Here's what you need to know...
• Unless you're tied to a hospital bed, you won't lose any muscle mass if you take a week off from training. You may feel smaller or flatter, but it's not because you're losing muscle mass. Rather, your muscle tone has decreased slightly due to the nervous system being less "turned on."
• After a layoff of 2-3 weeks, you might lose 5-10% of your strength, but you won't be losing much muscle mass (if at all) and the loss of strength will be mostly due to lost neural adaptations. Once you go past the 3 weeks, though, it's quite possible to lose muscle mass, but there are many things you can to do to mitigate the loss.
• Contrary to what most people believe, you don't gain "extra strength" by tapering/deloading for a peak. You're simply "revealing" the strength you gained during your hard training cycle.
• Sadly, most people only notice "overtraining" when they start to lose strength and body weight, so their normal reaction is to train more to kick-start the gains. Not only will that not solve the issue, it'll make things worse!
There are generally three situations where a serious lifter would take time off from training:
1. A planned deload to help reach peak performance or to recover from overtraining.
2. A short and planned break (e.g., a vacation or trip).
3. An unplanned layoff (sickness or injury).
The first two are generally done begrudgingly, while the third is often treated as the worst thing possible next to a death sentence. The fact is, deloading and hiatuses from training are things that are part of everybody's life. I've had to stop training due to some health problems and I work with lots of clients who have busy schedules that require time off or at least reduced training. While it's my job to help people get the most out of their training, it's also part of my job to help them retain most of their gains when they're forced out of the gym.
Here's my take on all three:
1. A Planned Deload
Deloading prior to a competition or before trying to hit a new PR
It's a common approach to include a deloading period prior to a formal competition or "gym test." The theory is that you impose a large stress on your body with 2-3 weeks of super hard training and then you include 4-10 days of reduced training or active rest. This is called a taper.
During the taper, several markers of performance will go up: Testosterone tends to peak (it's normal for testosterone to reach low levels during periods of high-stress training), the nervous system gets back to optimal function (as evidenced by a marked increase in grip strength tests 3-4 days into the taper), super-compensation of glycogen stores occur, and the body also tends to store more water inside the muscles and less subcutaneously (possibly indicative of a reduced level of cortisol).
You're left with a body that is primed to function at its best. Contrary to what most people believe, you don't gain "extra strength" by tapering/deloading for a peak. You're simply "revealing" the strength you gained during your hard training cycle. Fatigue masks fitness. When you accumulate a certain degree of systemic fatigue, you might only be able to function at 90 or even 80% of what you're capable of. The thing is that once you're past the beginner stage, you must train at a level that will cause some accumulated fatigue to stimulate further gains in strength and size, and the harder you train to make gains, the more fatigue you build up. So, during a hard cycle you might be able to gradually add some weight to the bar (making you believe that you aren't plagued by fatigue), but the results you see in the gym and in your body are inferior to the real gains you're making, because the fatigue masks your true level of fitness.
So, why not avoid accumulated fatigue altogether? If you're training hard enough to get optimal gains it will lead to a certain level of accumulated fatigue. If you aren't building up a certain level of accumulated fatigue, then you aren't imposing a stimulus strong enough to force the body to adapt.
Important: Do not stop lifting during a taper. Sure, not training at all will help you recover faster, but it would be at the expense of timing and neural activation. When I competed in Olympic lifting, I performed the most poorly when my coach had me do a taper where I wouldn't train at all 4-5 days prior to the competition. I always lacked timing and felt out of the groove and not fully focused. I don't like spending more than one day without touching a bar when trying to maximize performance, even if it's only light training to stay in the groove.
Real life example: Frank is just an average guy who wants to get big and strong. We just finished a 7-week training cycle (6 weeks of hard training plus 1 week of taper) in which the goal was to increase his bench press by 25 pounds, his squat by 35 pounds, and his deadlift by 35 pounds. The cycle was very hard, so much so that during his last week of hard training he looked tired and his gym results made some people believe that there was no way that he would reach his goals.
After a 1-week taper, we tested all three lifts and not only did he hit all his weights, he improved on them. He added 60 pounds on his squat, 35 on his bench press, and 50 on his deadlift. It was the first time he did all three lifts hard in one session, so the deadlift (which was done last) might have increased even more had we tested it by itself. At the end of the last week of training he weighed 219 pounds, and at the end of the taper week he weighed 224 pounds.
Application: During the taper we do the following:
1. Drop all assistance work, only doing the 3 main lifts.
2. Drop training frequency to 3 times during the week: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and test on Saturday.
