When was the last time you took an easy week?
A week where you went for a hike rather than a run.
A week where you ate more, rather than less.
A week where you added carbs rather than restricted them.
A week where you opted for reading a book at night instead of getting in some more work.
When was the last time you gave your body what it probably needs, a break?
There are many people in this world who probably need to buckle down for a few weeks in a row rather than take an easy week, but there are those of us who are always moving towards a goal and can’t remember the last time they took a break.
The more I learn about the importance of balance and rest the more I see a clear pattern that emerges no matter what you are working towards, performance goals, body composition goals, or personal development goals.
The pattern usually looks like this:
- Apply a stress to the point where your body start to fatigue
- Take time to recover, eliminate the stressor entirely or at least lessen the intensity
- The body adapts to the stress becoming stronger and more resilient than it was before
Visually it looks like this
This model can, and probably should, be applied to your goals no matter what they are.
If your goal is athletic performance you can apply this model to your training and nutrition. Over the course of several weeks you should be increasing your training load and/or intensity.
A simple example is every few weeks you add an extra set to your strength training routine, or you decrease rest intervals between sets. The added stress with more volume due to the extra set or intensity due to the decreased rest intervals increases fatigue, and eventually you get to a point where your performance or ability to recover starts to decrease.
At this point it’s time to rest and recover. So you throw in a week where you decrease the training load and/or intensity allowing your body to recover. You may also increase your sleep and add more calories all of which will facilitate recovery. At the end of the week your body will have recovered to the point where you reach a new level of fitness and you can begin again to increase the volume and/or intensity again, but this time you are starting at a new baseline.
One argument against a recovery period when it comes to exercise is that you might lose some or all of the benefits you gained from the exercise.
Turns out that might not be as much of a problem as you might think. In one study even a 3 week detraining period, where participants didn’t train at all, did not result in any differences in one rep max on the bench press or muscle growth when compared to a group of lifters who trained continuously. After the 3 weeks of detraining the participants did lose some strength and muscle size however they quickly gained that back once they started training again.
Graph A in the figure above shows the cross-sectional area of the tricep and graph B shows the cross-sectional area of the pectoralis muscle. Cross-sectional area is measuring how big the muscle is. Notice in the detraining period between weeks 6-9 and 15-18 there is a drop in size in both muscles, however it is quickly regained once training begins again at week 9 and 18. By the end of the 24 weeks the cross-sectional area is virtually the same in both the continuous training group and detraining group.
Graph C shows the one rep max for bench press. Again we see drops in 1 rep max after the detraining period but the strength quickly returns after training. Once again by the end of the 24 weeks, both groups have the same strength gains.
Graph D is maximal voluntary isometric contraction at the elbow. This represents how much power an individual muscle can produce. In this case there are no significant differences between the continuous training group and the detraining group across the 24 week period.
This gives us a fairly good idea that even with 3 weeks of NO TRAINING you can still make progress towards your strength, muscle growth, or power goals all while giving your body a chance to recover both physically and mentally. In addition there is no need to take 3 weeks off. In most cases, I have clients take a week of just reduced volume so you can expect less strength and muscle loss in that situation.
If your goal is to change your body composition you can also apply this stress, recovery, adaptation model.
When trying to lose body fat you need to put yourself in a caloric deficit. This caloric deficit is a stress both mentally and physically. Your body is trying to survive under a condition where it is taking in less calories than it needs. Acutely the body can handle this fine. However over a long period of time this stress can cause the body to start adjusting its energy expenditure to better adapt to this new caloric intake.
You wan’t to avoid this adaptation as much as possible in order to burn as many calories as you can. One way to help avoid these adaptations is to take a break from the caloric deficit, i.e. you can inject some recovery into your caloric deficit. These breaks are sometimes referred to as “diet breaks”. During a diet break you eat at caloric maintenance or even in a surplus. This sends a signal to your body that there is still food around and it doesn’t not need to worry about the long term caloric deficit you have been in therefore avoiding or at the very least minimizing any adaptations to your metabolism.
