What actually happens to your body when you stop training?

Even for the most dedicated fitness enthusiasts sometimes life gets in the way of their fitness routine. Stress at work, getting injured, family problems, simply taking a break to engage in some other important activity or God forbid, losing the motivation to train. The main question that comes across many people’s minds who do want to get back to training after taking a break is: how soon and to what level will I get out of shape if I stop training?

That’s a very good question. If you plan on taking a break from the gym, why not reduce your training instead of skipping it altogether. This way you’ll be able to maintain your fitness level. You can find out more about how to do this at the end of this article.

The de-training effect

This so-called effect can lead to a partial or sometimes complete reversal of all the progress you have made from your regular training sessions. This response is very individual and it mostly depends on what your current fitness level is, as well as your training experience. However, the majority of people will almost certainly notice a difference between taking a shorter (usually considered to be a month or less) and longer (more than a month) break.

Short break

According to studies, lots of physiological changes begin to occur even after taking a short break. Two main conclusions were drawn: endurance diminishes first and highly-trained athletes experience a bigger drop than recreational lifters.

Endurance

For people who are recreational runners, their training experience will have a big impact on how fast they can bounce back from a short break. If you were training only for a couple of months before your break, it’s very likely you won’t notice any significant changes. However, if you’ve been training for a year or more, you may notice that your times have gotten slower. For example, if you could run a 5k in 23 minutes, after a 2-week break you may need one or two minutes more.

Did you know that the most popular measurement for someone’s fitness level is the maximum oxygen uptake, also known as VO2max. This measurement shows how efficient your body is when it comes to using oxygen during training. It will be the first thing to decrease once you stop training, within the range of 5-15% decrease. Endurance athletes may notice that their “time to exhaustion” has shortened up to 30%, which has a huge impact on their performance.

Strength, muscle, and flexibility

There’s a high probability that you won’t experience any drastic decrease in strength. Generally, many lifters have discovered that they got their lifting numbers back up pretty fast after taking a short break. However, some of them may see a decrease in power after a short break, especially professional highly-trained athletes. A decrease in muscle glycogen could make your muscles look smaller, due to decreased water retention. This can also make you get tired faster when you get back to the gym. However, you needn’t worry, this effect will be reversed quickly once you’re back to hit the weights.

You may feel a decrease in flexibility in your hips, spine or trunk. This means that you may not be able to do certain exercises with the same ease and agility as you did before you took a 3-week break.

Long break (more than a month)

Studies have shown that taking a long break from a training regimen has a significant impact on the body. The two main points here are that: your endurance may reverse to the pre-training level and your muscle mass will decrease but it won’t turn into fat.

Endurance

The VO2max parameter that we mentioned above will continue decreasing, sometimes up to 20%. When you reach this stage, you are at risk of losing all of your cardio gains, since the functioning of the entire cardio-respiratory system will slowly be regressing to its pre-trained levels. For example, if you run a 5K in about 23 minutes, now you may need 26 minutes or longer.

Muscle and fat

Lean muscle loss will be a gradual and slow process. From a physiological standpoint, this is akin to the normal process of aging. In regards to muscle strength, the research is still not quite clear. It would seem that the rate at which one loses strength largely depends on how much time he or she spent training (months or years), what type of training they did, age etc.

For example, there was a study done where in a duration of 10 weeks previously untrained young men increased their leg strength by pushing 80-100 kg more on a knee extension machine. 3 months later their strength level remained almost the same. After 7 months it dropped to 90 kg.

There is a phenomenon known as “muscle memory” which helps lifters who have already built up a significant amount of muscle mass and strength regain them faster after taking a longer break. An essential part of this phenomenon is the neural adaptations which take place as you spend time learning and perfecting the movement while getting stronger.

So, although muscle mass decreases, it doesn’t turn into fat, as some mistakenly believe. Taking a longer break may however reverse the effects which exercise had on how well your body metabolizes the fat. It is difficult to say what has a greater impact on your fat metabolism: training, caloric deficit or a combination of the two. So, whether you’ll gain fat or not during your break mostly depends on your metabolism and your diet.

What can be done to keep the negative effects of a long break to a minimum?

You shouldn’t despair if you find yourself unable to return to the gym with the same strength and lift the same weights as you did before. You can try the three tips listed below in order to keep the effects from the break to a minimum:

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  • Focus on intensity. You can retain a great amount of your fitness by decreasing the workout sessions up to 50% in either duration or frequency and increasing the intensity.
  • Cross-training. If you’re injured, consult with your doctor which activity is the safest one for you. Lots of times, swimming is the go-to alternative. Swimming is good in that it works really well in maintaining fitness for recreational lifters. It’s important to find cross-training activities which match the specific demands of the sport.
  • Consume enough protein. Make sure that you eat enough protein because this will help at least in slowing down the decrease in muscle mass during times when you’re unable to go to the gym and train.

Here’s another interesting fact: When training a limb that is not injured can make the injured one stay stronger and fitter. This effect is also known as “cross-transfer” and is sometimes used in rehabilitation after surgery.


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