You're the Man. Rough, tough and buff, baby. Everything's falling in place: the job, the girl, the car, the body. Life couldn't be better. Until, of course, it all falls apart.

It starts with something small. Maybe the girlfriend dumps you. Or the job becomes a lot more stressful. Or the car gets totaled. Whatever the reason, certain parts of your life-workout schedule included-begin to hit the skids. Before you know it, you've been away from the gym for almost a year, and one day you wake up to realize your physique has gotten softer than the Washington Redskins' front seven. You can't play owner Daniel Snyder and fire your lagging body parts at will, so you tell yourself that something has to be done, and fast. 

Problem is, you're not exactly sure where to start. Getting yourself back on track after a layoff isn't as easy as walking into the gym and picking up where you left off. Well, you could, but you'd just be risking injury and demoralization by attacking your new routine with a full head of steam.

"You've got to start light," says Mark Avens, C.P.T. "It's tough because everybody wants to do as much as they have in the past." Rome wasn't built in a day. Neither is the ideal body. But if you follow these guidelines, you'll get to where you need to go a lot more efficiently-and a lot less painfully-than you ever thought possible.

PSYCH YOURSELF UP
Everybody who trains takes layoffs at one time or another. Not everybody, however, comes back from them. Remember, though, the longer you stay away from any exercise program, the easier it is to make excuses for putting off your comeback another day. Thing is, beginning is the hardest part-after the first week, it's all downhill. Once you establish your routine, it'll be that much easier to stick to it.

One solution? "Write down your workout and what you're going to do the next day," Avens says. "Tell people you're back in the gym. It's a huge plus for motivation. It's like telling people you're doing a marathon. That pressure is good."

This is a comeback workout, so soreness is included. There are ways, however, to minimize it. First and foremost, keep your ego in check. Being Mr. Macho doesn't do you any good if it forces you to be Mr. I Can't Get Out of Bed for the week after your first appearance in the gym. 

"Build up the amount of time you're spending on the weights, aside from the amount of weight," Avens says. "At first, set a specific amount of time that you're going to spend in the gym. If you used to lift for an hour, cut that in half for the first few weeks."

THE WORKOUT
We recommend training three days per week for the first few months of your comeback, with at least one day of rest between workouts. You'll be lifting upper body (back/shoulders) for Workout 1; lower body (legs, calves) for Workout 2; and upper body (chest/arms) for Workout 3. 

If you're doing Workout 1 on Monday, you'll have plenty of time-three days-to get over the upper-body soreness you'll feel at first. After you complete the cycle, take two days off before beginning again. The program calls for three sets with most exercises, but start out doing one or two. You don't want to burn out after the first week. 

[pagebreak] Don't worry about how much weight you're using for the first couple of weeks. In fact, don't worry about weight or reps the first few times you get to the gym. Use these initial sessions as a way of experimenting, figuring out exactly where you are strengthwise. For all your exercises, start out using much lighter weight than you remember, and concentrate on feeling the muscle you're working. You might not feel it at the beginning of the workout, but you definitely will the day after.

Shoot for eight to 12 reps on most exercises and do not go to failure. Form is the most important factor in this program. If you're using a heavier weight but sacrificing form, you're not doing yourself any favors. 

As you'll notice, this program doesn't call for cardio work. The theory is, if you've taken time off, you'll see results from any form of exercise. If you insist on doing cardio, we recommend doing it away from the gym to avoid burnout.

"Instead of taking the bus to work, walk or bike," Avens says. "Bring your change of clothes with you. Even at lunch, spend a half-hour and go for a brisk walk. Do something you enjoy, because if you're not enjoying it, you're not going to get any benefit from it."

You should start seeing results within a few weeks. If after a few months you're ready for a new challenge, you'll be just in time to move into Stage 2 of our yearlong program. Even if you're not, we guarantee you'll be much better off than when you started.

Workout    
Day 1 (Monday) Back/Shoulders
Exercise Sets Reps
Close-grip lat pull-down 4 *15, 8-12
One-arm dumbbell row  2 8-12
Smith-machine seated military press 3 8-12
Standing lateral raise  2 8-12
Bent-over lateral raise  2 8-12
Day 2 (Wednesday) Legs/calves
Leg press  4 *15, 8-12
Dumbbell lunge 3 10-12
Leg extension 2 10-12
Lying leg curl  2 10-12
Standing calf raise 3 12-15
Day 3 (Friday) Chest/triceps/biceps
Bench press 4 *15, 8-12
Incline dumbbell press 3 8-12
Reverse barbell curl/Standing barbell curl  3 8-12
Triceps bench dip 3 8-12
Alternating crunches 3 15-25
    *warm-up set