3. Perform the 3 lifts at each session, using submaximal weights.
Monday: 70% for 3 sets of 3
Tuesday: 90% for 3 sets of 1
Thursday: 80% for 3 sets of 2
4. Increase Plazma™ intake during the taper to promote a maximum anabolic rebound, despite a lower volume of training: 2 servings pre-training, 1 serving during training, 1 serving 30 minutes post-training, and 1 serving 60 minutes post-training.
5. One serving of Mag-10® 15 minutes before every meal.
6. Increase caloric intake by about 25%. Most people make the mistake of decreasing calories when they taper. They reason that they're training less so they need less fuel. They're also afraid of gaining some fat if they eat more while training less. This is the best way to miss your peak! The goal of the taper is to get rid of any fatigue you might have that could mask your fitness. By eating less you risk slowing down your recovery.
Deloading to recover from overtraining
A certain amount of accumulated fatigue is normal when training hard toward a goal, but we don't want this to turn into an overtraining situation. When it happens you need to get out of that state as soon as possible. Sadly, most people only notice "overtraining" when they start to lose strength and body weight (they also feel smaller and softer due to an increase in cortisol), so their normal reaction is to train more to kick-start the gains. Not only will that not solve the issue, it will make things worse!
Sometimes you need to get some real rest and get the body ready to train hard again, and that's often the hardest thing to do. Depending on the amount of accumulated fatigue, you might need 1, 2, or even 3 weeks of reduced training or even full rest to get back to normal. You'll need to normalize hormone levels (testosterone to cortisol ratio mostly), reduce inflammation, and restore glycogen stores. When I face an athlete in that situation, I use a very aggressive approach because most of them don't have the luxury of taking a lot of time off.
Real life example: I work with a lot of CrossFit individuals. Last year one of them got into a severe overtraining state and it happened right as the Open started. For those who don't know, the Open is where you qualify for the Regional championships and eventually the CrossFit Games. It's a series of 5 WODs, once per week for 5 weeks. If you don't finish in the top 48 in your region, you can't qualify for Regionals.
This individual had a great season at first, winning a few big competitions and getting in some pretty bad ass lifts, but right at the key moment of the season, she failed to finish her normal workout and sometimes started crying during subsequent sessions. She started the Open dismally, not placing anywhere close to a qualifying spot. I told her to stop training altogether and only do the one competition WOD for the week. I also had her "overdose" on Plazma™ and Mag-10® and had her use caffeine-free Brain Candy®.
She started to feel much better. During the 2 weeks prior to the Regionals, she got back into training, but we used micro-sessions – 15-20 minute workouts. We also continued with the supplementation protocol. Five days prior to the Regionals, she beat her personal best on the clean (235 pounds) and ended up placing 4th.
Application: Understand that when you've reached a true state of overtraining, it might take up to 4 or even 5 weeks to get back into full form. In most cases you'll be good to go in 2 weeks. Still, this is unsettling for most people since they're afraid of slipping backwards if they drastically reduce their training. Not so! In fact they might slip backwards if they keep training!
Here are my recommendations when someone is on the brink of disaster:
1. Stop hard training for one week. This will allow you to restore an optimal hormonal milieu, get rid of the chronic inflammation, replenish neurotransmitter levels, and restore glycogen stores. Sure it might make the nervous system more sluggish, but in your case the priority is to get your body back to normal fast, not to peak.
2. "Overdose" on Plazma™ and use several Mag-10® pulses every day. Protein pulsing has an anabolic effect, and it's not simply due to having more protein available. Rapidly going from low to very high blood amino acid levels stimulates protein synthesis, so during a period of detraining, you can maximize your chances of maintaining your muscle mass by using protein pulses. In cases of severe chronic fatigue, I prescribe 5 or 6 pulses during the day, but most importantly one first thing in the morning, one right before bed (ideally with the last solid meal being about 2 hours prior), and another pulse in the middle of the night if the person wakes up to pee. The more fasted you are when you take the pulse in, the more pronounced the effect.
3. You also need to take care of the nervous system. For that reason I feel that Brain Candy® is a great tool. Use the caffeine-free version, though. Most people, while in a state of chronic fatigue, tend to use a lot of stimulants to get through the day. Not good. The over-reliance on stimulants can increase cortisol levels and slow down the recovery process.
4. Start training again after a week of rest. Use very short sessions, 20 minutes or so. Try to do one every day. The reps should be low and the weight submaximal (70-85%). Do a minimal volume of work. I like to do only one exercise per day for 5 sets of 3-5 reps. Create minimal fatigue and activate the nervous system. Get back in the groove.
5. After the week of rest and a week of low volume training, most people will be good to go and can resume regular training. Some, however, might need one more week of reduced training. If you even have to ask yourself, "Do I need one more week of reduced training?" the answer is always yes. Better to err on the side of caution.
