As lifters, missing training sessions can play havoc in our minds. Training is part of what we do, part of what makes our day complete. So when we are out of town with no access to training facilities, or the gym closes and we can’t get our session in, it can seem like a big problem.
However, it is irrational to think that a few days of rest will be harmful to your performance – quite the contrary. A few days off may be just the thing your body needs, especially if you have been training consistently for months on end. Research has shown that when we follow a period of regular training with a few days off, it can actually be of benefit to our strength 1.
In this article, we will explore some of the research, but for those who want the quick version, check out the brief summary below.
- Taking a couple of days to a week away from regular training is likely to have no negative impact on your maximal strength. In fact, you could get stronger.
- If you are going to be away from regular training for an extended duration, it could be useful to train at least once a week to maintain your previous levels of strength.
- When not training regularly, make the most of this time: sleep more and take more time to relax. Stressing about missing training is both unfounded and unproductive, so use the time to recharge both your body and mind.
What is Rest?
When I mention the word rest here I am referring to complete training cessation – when we stop training completely.
‘No training’ does not mean ‘no physical activity’. So, bear in mind that we are not talking about the absence of all physical activity – simply the absence of your regular planned weightlifting training sessions. Things such as walking the dog, doing a few stretches – habitual physical activity tasks – could continue to occur.
There is evidence indicating short durations of rest, up to a week, from regular strength training can be beneficial for enhancing maximal strength. Several studies have investigated this and findings have been consistent, showing maximal strength can be gained, or will at least be maintained 1,2,3.
When fifty-four young males followed eight weeks of seated heel raise training followed by complete rest of varying durations, the groups who rested three or four days from training showed improvements of small effect size in heel raise 1RM, while the groups who took two or five days off training only showed trivial effect size changes. The group who took four days off training also showed statistically significant improvements in heel raise 1RM in comparison to the groups who had two or five days off training. Furthermore, four days off training also showed small effect size improvements in torque produced during slow isokinetic (constant velocity) heel raise movements and moderate effect size improvements for fast isokinetic heel raise movements 2. This is an interesting result, showing the potential benefit of short durations of rest, although it is potentially limited in application due to the single joint nature of the movement utilised in the study.
In a follow-up study by the same group, Weiss et al 3 had twenty-five strength-trained (with a minimum of 1.25 times bodyweight bench press) men train the bench press, and other supplementary upper body lifts, for four weeks prior to complete rest of the same set of durations as their initial study above. For the relative 1RM bench press, a small effect size improvement was observed in the group who took two days off training, all other groups showed only trivial effect size changes. For both relative isokinetic peak force and relative isokinetic peak power at a slow velocity, small effect size improvements were seen for both the two and four-days-off groups, with only trivial changes observed for other groups. No changes of note were observed for the isokinetic bench press at the faster speed. Again, we see that taking a short period of time off training does not have any negative impact on maximal strength, even in a compound movement like the bench press.
Finally, in one of the studies that formed part of my doctoral thesis, we used a crossover design to investigate whether 3.5 or 5.5 days of training cessation was able to improve performance following four weeks of powerlifting style training 1. Participants were strength trained males (averaging a deadlift of 1.9 times bodyweight). Both durations of training cessation showed small effect size improvements from pre-training to post-training cessation for countermovement jump height, isometric mid-thigh pull relative peak force and isometric bench press relative peak force. Pooled data showed statistically significant improvements from pre-training to post-training cessation, with small effect sizes, for both countermovement jump height and isometric bench press relative peak force. No duration was found to be more effective. It is important to note that no dynamic strength measures (i.e. regular squats, bench press or deadlift) were taken as a performance measure in our study, only isometric strength tests were performed during testing sessions.
What each of these short rest duration studies also shows us is that for all performance measures, there were no notable decreases. This should put your mind at ease whenever you are forced (or choose) to take a handful of days off training. In fact, we have seen a predominant trend towards enhanced performance in maximal strength tasks when short durations of rest are taken from regular training.
You will have noticed that none of the studies above directly investigated weightlifting exercises. This is a limitation of the literature. However, I think it is unlikely we would see a different outcome given that the measures investigating speed and power also tended to follow similar results to the maximal strength measures.
I want to emphasise that the above results were for only short durations (less than a week) away from regular training. In order to paint the full picture, we should discuss the thing that we fear when taking time away from the gym: detraining. In reality, this is a small risk for most lifters, as we will generally ensure that we get some training in even when away from our regular training facility. However, let’s take a look at what the studies in this area show.
Firstly, how much time away from training causes us to lose gains?
Moderate durations away from resistance training tend to have mixed results, with a tendency for reduced performance in maximal strength tasks. When resistance trained men (resistance trained for >1.5 years) took as little as ten days away from training it was enough to cause statistically significant reductions to the strength of elbow flexors in low-velocity isokinetic contractions (-8.1%), and cause small, but not statistically significant, changes in maximal isometric contractions (-1.9%) 4. For strength-trained athletes (powerlifters and American football players), 14 days caused small, but not significant, decreases in 1RM bench press (-1.7%) and squat (-0.9%) 5. Twenty-eight days off training resulted in statistically significant reductions in both 1RM squat (-6%) and bench press (-9%) in national level team-sport athletes (basque ball) 6. While 28 days off training caused small, but not statistically significant changes, to 1RM squat (-3.9%), bench press (-4.3%) and leg press (-5.7%). While not all results above were statistically significant changes, I think you wouldn’t want to risk taking greater than a week completely off training if you hope to maintain your previous levels of strength.
