Starting Over After A Training Layoff: One Year Later

I just realized that it’s been one year since I returned to training after my surgeries


Returning to strength training wasn’t a seamless sort of thing. No “Bam, it’s time to lift heavy again.”

After four months without heavy lifting, it took weeks just to feel comfortable in the gym again. Then I had to regain enough flexibility and neuromuscular control to lift heavier – much longer than I thought, actually.

Coming back was a slow process. My upper body changed fundamentally after having my bilateral prophylactic mastectomy with reconstruction. But today I feel strong, maybe even stronger in some ways. (I’ll be writing more about coming back as a beginner in, where I have a recurring column.)

Here’s more insight into where I stand after this challenging year.

Four Months Off From Training, Oh My

From March through July of 2015, my top priority was recovering from my two surgeries. Recovery didn’t end in July; that’s just when I started lifting again. A mastectomy is a massively invasive procedure – it’s the cutting of nerves, fascia, muscles, and other tissue and hoping it all heals up nice and neat. It’s major and has changed my body forever.

Since I had a complication on one side, I had extensive physical therapy – 20 sessions total. This was to regain upper-body mobility (which all mastectomy patients need) and to relieve discomfort and pain in my right underarm area, which didn’t heal properly. 

The upsides?

  1. I don’t think about dying all the time anymore. I’m free of worry, fear, and the tests and their scary results. Fifteen years were enough of that noise.
  2. I’ve regained much of the muscle I lost, become even stronger, and learned new ways of training by trying different methods.

I still have some discomfort where the surgery complication occurred, but my plastic surgeon told me I’m miles ahead of most women in terms of progress, probably due to my fitness level. So please encourage anyone you know who’s having surgery to keep their tissue healthy for faster recovery – strengthen and stretch those muscles and stay at a healthy body weight. Most importantly? Stay active.

My Measures Of Progress

Since I like tracking my progress using a spreadsheet, I know how much muscle and fat I’ve gained or lost over any period.

As usual, my shoulders gain mass the most easily and my lower body lags (particularly with the issue I talk about below). Also, I typically have the best gains while on creatine, but the water retention is almost too much for me to take.

I also like using photos to track my progress. Take this photo, for example. On the left is only three months after I stopped training, and you can see that I lost almost all my deltoid gains. On the right is one year later.


It’s motivating for me to look back at photos of myself when I was really rocking a lower body fat, too, to see if I can get back there.

Pullin’, But Not Quite On My Own (Yet)

Before my surgeries, I could do 7-8 unassisted pull-ups and was up to 9 at one point. Pull-ups transformed my upper body in a way no other exercise could. (Here’s the blurry video of me doing 8 pull-ups a few years ago.)

Over the last year, I’ve rebuilt muscle and may even be stronger than before. But even with all my successes in coming back from major surgery at my age, I’m still disappointed I’m not back to unassisted pull-ups yet.


There are several factors involved. I may have ‘wasted’ some time by trying to get back to pull-ups without adequately strengthening my pectorals first (I began correcting this error last winter). As it stands, I can do one pull-up with 40 pounds of assistance. I’m whittling away at that number using eccentrics and other methods and consider it a win to have come this far in five months!

But still, this is a good example of what all of us do: Focusing on the ONE thing we can’t do well, while ignoring everything else we’ve achieved. It’s all good to have goals, but I’ve had to remind myself to stop the self-flagellation over not being able to do unassisted pull-ups yet. 

It may not even be all due to strength and muscle deficiencies. My chest muscles, which were ‘relocated’ above my implants, shift upwards almost violently when I pull up, and I have yet to overcome this.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m even physically capable of doing unassisted pull-ups again, but I’m not giving up. I know the impact that pull-ups can have on one’s upper body and I love the badassery of pull-ups… So fun. 


Me today

Other More Mundane Hold-ups

I benefited from active release technique (ART) last winter to calm down muscle spasms in my right shoulder. Now, with stretching, my shoulder behaves itself nicely.

But it’s always something, isn’t it? I’ve had “bad feet” all my life and this spring my right foot decided to start acting up big time. My heel is unstable, my foot is too flexible, and I don’t land right. My podiatrist says I’m a “hard walker.” The troubles impact my ankle, knee, and all the way up my right side to my hip.

So I’ve been working on getting my orthodics adjusted and bracing my knee and ankle. It’s sadly prevented me from being as active as usual this time of year. I still try to walk, hike, and cycle every few days, but the winter fat hasn’t come off as readily as in the past. (Although it’s tough to tell what is fat and what is water retention – lots of that going on too). It’s also thwarted my squats, which I fell in love with again this spring but have to be careful with until I work this thing out.

