For those of us who commit to a rigorous and disciplined strength training routine, the idea of taking some time away from the gym presents dilemmas. There are often very good reasons to do so, and often circumstances will dictate that we simply have no choice in the matter, whether it be work/studying obligations, or an injury. These instances often provoke immediate fear of losing our training progress as a result of these short-term absences from training. To an outsider this may seem ridiculous, but to many it’s a rational concern given all the hours of consistent effort we’ve put into making progress in the weeks and months prior to the holiday season. Are strength training adaptations so difficult to maintain that staying out of the gym for a few days, or even a few weeks/months is going to be a detriment to our current progress? Or are our fears nothing more than neuroticism with a lack of perspective? The latter is a question that must rest on each individual’s conscience, and this article aims to help you, the lifter, to find some answers to these questions based on your own set of individual circumstances.
First, lets take a look at the current body of research on the physiological effects of time away from the training:
Resistance Training-Induced Elevations in Muscular Strength in Trained Men Are Maintained After 2 Weeks of Detraining and Not Differentially Affected by Whey Protein Supplementation (Hwang et al, 2017)
In this study, twenty resistance-trained males who’d been training three times a week for at least one year were recruited, and were exposed to a 4-day training split for 4 weeks, then a 2 week ‘no training’ period, before completing a final 4 weeks of training (same protocol as weeks 1-4). Strength, muscle mass and body composition tests were taken before and after the first 4 week training period, after the 2 week ‘no training’ period, and again after the final 4 week training period. The results found that there was no significant differences in leg press 1RM at any point during the study, with a slight increase in 1RM being found after the 2 week ‘no training’ period. Additionally, 1RM after the final 4 weeks of training was greater than at baseline. There were also no significant or meaningful differences between body composition or muscle cross-sectional area (of the rectus femoris muscle) at any time point throughout the course of the study. These results suggest that after a short-term break from training (2 weeks) strength, size and body composition adaptations can be maintained as long as normal training resumes after this time period. This should put a lot of minds at ease, and provide lifters with the reassurance that taking voluntary breaks from training (work/school/holiday commitments) or involuntary (to attend to nagging smaller injuries) can be done so with no negative side effects.
But what about longer periods away from the gym? Surely the longer we stay out of the gym, the higher chance of losing strength and muscle adaptations?
Influence of concentric and eccentric resistance training on architectural adaptation in human quadriceps muscles (Blazevich et al, 2007).
This study reported only a 5.6% reduction in isokinetic leg extension strength after a 3-month detraining period (which was preceded by 10 weeks of training). Considering how long 3 months is with absolutely no training stimulus, a reduction of this magnitude is surprisingly low. That being said, caution must be taken making concrete assertions from these findings, as isokinetic strength (which is measured with a constant velocity on a device called an isokinetic dynamometer) is very different from dynamic strength on a barbell. The ability to co-ordinate the contraction of motor units in high skill movements like the squat, bench and deadlift plays a large role in the ability to express strength in them, therefore taking excessive time away from practicing the skill of these movements would most likely result in a greater strength loss with a barbell. That being said, if these skills have been developed before, the time required to acquire them again will be reduced. Technique adaptations can be developed very quickly, and assuming a lifter has a decent amount of lean muscle mass, strength should be regained very quickly.
Additionally, the detraining intervention was implemented after only a 10-week training period. Most lifters who end up taking a sustained break from the gym such as 3 months have typically accumulated much more than 10 weeks of training leading into the no training period. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that in these cases, strength and muscle may be even more resilient following an absence from the gym.