2. A Short and Planned Break
While I've worked with a lot of pro and high level amateur athletes and bodybuilders in my career, I also work with average Joes. They often have to interrupt their training for 1, 2, or even 3 weeks because they're going on vacation or on a work assignment. Invariably, they're all afraid of losing strength and size while away from training. Here are some observations from years of in-the-trenches experience:
1. Unless you're tied to a hospital bed, you won't lose any muscle mass if you take a week off from training. What happens is that you'll feel smaller and more flat. It's not because you're losing muscle mass but because your muscle tone is decreasing slightly due to the nervous system being a bit less "turned on." You also get rid of chronic inflammation in the tendons and muscles, both of which make the muscles look swollen, larger, and tighter. If the muscles feel "looser" and less swollen, it's easy to make the mistake of believing that they're smaller... but they aren't.
2. You might lose a small amount of muscle mass if you're away from training for two weeks, but from my experience, it's not enough to make a big difference. That lost muscle (not even a pound really) is quickly regained when you get back to training. My client who went away for 3 weeks looked a little bit "deflated" when he came back, but after one full week of training he looked like he did before the trip.
3. When it comes to strength, losses can be a bit more rapid, but it's simply because you lose some neural efficiency. If you take two weeks off, you might lose a significant amount of neural efficiency so your strength might decrease a bit (5% or so, 10% for some). I wouldn't panic about that because it'll come back to its previous levels within 2 weeks of resuming training.
4. When I know a client will have to miss training for 1-3 weeks, we'll do a training blitz right before the vacation. For 1-3 weeks (normally I do the blitz for the same length of time as the vacation), I amp up the training stress significantly. This means increasing the overall training volume by at least 50%. This can either be done by increasing the number of sets per exercise or the number of training sessions per week. Intensity (amount of weight lifted) remains about the same despite the increase in volume. The goal is to create a state of accumulated fatigue so that during the vacation the body recovers from the previous stress instead of detraining and regressing.
Real life example: One of my clients had a 3-week business trip planned. For the 3 weeks prior to the trip I increased the training stress. Since he was already training 6 (sometimes 7) days a week, I increased the stress by kicking up the sets per exercise (from 4 to 6) and by increasing the number of reps slightly (from an average of 3 to an average of 5), while still keeping the intensity high. When he came back from his trip he had two "weaker" workouts but after those two sessions he was just as strong as he was before leaving. From experience, if someone takes 3 weeks off and doesn't do a blitz, he can expect a drop of about 7-10% in strength and it'll take 2 to 3 weeks to recover that strength.
Application: If you have a planned lay-off from training coming up, increase the training volume by about 50% while maintaining training intensity. This will create a state of accumulated fatigue and during the off period the body will spend more time recovering and less time detraining. I normally like a 1:1 ratio of stress week to off weeks.
3. An Unplanned Layoff
There are times when you're forced to take some time off from training. It could be from an illness, an injury, or an unexpected event that makes it impossible to get to the gym on a regular basis. What exactly will be the extent of the damage? How fast will it come back? How can I limit the damage? These are all questions that enter your mind when such a situation occurs.
How much will I lose?
This is somewhat of an individual thing. I find that the longer it took you to attain your current level, the longer your gains will stay with you. If you've been hitting the weights hard for 10 plus years, non-stop, and have built a very stable foundation of strength and size, it will stay with you a lot longer than if you built your physique over one year. While it's somewhat of an oversimplification, gains made quickly are lost quickly.
I'll give you an example. A friend of mine trained hard (former Canadian champion in Olympic lifting) for about 15-20 years non-stop. At one point he was forced to take some time off from training (a career in the military and a very large family). He stopped training for 5 years or so. When he got back into it, it only took him 2 or 3 months until his strength was back up to 90% of previous levels.
On the other end of the spectrum, one of my clients trained hard for a year and then stopped training for 8 months. He lost 40% of his strength and about 10 pounds of muscle during that 8 months, which is very fast, and it took him 7 months to reach and exceed his previous level. Similarly, I know kids who go on a cycle of steroids, gain 20 pounds in a few months, and lose everything they gained after they stop training for just a month. The gains came so fast that they hadn't stabilized.
Another factor relates to the type of training you do. The more "neural" your training is, the faster you lose strength. For example, if you're training almost exclusively with sets of 1-3 reps, you will lose strength more rapidly than someone who trains mostly with higher reps. That's because the strength gains achieved through lower reps are largely due to neural factors - which are lost quickly - while gains achieved through higher reps are more stable. How much strength and size is lost will also depend on what you do during your forced layoff. If you're somewhat physically active and keep doing the right things in the kitchen, then you'll preserve more strength and size than if you become completely sedentary and eat crap.
