Detraining: What the research shows us

“But how did you manage not training for 6 weeks?!”

“I can’t imagine taking off from the gym that long.”

“Won’t I lose all my progress if I can’t train for __ days/weeks, though?”

I recently had surgery at the end of January (you can get more info here… shameless plug), and some hot topics throughout my recovery process included what I did with my training, what to expect when you take weeks taken off from the gym, and how I managed it.

Surgery or no surgery, this is a common concern for most regarding how long you can go without the gym before you notice any negative changes to your physique or a loss in muscle mass. And I totally get it. We work hard in the gym to put on muscle and make positive body composition changes, so obviously the thought of losing it is bound to come up if you have limitations around training that you need to adhere to.

Limitations can span from vacations or trips out of town where you won’t have access or time for the gym, big life events, injuries, procedures, and in my case, surgeries.

I’d be lying if I said that stepping back from training was an easy task. Taking time off from most of my training for 6 to 8 weeks was tough! Especially when you’re “in” it (and forced to sit around all day contemplating what you used to do for fun), it can really feel like you’re moving backwards. However, I went into my time off knowing full well that I can bounce right back to where I was with my physique and training progress in no time.

How is that? To most people’s surprise, a couple of weeks away from the gym is actually not enough time to see real atrophy (muscle loss) take place. Now for weeks, this is a different story and I expected to lose a little bit of muscle in those first 6 weeks that I couldn’t train upper body. With that said, though, muscle memory is a real thing (learn more about muscle memory here), and whatever muscle you could lose will likely come back rather quickly. We have a lot of research on detraining and retraining, thankfully, that can give more context and even show us a different perspective in how time off can be good.

Detraining: What the Research Tells Us
Ogasawara and colleagues (2013) sought to compare a continuous resistance training (CTR) protocol (spanning 5-6 months) with a periodic resistance training (PTR) protocol that followed a 3-week detraining/6-week retraining cycle in order to determine whether both can produce similar muscular adaptations.

Both training groups performed high intensity, free weight bench press 3 times per week. As stated previously, the only difference between groups is the length of time actively spent on the training protocol after a 6-week initial training period. The continuous RT group trained continuously over a 24-week period, while the periodic RT group went through two cycles of 3-week detraining/6-week retraining periods after that first 6 weeks of training (adding up to 24 weeks as well). During the detraining period, participants in the PTR group kept up with their usual daily activities.

After 24 weeks of training (and detraining/retraining for the PTR group), the total change in muscle size and strength was similar between both training groups. An interesting observation, even, was that the rate of increase in muscle mass and strength gradually declined for the continuous training group throughout the training period. So, in other words, the rate of progress for continuous RT subjects was greatest in that first 6-week training period, and slowly declined from there.

It gets better. In contrast to the CTR group, the periodic training group experienced no significant differences regarding the rate of increase in muscle mass between the initial 6-week training period and both of their retraining periods that they cycled through.

Now you may ask – is it even ideal to take weeks off at a time? Likely not unless you are absolutely required to (again, surgery limitations, procedures, etc.), but in any case, this study serves as a great example of what we can work through if training gets interrupted for whatever reason, and how we can come back from that time off with little detriment to our overall progress.

Recovery times and limitations are going to be different for everyone between those who simply need to take a week off (work, family time, vacations) and those who need to listen to doctor or surgeon recommendations, but the idea remains that detraining/retraining cycles can likely induce hypertrophic responses similar to, or even greater than, those seen in individuals who can train continuously.

Hypertrophic responses are not the only takeaway, though. Accounting for rest, fatigue (mental as well as physical), and flexibility is just as important.

The ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) currently suggests training frequencies of about 2-3 days per week; however, due to possible variations with injuries, fatigue, and even motivational dips, actually having periods of reduced volume and/or training time can serve to help promote long term adherence, increase clients’ consistency on programs, and reduce physical and mental strain knowing that periods of lighter training weeks are plugged into their regimen. This allows for more recovery, more flexibility within the program, and ultimately sustained adherence to the plan in place.

Ogasawara, R., Yasuda, T., Ishii, N., Abe, T. Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2013. 113: 975-985.

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