Effects of periodic and continued resistance training on muscle CSA and strength in previously untrained men (Ogasawara et al, 2013)
The authors of this study compared the effects of a continuous 24-week training intervention with a training intervention of the same length, but featured a 3- week detraining period every 6 weeks. Interestingly, the authors observed no significant differences in strength and hypertrophy between groups, indicating that muscle and strength is resilient to detraining for periods of three weeks as long as it is preceded with a solid 6 weeks of training before hand. Even more interestingly, at the middle point of the study, the rate of change in muscle cross sectional area was actually greater in the group that had periods of detraining than the group who trained continuously. This suggests that any muscle mass that was lost over the detraining period can be quickly regained once training commences again. This occurred despite training volume being higher in the continuous group, suggesting that at least in the short term, higher training volume does not necessarily equate to higher adaptations. This is a general rule over the long term, however in the short term, the ability to effectively recover may often supersede simply accumulating as much training volume as possible.
The Effects of the Absence are Goal Dependant
As discussed above, muscle and strength appear to be very resilient to a short- term break from training. That being said, those of us with predominantly performance goals (powerlifting/weightlifting) will most likely suffer more from losing some of the technical acquisition on the specific movement patterns they regularly train. This is definitely true for powerlifting, but especially true for weightlifting movements, which simply require a greater degree of technical mastery to excel in than the powerlifting movements.
Given that technique acquisition is very important if your goals revolve around maximising your strength on the barbell lifts, long periods away from the gym should be avoided to the best of your ability.
Feeling beat up?
If you feel you require a break form training due to being physically or mentally fatigued, a more intelligent approach would be to schedule a deload/low stress period of training, as oppose to staying out of the gym completely. This way, technique can be maintained, however a lifters can be rejuvenated, both mentally and physically. Both peripheral and central fatigue can be diminished, and a lifter will most likely soon begin to mentally crave hard training again. If you’ve dug yourself into a mental hole so deep that the thought of stepping into the gym creates an abundance of negative emotion, be honest with why you feel this way:
Have you been pushing way too hard for too long without any regular deload weeks/lower intensity days?
Have you lost passion for the iron?
It could be one or the other, but is often a mixture of both (I frequently see a loss of passion as a by-product of physical burn out), staying out of the gym for a while is probably a good thing. This gives you a well-earned break, allows you to re-establish your desires and goals from your training, and overall gain some perspective on how you will approach your return to training.
My suggestions here are completely dependant on the nature of the injury. If it is something that you can work around, do your upmost to work around it, and attempt to perform derivatives that most closely resemble the movements you wish to progress. This will help to maintain technical adaptations as best as possible. However, it must be stressed that attempting to train any movement in severe pain is nothing short of masochism, and will do nothing but set you back further from your strength goals. Be smart, be patient, go and see a physio, and begin a rehab program as soon as possible. Do this in the knowledge that your lean muscle mass is resilient to atrophy, but more importantly, do this in the knowledge that your health is infinitely more important than kilograms on a barbell. I’ve seen too many lifters’ ego get the better of them when carrying an injury and end up becoming more severely injured, which only lengthened the time they were unable to train, and had a bigger detriment on their mental health as a result. Use your brain. Lifting is important, but it really isn’t when compared to your long-term physical and mental health.
Work/Lifestyle prevent you from training?
If you are unable to train because of work trips/school or university work/or holidays, don’t sweat it. You are unlikely to lose muscle mass during this time, and strength is unlikely to decay for up to 2-3 weeks. Lifting is to be enjoyed, but so is life. If you feel your need to lift is affecting your ability to enjoy life, you need to question the reasons why you train. Explore this, deeply. That being said, for competitive strength athlete’s who have a competition coming up, attempting to get training sessions in is only going to help your performance and missing sessions could potentially be detrimental.
Take Home Messages…
Not training for 2-3 weeks does not appear to have a detrimental effect on muscle size, strength and body composition in resistance trained individuals
Technical efficiency is less resilient to decay – this should be taken into consideration for strength athletes or those with performance goals
Time away from the gym can help to relieve the physical and mental stress of long training periods, and are suggested to be implemented when lifters feel beat up despite already taking regular deload weeks
For injured athletes, attempting to focus on what they can do in the gym and still training those movements can aid in preventing technical decay
Lifters should take short-term holiday/studying/work breaks stress free; your adaptations are more resilient than you think.