You’re going to have to take some time off from training sooner or later.
That’s the good news if you’re a normal not-so-neurotic person. Bad news if you a perfectionist who’s either on your program or off it entirely.
The reality is, you’ll go on vacation — or at least you should. You’ll get sick. Friends and family might get sick. Deadlines might change at work. You’ll move or get married. And kids have things they want to do too.
In any case, the question becomes, how best to return to your regularly scheduled programming? — AKA resistance training activities?
Reduce the volume? Reduce intensity? Change the program entirely? Change it a little? Change the exercises? Don’t change the exercises?
Start over again? Start where you left off? Or jump right into where you should be had you not taken the time off?
So many questions!!!
As usual, my answer is, ‘it depends.’ But don’t worry I’m going to do my best to explain the answers to all of them in more detail.
Aerobic endurance and flexibility are lost far faster than strength or muscle, but as a heads up, I won’t be talking about them in this article.
A Quick Primer on Detraining
It typically takes ~48-72 hours* for the muscles involved in the training session to recover from a bout of ‘effective’ or progressive resistance training.
*Sometimes longer (~96 hrs) if you really crushed yourself with volume and heavy eccentric training. Sometimes shorter (~24-48 hrs) if the stimulus wasn’t significant but most often I’d say it’s ~48-72 hours.
Recovery is your ability to repeat (or ideally slightly exceed) your previous performance. i.e. you lifted 100 lbs on this exercise in this training session and next training session you can do at least 100 lbs, maybe 105 lbs at a similar level of effort, volume, and intensity.
In a typical resistance training program, your intent is to slowly improve performance. i.e. add 0.25 lbs (0.15 kg) to whatever lift you’re doing every time you train it.
Note: Performance is usually the weight lifted, but it can also be the number of reps with the same weight or the effort involved. And if you have the right tech, we can even measure power output and velocity these days with ease.
If you don’t get another progressive stimulus in a reasonable amount of time (slightly after that time period of 48-96 hours, depending on recovery) you start very slowly detraining from your previous ability.
When Do You Start to Lose Strength/Muscle?
Assuming you’ve maintained a certain level of consistency for a certain amount of time. You really only start to lose a tiny amount of strength and muscle about 10-14 days after your last ‘effective’ training session.
Most of us start losing some muscle in the trained areas about 2-3 weeks after that last effective session. And you will maintain similar amounts of strength for about 3-4 weeks after an effective session.
Worth noting that the minimal losses you see in the time frame come back rather quickly. It’s a lot easier to regain strength and muscle mass once it’s lost because “muscle memory” is actually a thing. In more sciencey terms, myonuclei/satellite cells and neural adaptations make it easy.
Let’s say you did three months of relatively consistent training. You’ll have pretty dramatically improved strength (and tendon stiffness) but probably not a ton of muscle hypertrophy.
After 3 months of detraining, you’ll have lost all of what little muscle you built, and most of your tendon stiffness but only about half of your strength.
How do I know? Well, I have a study that looked at this very thing.
This isn’t a perfect science because it depends greatly on how well trained you are before you detrain so I’m also going to lean into coaching and personal experience too.
The more trained you are the more you have to lose. Yet your ability to train will remain higher than someone less trained who takes a similar amount of time off. Like gaining, it’s not linear.
There are some cool/interesting studies in this realm too. Like this one that found that 6-week intervals of training with 3-weeks off for 24-weeks led to similar gains as 24 weeks of continuous training.
Or this one that found 4 weeks on, and 2 weeks off, didn’t alter muscle growth or development too much either. All suggesting that 2-3 weeks off after 4-6 weeks of continuous training for the average person is probably fine.
However, before I move along, it’s worth noting that elite athletes can see losses in eccentric strength and explosive power much more quickly than the 2-4 week period for general strength and muscle.
If you’re in that group it’s worth considering, but I won’t be talking too much about that in what’s to follow.
You Got Off Track For a Few Days
You can probably jump right back into the routine where you left off. If you have a more flexible routine you could even go back and make up some days.
I’ll just come out and say it: Your biggest problem will be the structure of your program and the technical requirements of your exercises.
If it’s full-body training 3x a week, you can probably jump right back into whatever you were doing with relative ease and next-to-no harm done. You don’t have to skip the missed days if you don’t want to, because the scheduling of 3x week is incredibly easy and flexible.
If it’s a more complicated split that lets you train 6x a week but each day trains something slightly different you’re going to have more trouble getting back into a rhythm more than anything else. However, if I were you I’d skip the days you missed and keep the programmed days to the programmed days.
One strike against complicated programs. Overall still, very little harm done.
This comes down to the flexibility of the routine/schedule. If it’s rigid and strict, then you probably shouldn’t try to shift days and make up for lost time. If it’s a flexible routine, then you have the flexibility to move days around.