As a rule of thumb you won't lose any strength or size from a one-week layoff. You might feel more flat and a little less toned after 4-5 days, but that has nothing to do with muscle loss - just a decrease in muscular inflammation, a decrease in myogenic tone, and maybe a lower level of intramuscular glycogen.
After a layoff of 2-3 weeks, you might lose 5-10% of your strength, but you won't be losing much muscle mass (if at all) and the loss of strength will be mostly due to lost neural adaptations. Once you go past 3 weeks, though, it's quite possible to lose muscle mass, but the rate at which you lose it is highly variable. Most serious lifters, though, will definitely start to lose some muscle mass between the third and sixth week of detraining.
There will be a significant loss in muscle mass in most individuals after 12 weeks. Although it's not scientific, most of my hockey players lose roughly 10 pounds of muscle mass during a season. Keep in mind that we're talking about a period of approximately 7 months, but they're all generally doing some maintenance work once a week and they're keeping active by playing hockey. To me, that's roughly equivalent to a lifter not training at all for 3 months, so losses of 6-10 pounds of muscle during a 3-month layoff is what you can expect if you don't try to use the proper strategy to hold on to muscle.
The moral of the story is that if your break lasts between 1 and 3 weeks, and you remain somewhat active, you shouldn't lose much muscle, if any. You might feel more flat, smaller, and softer, but that won't be due to a decrease in muscle mass. If you're forced to stop training for 3-6 weeks you will start to lose some muscle, but how much can depend on what you do to prevent excessive losses. Past the 6 weeks mark and you're bound to lose a significant amount of gains regardless of what you do, but the good news is that it's easier to regain lost muscle than it is to build it in the first place.
How quickly will I gain it back?
Again this is highly variable. But one thing we're certain of is that it will take you less time to regain lost muscle than it took you to build it in the first place. While there's no set rule as to how fast we regain the lost muscle, I feel comfortable giving a 1 to 1 time frame: It will require about the same time to rebuild the lost muscle as the duration of the detraining period. In other words if you were away from training for 6 weeks, you should go back to your previous level of development and performance within 6 weeks of resuming hard training.
What can I do to cut my losses?
A big mistake I see people make is that when they have to stop training, they also stop doing all the other things they were doing to maximize their gains while training. They stop eating a muscle-friendly diet and often even start to eat more and more crap and less nutritious food; they start to go to bed later, getting less sleep; they become less physically active overall; and they stop using supplements.
Their logic is that all those healthful things they do outside the gym are to enhance their training, but if they're not training, then what's the point? They'll start to do things right when they get back in the gym, right? The problem is if you do that you'll lose muscle even faster. And not only that, you'll probably gain some fat in the process, making it all the more difficult to get back into good shape.
The things that help you gain more muscle and get leaner while you train are the same things that will help stave off muscle loss and fat gain when you're forced away from training, so my number one piece of advice is to keep doing all the good things you were doing to speed up your gains. In fact, if possible, try to be even more diligent with the things you can still do to improve your body - follow a more solid nutrition plan, get plenty of rest, try to do more physical work (even if it's just walking a bit more every day), and keep using some supplements that will help you keep your muscle mass.
Application: Here's a quick list of suggestions:
1. Take any opportunity to train that you can, even if it's only once a week or even once every two weeks. Heck, even 10 minutes is better than doing nothing. If you can't train due to lack of time, try to fit in one single session every now and then. Every little bit counts to preserve muscle mass. If you're injured, try to find some movements that you can do. Some people think that if they can't train as hard as they want, then it's a waste. Nothing is a waste. Sure, you might not make any gains, but every bit of preserved muscle is worth the effort.
2. Keep fat gain at bay. If you aren't training, chances are that you won't need as many calories as you normally do. Keep a stable protein intake (if you decrease it, you risk losing some muscle) and reduce carbs and/or fat to maintain your degree of leanness or even get a little bit leaner. Getting a better body is about being muscular and lean. If you can't get more muscular because you can't train, you might as well work on the other part of the equation!
3. Mag-10® is really effective during periods of detraining. The pulsing effect of taking in a MAG-10 dose is itself anabolic (increases protein synthesis). The more spikes in protein synthesis you can have in a day, the less muscle you'll lose (protein synthesis/anabolism - protein breakdown/catabolism = muscle gain/loss).
4. Stay active. Look for things to do with your body like walking, sprints, jumps, or carrying stuff at home. If you're in the mindset of trying to do as many things with your body as possible, you'll start to see many opportunities all around you without having to go out of your way to do them.
5. Stay intellectually involved in your training - read a lot of articles or books about training. Take the off time to assess yourself and design a good training plan for your return. These things will help you stay motivated. And, oftentimes during a break, you can take a step back and have a more objective view of yourself, your body, and what you need to reach your training goals.