It should come as no surprise that long durations away from resistance training result in marked decreases in maximal strength. For example, when untrained individuals have followed three months of strength training with three months of no training, knee extensor strength measures that had improved (by 16.7%) returned to pre-training values 7. Furthermore, in resistance trained individuals, Häkkinen et al 8 had participants perform strength training for sixteen weeks prior to eight weeks of detraining. The 1RM squat showed statistically significant improvements (25.2%) following training, followed by statistically significant decreases (-10.4%) after detraining. The vertical jump had statistically significant improvements (9.7%) following training, followed by small, not statistically significant, decreases (-2.8%) after detraining. Unsurprisingly, more than four weeks off training results in decreases in performance, and thus, should be avoided when possible.
A final note on extended time periods off training is that if we are unable to access the gym regularly because of circumstances outside of our control, then we can take steps to minimise the impact on performance by incorporating a reduced training frequency.
In a recent study, Tavares et al 9 had 33 previously untrained participants perform eight weeks of strength training three days per week before being split into three groups: training once or training twice a week (with similar volume), or no training at all – for another period of eight weeks. After the initial training period, all groups had statistically significant increases, of similar amounts, in the strength of their 1RM half squats (by 26.7–28.4%). Following reduced training, no statistically significant changes were observed for either group that continued to train (both were actually slightly stronger), but the group that ceased training altogether showed a statistically significant reduction in 1RM half squat (-17.1%). This result shows that when facing periods of time when it may be difficult to train regularly, ensuring at least a session or two is performed per week could be useful to attenuate potential losses in maximal strength.
We have observed in the literature that up to one week without training shouldn’t be feared. In such a short period of time, losses in strength (and power) are unlikely and we may actually experience improvements. Thus, rather than be anxious about short periods of time away from the gym, athletes should look to maximise recovery when possible, sleep more and take more time to relax.
If longer periods of time away from training are encountered, there is an increased likelihood that reductions in maximal strength will occur. If athletes are faced with an inability to train regularly for extended periods of time, they should try to ensure they train at least once per week in order to reduce any negative effects.
- Pritchard, H., Barnes, M., Stewart, R., Keogh, J., & McGuigan, M. (2018). Short term training cessation as a method of tapering to improve maximal strength. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32(2), 458-465.
- Weiss, L., Coney, H., & Clark, F. (2003). Optimal post-training abstinence for maximal strength expression. Research in Sports Medicine, 11(3), 145-155.
- Weiss, L., Wood, L., Fry, A., Kreider, R., Relyea, G., Bullen, D., & Grindstaff, P. (2004). Strength/power augmentation subsequent to short-term training abstinence. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 18(4), 765-770.
- Gibala, M., MacDougall, J., & Sale, D. (1994). The effects of tapering on strength performance in trained athletes. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 15(8), 492-497.
- Hortobagyi, T., Houmard, J, Stevenson, J., Fraser, D., Johns, R., & Israel, R. (1993). The effects of detraining on power athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 25(8), 929-935.
- Izquierdo, M., Ibanez, J., Gonzalez-Badillo, J., Ratamess, N., Kraemer, W., Häkkinen, K., Bonnabau, H., Granados, C., French, D., & Gorostiaga, E. (2007). Detraining and tapering effects on hormonal responses and strength performance. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 21(3), 768-775.
- Andersen, J., & Aagaard, P. (2000). Myosin heavy chain IIX overshoot in human skeletal muscle. Muscle & Nerve, 23(7), 1095-1104.
- Häkkinen, K., Komi, P., & Tesch, P. (1981). Effect of combined concentric and eccentric strength training and detraining on force-time, muscle fiber and metabolic characteristics of leg extensor muscles. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 3, 50-58.
- Tavares, L., de Souza, E., Ugrinowitsch, C., Laurentino, G., Roschel, H., Aihara, A., Cardoso, F., & Tricoli, V. (2017). Effects of different strength training frequencies during reduced training period on strength and muscle cross-sectional area. European Journal of Sport Science, 17(6), 665-672.
2 thoughts on “Don’t Fear Rest”
Has any research been done on how quickly strength returns after a break? Anecdotally, it seems that it doesn’t take long to recover strength even from a break of a few weeks but it would be interesting to know whether this is supported by science
I actually recently had a colleague share some research around this with me. The answer is yes, strength should return faster after a period of time away.
I’ve provided a link to the article below, but the relevant take home from the article stated: “In fact, the retention of “surplus” nuclei during atrophy confers a distinct advantage for the individual since skeletal muscles frequently undergo cycles of atrophy and hypertrophy in response to environmental conditions such as food availability. The ability to recover quickly by utilizing pre-existing myonuclei may serve an important role in adaptation (Jackson et al., 2012) and help explain the phenomenon of “muscle memory” (Staron et al., 1991; Gundersen, 2016).”