woman training with barbell

Taking time off from the gym: “What happened when I took 3 months off strength training”

Posted by for Strength

Worried about how taking time away from the gym to go on holiday could affect your health and fitness? One writer shares her experience of getting back into a gym routine after three months off.

If there’s one thing gym-goers talk about a lot it’s consistency. And while there’s no denying that keeping up a regular gym routine is a great way to see results when it comes to improving your strength and fitness, this can make it feel scary to take time off. 

I’ve had a consistent routine at the gym for around two years now, mostly comprising CrossFit-style workouts. My strength and fitness have both come on a lot since I started training in this way, and the improvements I’ve seen have always motivated me to stick to a regular routine. This is why I started getting nervous when a three-month trip I’d had booked for a very long time was approaching, and I knew I wouldn’t be exercising or lifting for most of the time that I was away.

We all know that feeling of returning from a one or two-week holiday and finding ourselves getting breathless quicker or feeling the burn more than ever, so I assumed three months off could have reversed all the progress I’d made over the last couple of years. Returning back to the gym once I got home, I was nervous to see how my performance had changed, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

So how does taking time off training really affect your progress?

Are there any benefits to taking time off training?

Taking short breaks from exercise probably won’t affect your strength and fitness levels very much, according to various pieces of research. For example, a 2018 study on recreational soccer players showed that three to six weeks of inactivity didn’t have any impact on aerobic capacity or muscle strength. And 2011 research in the European Journal Of Applied Physiology found that it would take two months of complete inactivity to lose the gains you’ve made.

“It’s definitely OK to take breaks from working out and lifting, especially if you train hard and regularly,” says personal trainer Pippa Sealey. “Your body will probably benefit from rest and recovery and this might mean that when you return you will perform better.”

Sealey explains that many people incorporate deload weeks into their programme in order to experience the benefits of taking rest, focusing on active recovery and lifting lighter loads. “This gives your muscles and joints time to recover and repair, as well as giving your central nervous system a break, as lifting can be taxing in this respect,” she explains.

You might also feel more motivated after taking a break from your routine and your attitude to strength and fitness is one of the key things that will help you excel – and enjoying your sessions will add to that motivation.

How quickly do we lose strength and fitness when we take training breaks

Of course, taking longer breaks can impact your strength and fitness negatively too. Particularly when it comes to fitness, you could see a decline in your ability after taking longer than a month off exercise. Research has shown that taking four weeks off training for endurance athletes could decrease their VO2 levels by 20%, which is the measure of how much oxygen you can effectively use during exercise.

“When we exercise, our heart becomes more efficient at pumping blood throughout the body and using oxygen, which improves our fitness. When we stop, this process becomes less efficient,” Sealey explains.

The rate at which your strength, muscle mass and fitness levels will decline when taking time off will depend on many factors, including your training age, muscle mass and your age. But while it’s normal for your muscle mass to decline slightly if you stop lifting, the good news is it probably won’t be as difficult to re-build it as it was the first time around. “It doesn’t take long to regain strength after a break due to muscle memory,” Sealey says. “You can retain muscle mass through a sufficient diet but this isn’t true for fitness levels.”

How three months off training affected my strength and fitness

Although I significantly reduced the amount of training I did while I was away, going once a fortnight to a CrossFit session was a significant reduction from my usual three sessions per week. And although my time away involved a lot of sitting on the beach and drinking alcohol, there were also some active elements, including hiking, swimming and carrying a 20kg rucksack around every other day in the blistering heat. So while I wasn’t lifting heavy weights regularly, I felt like I was keeping up my fitness in different ways.

On my first day back at the gym in the UK, I was surprised to find I felt my fitness had actually improved slightly. Taking part in a sweaty cardio session, running felt far less painful, respiratory-wise, and I felt as though I was recovering quicker between rounds. This could have been down to a few reasons. Firstly, I was used to living and exercising in pretty extreme heat (at least compared to the UK). All of the exercise I did while I was away was in 30°C+ heat and research has found that working out in the heat can improve your fitness when you go back to training in normal temperatures. Plus, I have been exercising in new and unusual ways for my body over the past three months, potentially improving my overall fitness and resilience.

My first strength session back was another story, however. Starting with deadlifts, I found that my max weight for 8 reps had decreased by about 15kg and I was frustrated to find a few days later that my usual warm-up weight for a set of front squats was about as high as I could go that day.

“If you return from a break, you will probably feel weaker than before when it comes to strength training,” says Sealey. “But this can also be a mental thing,” she adds. It’s normal to feel nervous getting under a barbell when you have not done it in a while, but because it’s not something totally alien to you, your confidence should return pretty quickly. 

How to build your strength and fitness back after time off training

So where do I go from here? Sealey’s advice is not to overdo it: “This may lead to injury, which will mean you have to take an even longer break,” she says. “Start with a lighter intensity than you previously trained at and start slowly building from there.”

“Make sure you begin by perfecting your form and technique and start adding weight and intensity after that,” Sealey says.

I feel excited to start training again, and it’s exciting and reassuring to try to gradually hit my previous goals and personal bests, knowing I have it in me somewhere to do it. Plus, it’s nice to know I can enjoy other parts of life and take time off exercise without losing all of my progress.

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Images: Getty

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