On the bodybuilding side, I realized that while I was busy rebuilding my glutes, my hamstrings remained puny. This is surely affecting my squat and deadlift and who knows what else. A muscle imbalance is a nasty thing. It leads to compensations, which can lead to pain and injury. No good.

But just as with pull-ups, I’m motivated by this weakness and committed to hammering them into submission. My hamstrings will get in line the next few months. I’m putting them first in my workouts and adding in some extra stimulation just for them.

Belts And Badassery

I’ve never worn a weightlifting belt because as I was a purist, I believed it was a crutch for a weak core. But I’ve also had trouble bracing my body with enough tension to lift heavier. But ever since using my new belt I’ve been able to push harder with deadlifts and squats, which makes me happy! It’s important to use a belt correctly, and I talk about that more here.

Thanks for reading, for understanding when I neglect this blog, and for being freaking awesome. The best thing to ever come of my career as a fitness coach and this blog is connecting with people like YOU. 

Stay updated with all kinds of random thoughts on my Facebook page.

See you in nirvana~

This article originally appeared on

19 thoughts on “Starting Over After A Training Layoff: One Year Later

  1. You are such an inspiration, Suzanne! I am focusing on running right now, and I am so amazed by the progress I’m making just by following a structured plan for several weeks (and I’m still about 2 months away from my race!) The sub 2:00 half marathon will be mine!


  2. Very relateable for me. Even if relateable is not a word. In 1993 I suffered I skydiving accident that would have me in bed for a year, and out of the gym for 2 more years. When I did step back into the gym, there was no Bam! Back to it for me either. It was a couple of years of earning back my physique and my strength. Lots of failures along the way, lots of depression, and I would not fully regain my strength for nearly 10 years. I would deadlift a personal best in my 50s, and get ripped at 53.

    Like you, I learned so much in the process, and it made me a MUCH better trainer. Nice to see you growing in mass and in spirit!


    • You tell this story in such a beautiful way, Roy, and I so appreciate your sharing it. I had no idea you had to go through that. I’m so inspired that you’ve been able to make gains into your 50’s and even surpass your PRs.

      I’m pretty sure my expectations were (and are) too high for returning so quickly, particularly at my age when building new muscle just gets more challenging. It’s all a journey… that’s the best part!! xoxo


  3. Suzanne,

    Great post. I know from presonal experience how tough it can be to come back after a long time off and not being able to do anything. You mentioned using a belt. Do you truly believe that the belt has helped you significantly? Like you, I’m still a little timid to use a belt because I feel like I don’t really want or need that kind of assistance.


    • Hey Stephen, thanks for writing. Yes, I can lift more with a belt because it gives me a firm surface against which to brace my core. That’s the only reason to use it, in my opinion. The key is to perform the Valsalva maneuver and only use it for three reps or less. I talked about how to use it and included an article here: You have to be careful, though, because a false sense of security can definitely get you injured.


  4. Great article! I’m the same as you, a hard walker, my podiatrist also told me I should consider other forms of cardio other than running. So I started swimming, and its been the best fitness sport I have ever done!
    I had a knee scope done over a year ago, the therapy and recovery were a lot longer than I anticipated and it took a while to get my stregth back, but you are right, it just takes consistency!
    Thanks for the blog!


    • Congrats on your comeback! I once asked a doctor what the best form of exercise was, and he said swimming. It’s something I’m not sure I could do, since I struggle with shoulder muscle spasms, but I never say never :).


  5. I know the feeling, I struggled greatly to go back to a workout routine after I left the gym for other reasons. It’s just about getting into the mindset and forcing your body to follow. The first few weeks were brutal, but then as the weeks went on I realized it had just become part of my life again and I have to admit that working out is part of the good things about my life because is the time I give to my body. Besides I read somewhere that the body has memory, so all the work I put into it will actually sort of last a lifetime. I also have to admit that not having to commit to just one gym helped a lot, I use to find working out at the gym boring because it was the same people and the same place so being able to switch gym whenever I wanted helped greatly, I guess it was a way of breaking up the routine and making it fun again.


    • Big ups for getting back to it, Marcus. Sounds like you had to overcome some significant obstacles yourself. It’s funny you said that about the same gym getting to be boring. I went in the a.m. instead of p.m. and it was a completely different experience. Still plenty of people hogging the squat rack, though… :).


  6. I have not been training for several months now and I do not know where to pick up. Reading your article just inspired me to get going! Will definitely be hitting up the gym this week! Thank you for this great article!


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