Funny how that works!
Of Note: For more technical activities like throwing a shotput, shooting a basketball or even Olympic lifting you might lose your technical groove a bit by taking a few days off.
If you lose your technical groove on an isolation lift like a side leg-raise you have bigger problems to concern yourself with that aren’t detraining.
However, a lot of people who have been training consistently for a while will come back pretty strongly even after 3-5 days off. Even for the more technical things mentioned above.
Anecdotally I’ve seen a lot of PB’s (Personal Bests) after 3-5 days off, and some people need a taper off entirely, at least that long, to perform at their best in competition.
At most, it’ll take you one or two training sessions to get back into a rhythm.
Although there is some personal variability, I have seen the occasional higher level trainee come back after 3-5 days off and the whole training session is just flat. That said, I’ve seen that happen without 3-5 days off too.
You’re Off For About a Week
You might want to ease back into training by reducing the volume or intensity ever so slightly. I encourage you to experiment and figure out what works best for you.
– A set less than you did before you took your break
– The smallest (or second smallest) jump back from the weight (i.e. 5 or 10 lbs less than where you were before you stopped)
– Leave more reps in the tank (do 2-3 reps less than you’d expect to perform at a given weight)
– A slightly lower RPE than before you took time off (an 7 or 8 instead of a 9 for example)
In beginners and intermediates, 5-10 days off won’t be a gigantic deal breaker of any kind but it might be enough to make you a little sore upon returning.
A lot of people will still find that they can jump right back into their program where they left off, with only minor issues.
They might experience slightly more intense soreness compared to what they felt before they stopped. At least, if they make no adjustments at all.
If you don’t like being sore at all, adjust the program a little. If you’re okay with a little, you probably don’t have too much to worry about.
So long as that program is similar enough to what they were doing when they stopped training. If it’s a new program entirely, then you’ll want to treat it as such — which is entirely different, please see the recommendations below for more than a month off.
Technical performance is more likely to decrease than strength or muscle mass in this time frame. The flow, or rhythm, will be thrown off more than anything else.
More advanced and technical trainees will take more time to get back into a rhythm. It might take them as long to get back into a rhythm as they took off. i.e. if they took a week off, it might take a week to get back into a rhythm.
You Took 2-3 Weeks Off
You will definitely want to ease back into training by reducing the volume or intensity by a more considerable amount. Again you should experiment and figure out what works best for you.
– A couple of sets less than you did before you took your break
– Ramp up the weights you use more cautiously, likely staying at least the second (or third) smallest jump back from the weight (i.e. 20 lbs less than where you were before you stopped)
– Leave more reps in the tank (do ~4 reps less than you’d expect to perform at a given weight)
– A much lower RPE than before you took time off (a 5 or 6 instead of a 9 for example)
Once more than 10-14 days have passed even beginners will notice performance decrements. It’s not a complete reversal, but it’s noticable.
Weights that used to feel easy, no longer feel easy. It will likely take you at least half as long as the time you took off to get back into a training rhythm.
More advanced trainees could take as long as twice a long as the time off to get back into their rhythm.
That puts the average at about the same amount of time training as the time off to get back to where you were. i.e. if you took 2 weeks off, it could take at least 2 weeks to get back to where you were before you took the time off.
One approach might be to look at your training logs to see what you did 2-3 weeks before you took your time off. Use that a starting point, but I’d still probably reduce the volume/intensity/proximity to failure further or you’ll be sore. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Slowly working back up is always the best approach when you start hitting durations this long off from training.
In a perfect world, you have at least 4 weeks of training under your belt before you take 2 weeks off. 6 weeks of training under your belt if you take 3 weeks off.
You Took a Month Off
You should treat this as a new phase of programming, or better yet like it’s phase one of a new program. Then ease your way back up with small amounts of volume and/or plenty of reps left in the tank.
– Do only 2 sets per exercise.
– Leave plenty of reps in the tank (5-6 or more reps less than you’d expect to perform at a given weight)
– Ramp up the weights very cautiously, likely staying at least the third smallest jump back from the weight (i.e. 40+ lbs less than where you were before you stopped for big compound lifts)
– A very low RPE than before you took time off (a 4 or 5 out of 10 for example)
After > 3 weeks but < 6 weeks (~a month), all trainees will see very noticeable decreases in their ability.
It is a GIGANTIC mistake to think you can hop back into whatever you were doing prior to your break. For that matter, probably anything near what you used to do could lead to injury but at the very least will make you INCREDIBLY sore.
It will (or should) definitely take you at least a month to a month and a half (1:1 or 1:2 to the time you took off) to get back into your rhythm and hit numbers anywhere near what you were doing.