One study compare how diet breaks effected fat loss, metabolic rate, and weight maintenance. In the study one group of participants spend 16 continuous weeks in a caloric deficit. The other group of participants spent 2 weeks in a caloric deficit followed by 2 weeks at caloric balance (diet break) for a total of 30 weeks. The diet break group still spent 16 weeks in a caloric deficit; they just interspersed that time with some time eating at caloric maintenance.
The results showed the diet break group continued to lose body fat throughout the entire study, while the continuous energy restriction group plateaued at week 12.
When researchers compared the metabolic rates between the two groups both showed a slowing of metabolic rate. However when researchers adjusted for changes in body fat and fat free mass (muscle) the diet break group’s metabolic rate rebounded after the first 4 weeks ending in a much better place than the continuous caloric restriction group.
Researchers also followed up with participants 6 months after the study ended to see how well they maintained their fat loss. The continuous diet break group gained significantly more weight back than the diet break group. The continuous diet group gained back nearly 13lbs while the diet break group gained back around 8lbs on average.
Based on this study we can see that although it might take more time to lose the weight by taking “diet breaks” you are likely to fare much better long term.
In addition, I mentioned being in a caloric deficit is a mental stress. Constantly restricting calories, and even having to deal with some degree of hunger, can take a huge mental toll on you. So taking a “diet break” can also facilitate mental recovery from a prolonged diet. This helps avoid the inevitable binge most long term dieters experience when they push a caloric deficit for too long.
After a diet break of about a week or two, your body has recovered both from a physical and mental perspective and you can again reintroduce the stress of a caloric deficit to induce the desired adaptation, fat loss in this case.
I also see this stress, recovery, and adaptive model play out in personal development goals as well. Many of my clients not only want to perform physically but they are just as driven when it comes to work, family, and social activities. Pushing too hard outside of diet and exercise without taking adequate time to recover can also result in decreased adaptation and performance in those areas as well. So if you have a week or two where you need to push hard to get a project done for work, or your kids are sick and you are not getting any sleep, be sure to follow that period up with a recovery week. Maybe work on easier tasks at work, or carve out extra time to get additional sleep.
Perhaps the best evidence of the importance of the stress, recover, and adapt model in cognitive performance is sleep’s impact on the ability to recall information. You can view sleep as a daily chance for your brain (and body) to both recover and adapt to stress. This is very apparent in one’s ability to learn, consolidate, and recall information .
The graph above shows how participants who were allowed to sleep after studying syllables were able to better correctly recall those syllables than those that did not get any sleep.
If you are looking for a way to quantify the stress you are under so you can better predict when you need a recovery period, you can use something called heart rate variability (HRV). You can read more about HRV here.
As a coach I plan in recovery weeks into my clients exercise programming. I know both from a mental and physical point of view they need it after weeks of training that is progressively getting harder. Sometimes scheduling a recovery week is not always necessary and life provides you with built in recovery weeks. A good example is a week of vacation. If you are heading off on vacation you are probably going to work out less, eat a bit more, and give yourself a mental break as well. As a coach I always take these into account and look for opportunities to let life program a recovery week for my clients. That said, you should be mindful of how long you have gone without taking a recovery week and if it’s been a long time, make sure you schedule one!
The constant demand to perform, and social pressures of the modern world cause us to lose sight of the importance of recovery in our health. If you “take a week off” you can sometimes be viewed as being weak, and that is just plain wrong. When you take time to recover you are adapting to the stress, and becoming better than you were before…that’s exactly what you are looking to do! Our ancestors took plenty of time to recover, in fact they avoided unnecessary stressors if at all possible. Now additional stress is looked at as a badge of honor. It is OK to be motivated and driven, but you need to realize that it’s also OK to take time away and give yourself a break. If not you are just going to crash and burn, and that is not going to get you to your goals any faster! To get more actionable content just like this delivered directly to your inbox on a weekly basis sign up for my newsletter below. Each week you will get 2-3 emails with advice you can put to use to reach your goals whatever they may be.
- (2012, October 6). Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous …. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23053130/ ↑
- (n.d.). Intermittent energy restriction improves weight loss efficiency in …. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5803575/ ↑
- (n.d.). About Sleep’s Role in Memory – NCBI. Retrieved October 2, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768102/ ↑