Taking a break from your exercise routine can aid in rest and recovery
for your muscles. If you’re worried about losing muscle and progress
from rest, Dr. James Ting, a sports medicine physician at Hoag Orthopedic
Institute, participated in this Q&A to address all of your concerns.
1. What happens to your body when you take a break from the gym for a full
week? (Assuming you aren’t sick).
Taking a full week break from the gym does not necessarily result in any
detrimental or significant loss of previous fitness gains. In fact, it
can take two months or longer of inactivity for the complete loss of these
gains to occur.
2. How do hormone levels change, and what does that mean for your fitness?
The secretion of many hormones, such as Growth Hormone (GH) and testosterone,
increases in response to exercise training. Similarly, detraining also
results in alterations in hormone levels, but it appears that the overall
magnitude of these changes is related to the duration of detraining as
well as the prior training and fitness status of the individual. Reductions
in muscle size and strength are likely impacted by these hormonal changes,
but studies appear to show that significant hormonal changes are most
likely to occur following detraining periods longer than eight weeks.
A break of just one week, therefore, is not likely to result in a significant
negative impact on your fitness.
3. How long does it take for protein degradation? Is that the same in type
1 and type 2 fibers?
Visible muscle loss should not occur with training breaks even as long
as two weeks. Measurable reductions in muscle size have been documented
in studies after detraining periods of four weeks, although the reduction
in muscle size appears to occur faster than reductions in muscle strength
and function. There is some evidence that type 2 fibers may atrophy more
quickly than type 1 fibers with detraining in strength-trained individuals.
For short-term detraining periods, however, the evidence is less clear.
4. How long does it take to see cardiovascular losses? Are the aerobic
and anaerobic effects of workout breaks similar?
Measurable cardiovascular losses can be seen within 2-3 weeks of complete
cessation of exercise. Decreases in muscle strength and power typically
occur at a much slower rate. Strength and power may still be maintained
for periods up to 4-6 weeks after training has stopped.
5. In what ways can taking a break be beneficial? How long should a “break”
from exercise be? And what qualifies it as a “break?” (Assuming
taking a break shouldn’t equate to gluing your butt to the couch 24/7).
A “break” can be beneficial from a physical, as well as a mental/emotional
standpoint. Your body and mind both need time to recover for overall health
and in order to achieve optimal performance. Failing to recognize this
and training too hard, can lead to fatigue and ironically underperformance,
the so-called Overtraining Syndrome.
There’s no hard and fast rule for how long a “break”
from exercise should be. It may be as short as a few days, but it’s
important to realize as well that it can also be up to 1-2 weeks without
any significant detriment or loss in previous fitness gains. In determining
how long of a break you might need or take, it’s important to listen
to your body and to be aware of signs of overtraining.
A “break” does not necessarily mean completely stopping all
physical activity. It may simply mean taking a break from your routine.
Cross-training by taking up some light activity that isn’t part
of your typical training regimen, such as yoga or even a long walk or
leisurely bike ride, can all constitute a “break.”
6. What exactly is muscle memory, and how does it play into our ability
to get back into a workout after a break?
Muscle memory is the observation that through prior repetition, motor-related
tasks become easier to perform, even if those tasks have not been performed
for some time. As it specifically relates to exercise and strength training,
it is the notion that muscles have, in a sense, a “memory”
of their prior strength. There is evidence to suggest that strength training
results in long-term and perhaps even permanent structural changes in
muscle, which allows athletes to rapidly regain their previous strength
and muscle mass upon resumption of training, even after a prolonged period
7. What tips would you give people on how to get back into their workout
after a week off? Can they pick up right where they left off? Will they
need to adjust the intensity or workload at all?
Most trained and conditioned athletes returning from a week off should
be able to return fairly quickly to their prior intensity and workload
without too much difficulty. Even in conditioned individuals, however,
some detraining changes, such as reduced cardio-respiratory capacity,
can still potentially occur over a relatively short period of time. I
think it’s therefore always wise to consider a stepwise and gradual
return to exercise after a period of inactivity, in order to minimize
the risk for injury or harm.