Getting sick, being injured or just needing a break are all valid reasons to occasionally take time away from your workout routine. But sometimes these breaks last longer than we anticipate and many of us worry we’ll lose all the strength we worked so hard to build and end up starting back at square one.
HOW MUCH TIME IS OK TO TAKE OFF?
It’s safe to say taking a recovery day is considered best practice for a responsible training routine. So, while a day is great, how about a week? What about a month? How quickly do you lose strength once you stop training? The answer might not be as fast as you think: “Most experts agree that big losses in strength don’t happen for about three months, with smaller, less significant losses starting around 3–4 weeks,” says personal trainer Ashleigh Kast, a NASM performance enhancement specialist.
A review published in Sports Medicine, for example, found elite rugby and football players could go three weeks without training before their strength levels started to decline. Similarly, research on non-athletes found they were also able to take three weeks off from training without seeing any declines in strength or muscle mass.
THE GOOD NEWS …
Even if you have to take as much as three months off from training, rest assured it won’t take you too long to regain your strength — especially if you were training consistently before your hiatus.
Exactly how long it takes to regain your strength is hard to say, because it takes more than muscular strength to pull off an exercise. For example, if you could deadlift 300 pounds for 6–7 reps, and then you took three months off from training, you may still be able to lift 300 pounds when you return to training — just not for 6–7 reps.
Similarly, if you could do 15 pullups before your three-month break, you could probably knock out several pullups when you hop up to the bar again, but you may need to work back up to 15.
THE QUESTION OF ENDURANCE
The reason actually has a bit less to do with a loss of strength as it does a loss of endurance. “Doing pullups involves much more than your muscles, it also involves cardiovascular capacity, especially if you get into the higher reps,” says Dr. Laith Jazrawi, professor of orthopedic surgery and chief of the sports medicine division at NYU Langone Orthopedic Center.
As you do more reps of an exercise, your body builds up waste products like lactic acid in the muscle. With more training, your body becomes more efficient at clearing out the waste products so you can complete your reps without fizzling out, but if you don’t exercise for a while, it takes a little time to build up that endurance again, Jazrawi says.
See, cardiovascular fitness is one of the first things to go when you stop exercising, with noticeable declines happening within four weeks. For example, a recent study reveals four weeks of detraining led recreational marathon runners to lose roughly 3.6% of blood volume, which other research suggests may be the primary cause for early losses in cardiovascular capacity. Just keep in mind that how quickly you lose and regain cardiovascular fitness may depend on how long you’ve been training.
THE QUESTION OF STRENGTH
When it comes to strength, however, you’ll generally keep it for much longer, and be able to rebuild it fairly quickly. The reason: Your muscles “remember” the prior adaptations they made from strength training and can get back up to speed in less time than it took to create those adaptations in the first place.
Although it’s hard to offer a concrete timeframe, you may be able to regain the strength lost from three months of detraining in just a couple of months. One study found elderly men who paused their training for 12 weeks were able to rebuild the strength they’d lost (roughly 35%) in just eight weeks.
PLANNING A COMEBACK
If you’re restarting your strength-training routine after a hiatus, start with lighter weights or fewer reps (if doing bodyweight exercises) than you’re used to. Increase the weight gradually to give your tendons time to regain their elasticity.
See, you don’t simply lose strength in your muscles when you take an extended break from lifting; you also lose elasticity in your tendons (these attach muscle to bone), Kast says. When your tendons are elastic, they’re better able to produce and absorb force during high-impact movements, such as sprints, plyometrics and heavy weight training.
According to Jazrawi, some patients go right back to lifting heavy weights while their tendons are still stiff: “That’s where they run the risk of tearing or breaking,” he says. So, whatever you do, don’t try to pick up where you left off.