Usually the message you hear from me on this blog and the rest of my content I create is focused around being more consistent with our health and wellness practices and not less consistent. One of the biggest struggles everyone has is sticking to a way of eating, moving, and exercising that they can maintain for LIFE.
However, just because I want you to do this for the rest of your life, doesn’t mean I want you to do it EVERY DAY for the rest of your life.
For many of us life has a nice way of making sure we don’t.
Illness, kids, work, pets, vacations…pandemics….all these things can cause you to miss your workout and fall face first into a bowl of ice cream.
I also know there are people who don’t let these things get in the way…I am one of them. They have the means or just insane drive to “find a way” and they are literally consistent with everything ALL THE TIME!!!! For these people a break is probably warranted, and for clients like this I usually end up programming breaks into their programs.
No matter what group you fall into, you are probably wondering will taking a break from my diet and workout negatively impact me in the long run?
If I go off my diet will I gain fat and lose my health gains?
If I stop working out for a short period of time will I lose muscle and lose my cardiovascular fitness?
Surprisingly the answer to both of these appears to be…NO!!!
In part one of this three part series on taking a break we will look at taking a break from exercise.
Taking a break from exercise is actually a very common practice amongst elite athletes.
Every sport has an offseason.
A primary reason has to do with allowing the athletes to recover from several months of hard exercise.
Do these athletes come back the next season worse off than before?
Sometimes if athletes have a “screw it” mentality they come into the pre-season severely out of shape, but for the most part they are not that far off from where they left off….and this is after several months off from their sport!
Athletes also usually take a break before they want to peak for a specific event. Many sports have the practice of what’s called a taper or deload before a competition. During the taper or deload period training is not completely eliminated but it is drastically cut back.
It allows them to recover and PEAK for their competition.
Yup, the break allows them to perform at their best!
What if you are not an athlete and just looking to get stronger, faster, or build more muscle? How detrimental is taking a break to you reaching your goals?
One study (Abe, n.d.) looked at what I would consider is a worse case scenario. They split 14 well trained males into two groups, one which trained continuously for 24 weeks and one which followed 3 six week training blocks with a 3 week break in between each six week training block. During the study the lifters performed 3 sets of 10 reps of the bench press at 75% of their 1 rep max 3 times a week.
Intuitively you would think that the group that trained continuously for 24 weeks would be stronger and gain more muscle. You would think that the group that took 3 weeks off would lose all the gains they made from the previous six weeks and they would almost return to baseline.
Well the detraining group DID lose muscle and strength during the 3 week break, but they quickly regained that once they started training again!
At the end of the 24 weeks both groups had the same strength and muscle gains!
In this study researchers measured both tricep cross sectional area (TB-CSA) and pectoralis cross sectional area (PM-CSA) as well as 1 rep max in the bench press. The cross sectional area of the tricep and pectoralis is a way of measuring how much muscle was gained or lost.
Notice how after weeks 6 and 15 the periodized training group (PTR) had a drop in strength and muscle size but it quickly rebounds and surpasses previous levels. So while 3 weeks of detraining did decrease their muscle size and strength, once training was resumed they were able to gain it back quickly and stay on par with the group that did not stop training.
How is this possible? The best theory we have at the moment comes from the “gym bros”. Muscle memory is something that has been talked about for a long time. The idea is that once you do the work to build muscle and strength, it’s much easier to rebuild it after you have lost it. Like I said this was just something that was thrown around in the body building space for a long time, but now there is some research to suggest it might be true. Right now the research has only been done in mice (A Cellular Memory Mechanism Aids Overload Hypertrophy in Muscle Long After an Episodic Exposure to Anabolic Steroids, 2013), so we cannot say for sure it will replicate in humans, but it does back up lots of anecdote.
OK so that is detraining as it relates to muscle size and strength, but what about aerobic fitness? Is the effect of detraining any different?
Studies that have looked at the effects of 4 weeks or less in aerobic detraining show that you can observe significant decreases in many aerobic fitness metrics (Padilla, n.d.).
Since aerobic fitness also has a pronounced effect on metabolic health, stopping aerobic training for a period of 4 weeks can also have a negative effect on several health markers as well. A study (The Effect of Detraining After a Period of Training on Cardiometabolic Health in Previously Sedentary Individuals, 2018) done on sedentary individuals showed the impact aerobic training can have on these markers and what happens when you stop training.
After 4 weeks of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 times a week you see a sharp decrease in metabolic health markers. The group in red then stopped exercising for 4 weeks while the group in blue continued exercise. By all measures of metabolic health, except for waist circumference, the detraining group experienced a reversal of metabolic health markers.
However, just like with muscle size and strength, if you were to begin training again you can quickly regain both the performance and health gains you made initially.
Soccer players that ceased training at the end of the season for 2 weeks were able to regain and match the performance of a group that continues training after 3 weeks of retraining (Joo, 2018).
In a mind blowing study, elderly individuals (older than 65) trained for 12 months, then detrained for another 12 months! Guess what? After 9 months of retraining they were back to their baseline before the detaining period began! INSANE! (Optimal Retraining Time for Regaining Functional Fitness Using Multicomponent Training After Long-Term Detraining in Older Adults, n.d.)
The effects of detraining aerobically on metabolic health can be reversed with retraining as well…even in type 2 diabetics! A study done on females with type 2 diabetes had them detrain for 3 months (!) after 9 months of training (Training, Detraining, and Retraining Effects on Glycemic Control and Physical Fitness in Women With Type 2 Diabetes, 2014). After the 3 month break from training they retrained for 9 months and researchers measured participants fasting glucose, hemoglobin A1C, waist circumference, and glucose response after eating a meal. All markers got worse after detraining as expected, but they all also returned to their baseline prior to detraining after 9 months of retraining!
Taking a several week break from your training will not allow you to maintain all the benefits you were able to make since you started. The good news is whatever you lost in the period of time while you took a break, can be quickly regained.
The other thing to keep in mind is that most of these studies that we have looked at here are using extended detraining periods. If at all possible, you should avoid doing nothing from a training point of view for anything longer than 2 weeks. However, we will talk about how to practically apply breaks in your training in part 3 of this series, so we won’t go into that here. Just know that when I say “take a break” I am not advocating you take a month off from working out (unless you are injured, in which case that is a different story).
What about taking a break from your diet? And how should you apply breaks in your training and your diet?
That is the subject of part 2 and part 3 of this series.
To be the first to know about part 2 where we will discuss taking a break on your diet, and then how to practically apply breaks in your training and diet in your own life, sign up for my newsletter using the form below. I will email links to parts 2 and 3 as soon as they are published!
ReferencesAbe, T. (n.d.). Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training. PubMed. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23053130/A cellular memory mechanism aids overload hypertrophy in muscle long after an episodic exposure to anabolic steroids. (2013, December 15). PubMed. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24167222/The Effect of Detraining after a Period of Training on Cardiometabolic Health in Previously Sedentary Individuals. (2018, October 19). NCBI. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6210016/Joo, C. H. (2018, May 10). The effects of short term detraining and retraining on physical fitness in elite soccer players. NCBI. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5944970/Optimal retraining time for regaining functional fitness using multicomponent training after long-term detraining in older adults. (n.d.). PubMed. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28858726/Padilla, S. (n.d.). Detraining: loss of training-induced physiological and performance adaptations. Part I: short term insufficient training stimulus. PubMed. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10966148/Training, detraining, and retraining effects on glycemic control and physical fitness in women with type 2 diabetes. (2014, November 4). PubMed. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25369073/