Getting ill, picking up injuries or just needing a break are all valid reasons to occasionally take time away from your exercise routine. But sometimes these breaks last longer than we anticipate and many of us worry we’ll lose all the hard work and strength we worked so hard to build and end up starting back at square one.
How much time is ok away from exercise?
It’s safe to say taking a recovery day is considered best practice for a responsible training routine. So, while a day or two 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: In most situations, big losses in strength don’t happen for about three months, with smaller, less significant losses can start around 3–4 weeks.
Even if you have to take as much as three months or more off from training, rest assured it won’t take you too long to regain your strength — especially if you were training consistently before you stopped.
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 bench press 100 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 5 before your three-month break, you could probably knock out a couple pullups when you hop up to the bar again, but you may need to work back up to 5.
The reason actually has a bit less to do with a loss of strength as it does a loss of endurance. Doing pullups or press ups involves much more than your muscles, it also involves cardiovascular capacity, especially if you get into the higher reps such as eight or more.
As you do more reps of an exercise, your body builds up chemicals like lactic acid in the muscle. With more training, your body becomes more efficient at clearing out the lactic 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 muscle endurance again.
See, cardiovascular fitness is one of the first things to go when you stop exercising, with noticeable declines happening within two 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.
When it comes to strength, however, you’ll generally keep it for much longer, and be able to rebuild it fairly quickly compared to endurance. The reason: Your muscles “remember” the prior adaptations they made from strength exercises and can get back up to speed in less time than it took to build up and adapt than the first time.
Planning a return
If you’re restarting your strength-training routine after some time away, start with lighter weights, focus more on technique or fewer reps than you’re used to. Increase the weight gradually to give your tendons time to regain their elasticity.
Some go right back to lifting heavy weights while their tendons are still stiff: That’s where they run the risk of injury. So, whatever you do, don’t try to pick up where you left off.
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