Why You Lose Some Strength After a Break From the Gym
Do you lose muscle when you go on a two week break from the gym (or longer)?
It can feel like that has happened, especially when you’re not able to lift the same as you did on your last visit.
However, there are other things at play here, and the short answer is no, you do not lose muscle over that kind of time frame (anything less than 3-4 weeks).
Perhaps you’re going away. Perhaps you’re starting a new job, moving house, or you’re about to become a dad.
Whatever the disruption to your usual routine is, don’t worry about the impact on your muscle. You will not lose any muscle in two or three weeks. You may lose a small amount of strength, but that is not the same thing, and it quickly comes back (within 2-3 sessions).
Taking Breaks Up to A Few Weeks Will Not Result in Muscle Loss
A study in 2013 actually found that people who trained intermittently (6 weeks on, 3 weeks off) actually gained the same amount of muscle over a 24 week period as another group who trained continuously for 24 weeks.
After about 3 weeks of no training is when muscle loss begins to happen, but it’s not happening very fast at this point.
It may feel like you’re losing muscle well before this point, even after a week or even just a few days without working out. That is partly psychological and partly due to losing the temporary “pump” that you get from your muscles retaining fluid shortly after a workout. You can also see some reduced muscle size due to a loss of glycogen (carbohydrates bonded with water and stored in the muscles as fuel).
All of this will return upon a return to working out.
I take breaks away from the gym quite often – usually a few times per year.
Sometimes I take a full week off, just because I need a break (either mentally, or physically), other times it’s because I’m travelling and there’s no gym access. In this situation I’ll usually do what I can with bodyweight exercises, but I’m usually not able to achieve the same intensity as I would with barbells and dumbells.
Experience from one of my recent breaks from the gym.
First I decided to take a deload week, as I’d been progressively overloading and making good gains for a couple of months, and I was starting to feel a little beat up.
Deloads help you to fully recover and incorporating them will mean you actually will make MORE progress in the long term. This is despite however unproductive they may feel. Going into the gym and lifting less weight – or skipping it entirely, just doesn’t seem worthwhile!
Unfortunately life proceeded to extend my deload week by throwing a few difficult situations my way. This meant I wasn’t able to get to the gym for a second week.
In total, I had a bit more than 2 weeks off from proper lifting.
I managed to:
- Get in some pullups
- Work on some assisted one arm chinups (i have a bar at home)
- Work on some one hand pushups
Aside from that, I didn’t do much training at all.
For some workouts, by the time I got back to doing them in the gym it had been nearly 3 weeks since the last time.
This was the case with squats. There were 20 days between my last squat workout, and my return to the gym this week when I did squats again.
I did notice a small decrease in strength. I was able to get 1 less rep than what I got the last time I squatted with that weight 20 days previously.
Not too bad at all, right?
It can sometimes be a bit worse than this, but I want you to know, this is NOT muscle loss!
You won’t lose muscle because you take a couple of weeks off from the gym but you might lose strength
What is happening here is that you are losing the neural adaptations that allow your nervous system and muscular system to work well together.
Remember the first time you ever bench pressed in the gym?
The bar or the dumbells were probably wobbling all over the place. That’s because your nervous system wasn’t well adapted to working with your muscular system to produce that movement.
You probably gained strength really fast at the start. That’s because this adaptation happens pretty quickly. You weren’t gaining a ton of muscle in the first couple of months. Your nervous system was just adapting.
You get better at recruiting the motor units required to produce force. A motor unit is just a nerve cell and the surrounding muscle fibres it innervates – or controls.
Detraining happens fast
So just as these adaptations form really quickly, you also LOSE them really quickly when you stop training. This doesn’t mean you’ve lost muscle! And just like when you started, you learn how to do it again pretty quickly!
So don’t worry too much about taking some time off from the gym.
Just be aware that you might lose some strength, but you will gain it back quickly. If you only took a couple of weeks off, you definitely haven’t lost muscle.
In a few weeks, all this will be a distant memory. The rest will have done you good. When you come back, you’ll soon be even stronger than you were before!
How to prevent muscle loss during a layoff longer than 3 weeks
- Don’t eat in a calorie deficit. Ideally you should be at maintenance so you’re not gaining fat, but definitely not a deficit.
- Keep protein intake high. This should be the same as what you would usually eat. Around 1g per pound of bodyweight for relatively lean and leaner individuals.
- Stay as active as you can.
- Try to do bodyweight exercises or whatever you can with whatever equipment might be available.
- If you can raise the intensity in any way, e.g. one arm pushups instead of ordinary pushups that is preferential vs. ordinary pushups. Working with more difficult exercises that you can’t do for as many reps means you’re working at a higher intensity. This signals to your body that you need the muscle. It’s the same principle as continuing to lift heavy while you’re trying to lose fat. You should not lift lighter weights during fat loss.