good primer for you.

However, if your illness, vacation or break only kept you out of the gym for less than a couple of months and you want to get back to the Iron Game ASAP, my next suggestion is a better solution.


You know you should ease your way back in but you still want to “feel” like you have done some work?

Go with what I call my 3.4.8 protocol.

For the first week, each day you pick three exercises and only do 4 sets of 8 reps for each exercise.

4 sets of 8 is considered the “Golden Ticket” for Hypertrophy — that’s a sciencey term for muscle growth.


I’m gonna get that hyper trophy achievement.

The weight used in this rep range scheme is usually fairly moderate around 65-80% of your 1RM. If your one rep max squatting is 300 pounds, this means you would work with weight ranging from 195 pounds up to 240 pounds.

The longer you’ve been out, the tougher the heavier weight will be, in that case, follow tip #1: start slow.

After a long break, no one really wants to obliterate themselves to a point where they can barely walk for days.

With a moderate weight and this rep range, you’ll feel like you’re getting a good workout in after time off. But you’ll also be signaling the muscles that it’s time for them to grow.

Here’s an example:


Squat- 4 sets of 8

Seated Dumbbell Press- 4 sets of 8

Bent Over Barbell Row- 4 sets of 8


Bench Press- 4 sets of 8

Pull-Ups- 4 sets of 8 (or the highest number you can do)

Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat – 4 sets of 8


Trap Bar Deadlift – 4 sets of 8

Barbell Curl – 4 sets of 8

Side Lateral Raise – 4 sets of

*bonus* Hanging Leg Raise – 4 sets of 8

Have a “Happy Day”

I know the idea of starting slow bores you. It’s the gym. You gotta go hard and go heavy.

You’re a superhero, right?  Captain Awesome-O doesn’t start slow.

Then Captain Awesome-O, do whatever makes you happy in the gym.

That’s right, I said DO WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY.

Barbell curls, Hammer curls, Preacher curls for 60 minutes?  Do it.

Pull-Ups and Squats? Do it.

Your first day back is International Chest Day, otherwise known as Monday?  Awesome, have a Bro Down.

Taking that first step, dusting off the cobwebs and getting the feel for the iron again can feel a little daunting after a long break.

The first practice of basketball season as a kid was not spent running suicides or doing drills. It was an hour-long fun scrimmage because it allowed us to have fun, and put us back in touch with what we loved to do, play basketball.

After a break or absence from the gym, take a day or week and do what makes you happy before you hop into a new program.

*I highly advise to stick with the 4×8 scheme, pick your favorite exercises but no more than 32 total reps for each lift. (4×8=32).*

Phone a Bro, or a Friend

The Beatles had it right when they said, “one is the loneliest number.”

A lot of people, myself included, train by themselves in the gym. Those with home gyms, they have built themselves are truly lone wolves.

Training with a partner can provide lots of benefits. They provide motivation and accountability, not to mention a social aspect that can make fitness far more enjoyable.

And the best part about lifting with others is that many times we end up pushing ourselves further than we do by ourselves.

There’s a phenomenon known as the Kohler Effect. This phenomenon states that weaker individuals will strive to keep up with the accomplishments of others in a group, especially when performance is at stake.

I experienced this first hand.

My friend Dan, who is a serious Olympic lifter, lifts massive amounts of weight.

We got a lift session in together once, and I watched him squat over 400 pounds for reps of ten with no problem.

Due to my programming at the time, I had not deadlifted in over two months. I didn’t expect to set a PR that day, but just being around Dan made me feel 100x stronger.

I set a PR that day on both the squat and deadlift.

What was it my mom said all the time, “monkey see, monkey do?”

Grab a friend or a bro and let them help you get back in the groove of hitting the gym.

*Tip* if you need to find a person to work out with you can use sites like,, or post on Facebook and tag your friends.

Press Play: Game On

The suggestions above in the past helped me come back from injuries, vacation time, or after I battled an illness. Take it slow and do not try to go full force on your first day.

Start with something that is fun and that will help give you some momentum to continue after that week.

Oh and if life ever gives you a choice between mono and a roundhouse kick to the face from Rhonda Rousey, take the kick to the face — trust me.

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