The more advanced you are, again, the longer it will probably take. Progress will still be faster than it initially was because of that muscle memory things, but expect it to take a while to get back into your rhythm.
This duration won’t take an advanced trainee back to ‘beginner status’ by any means, but maybe a more intermediate status. And intermediates may feel like they are learning everything over again even by this point.
You Took More Than 2-3 Months Off
Time to return to a beginner mindset almost entirely. Advanced trainees who take this amount of time off and think they can return to previous levels of performance are the best candidates for getting Rhabdo.
– Read How to Safely Get Started With Exercise – Part 2 Resistance Training
You cannot do what you used to do. You can no longer compare yourself to what you’ve previously done. Put what you used to do aside entirely. I’ve seen bad things happen with high-performance athletes many times in these instances.
Attempting to start where you left off will hurt you. Males in particular are very bad at this. It’s that macho attitude we tend to take on the moment we enter a gym.
You will not be able to bench 275 like you did way back in college without a warm-up. Do not do something stupid like that. You’ll hurt yourself, or so sore you may never back it back to the gym anytime soon.
You should treat today like it’s your first time ever in a gym all over again. Here’s an article I wrote on that, please read it.
You want to start with low intensity and/or low intensity. Likely in addition to a low proximity to failure. 1-2 sets per exercise, probably in a 6-12 rep range and leave a few reps in the tank. At least in your first 1-2 weeks back.
Don’t do a ton of exercises. I’d recommend something like my Twin Pairing Training System (4 compound exercises to start) and then layer more exercises in gradually. Isolation exercise will make you sorer, so be more cautious with them.
I like full-body routines here (as I do with beginners) but the absolute max I’d consider is a low volume 4x a week two-day split. You have to get the dust off.
It will likely take you 3-6 months to get anywhere near where you used to be after such a long time off. And that’s OKAY! Take it slow, enjoy the process. There should be no rush.
If there is, you should reconsider your goals.
The good news is, that 3-6 months to recover your fitness is probably substantially less than the 6-36 months it took to get those gains in the first place.
People returning to training don’t need as much practice on movements as when they were true beginners.
What To Do (Summary)
I’m not assuming injury here. I’ll probably have to write up something specific to that another time. In the meantime, if you’re injured, please work with a physical therapist and come up with a plan.
More than 6 Weeks Off
- Treat it like you’re a beginner, the longer the time off, the more you should treat it like your brand new to training.
- 1-2 sets per exercise, in a 6-12 rep range probably, for 4-6 exercises probably
- I like full-body compound-only training to start and leave a lot of reps in the tank
- Be very conservative with the weight selection, consider a working weight as ~50% of your previous maximums on any lift, maybe even less (Probably more than 6 reps in the tank in first 1-2 weeks)
- Shouldn’t be too sore after your first couple of workouts if you do this properly. If you are, wait longer between sessions until it’s under control.
- It can be a good idea to use concentric-oriented exercises to start back in, to manage soreness (i.e. a step up instead of a lunge)
3-6 Weeks Off
- You don’t have to go completely back to a beginner mindset.
- 2 sets per exercise, in a 5-15 rep range (bigger range less time off), for 8 exercises tops (probably)
- I still like compound-only lifting here, but I might do some isolation work that’s similar to what was done the last time I trained
- Leave more than a few reps in the tank (~4-5ish)
- Be conservative with your weight selection still, maybe 60-75% of your previous workloads
- If you do it well you shouldn’t be too sore
- You may want to select more concentric-oriented versions of what you were doing before for the first 1-2 weeks to manage soreness (i.e. a sled row instead of a cable row)
10-21 Days Off
- You likely won’t have lost much except the technical ability
- Do 1-2 fewer sets per exercise, in whatever rep range and with whatever exercises you were doing before
- Leave some extra reps in the tank (~2-3)
- Be slightly conservative with your weight selection still, maybe 75-90% of your previous workloads
- If you do it well you shouldn’t be too sore
- Still consider more concentric-oriented versions of what you were doing before to manage soreness in the first week (i.e. a sled press, rather than loaded bench press)
5-10 Days Off
- You might have lost a little technical rhythm.
- Do the same (maybe 1 fewer) sets per exercise, in whatever rep range and with whatever exercises you were doing before
- You can likely work at 90-95% of previous ability at least, and shouldn’t need to leave more than a rep in the tank
- Just don’t change anything too much from what you previously did
3-5 Days Off
- Who cares?
- Unless you’re an elite athlete, or can’t string any consistent days together this amount of time is likely about how long it takes to recover anyway. It’s the perfect amount of time to wait for the average trainee.
- You should be able to manage the same workload, for the same number of sets, maybe even a bit more
- Again, just don’t change anything too much from what you previously did
If you have questions please put it in the comments below. 👇