After several weeks of hard & consistent training, little signals are likely to start popping up, letting you know that a well-earned break is worth your serious consideration.
This article discusses many really good reasons your long-term workout goals are better off when you listen to your body and stay off of the weights for a week or so after every intense training cycle.
Benefits of taking a week off from working out
* No loss of strength or muscle
* Avoid overtraining syndrome
* Restore Physically
- Rest fatigued muscles
- Heal strains, pulls, & small tears
- Replenish glycogen stores
- Restore neuromuscular system
- Restore hormonal balance
* Rejuvenate mentally
- Rest mental fatigue – avoid burnout
- Refill motivation & enthusiasm
Ahead I’ll show how it’s been proven many a time that taking a detraining week off is good for you now and for the long haul.
And you’ll see that there’s no reason to worry that your current level of fitness will suffer because of any strategic break you take.
Next I want to list the physical & mental signs to look out for, the clues that your body is giving you that are saying you need a break from your intense training.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
The “It’s time to take a break” signals
The longer (in years) that you train consistently with good effort, the easier it becomes to recognize the signals telling you to chill on your workouts and take a recovery week.
This applies to weightlifting, bodybuilding, HIIT, or any other equally strenuous workout program.
Any training cycle that’s gone on for several weeks where you’ve been peaking — hitting new highs in strength, muscle growth, or endurance — is an intense experience for your body & mind.
And they will need a break at some point, or they’ll break.
“Take a break.”
Okay, got it; but when?
Certainly not when everything’s clicking on all cylinders (you’re feeling great and your results continue to improve), that’s too early.
But experience will teach you that soon enough, your body will let you know it needs to recover, or you’ll push it into an unhealthy state.
A state that could definitely sideline you and deflate your workout goals.
Here are a few of the “hey you, it’s time for a recovery week” clues to be on the lookout for.
When to take a week off from weightlifting
- You’ve been consistently working out hard for 6-12 weeks
- You’ve plateaued or stalled – those new highs in strength, muscle, or endurance have stopped happening
- Your recovery from the previous workout isn’t as good
- You feel more soreness than usual, and may notice a little low-grade joint or muscle pain
- Your energy level is lower, so your training effort is less too
- You fatigue earlier in your workout than usual, and your training volume (sets/reps) has dropped
- Your motivation & enthusiasm for training is lower
- Your general mood is below its norm
One way to look at this list is this:
In this condition, you’re not getting any stronger or more fit, but are actually starting to weaken.
And your mental attitude will have gone from one of drive & enthusiasm to feeling a little stale and not real enthused about working out.
A built-in overtraining early detection system
I think these signals are a blessing, because our bodies are letting us know ahead of time that we’re headed towards the dreaded Overtraining Syndrome.
If you’re unfamiliar with all of the unpleasantness that overtraining can put you through, I go into it in the next section.
So these symptoms I listed are subtle warnings that we need to recognize, listen to, and take action on.
*Our bodies aren’t built to go all-out all the time without a break.
*After several weeks of peak training, be aware of what your body’s telling you. It’ll let you know when it’s time to take the foot off the gas and pull into a rest stop for a week.
*Obviously it’s important to recognize these pre-overtraining signs and give yourself a recovery week.
Benefits of taking a week off from working out
I want to revisit the benefits of a recovery week for weightlifters, recreational bodybuilders, & other workout warriors that I listed at the beginning of the article.
You don’t lose any strength or muscle
Some fitness aficionados worry that any extended time away from the gym will cause their hard-earned muscle & strength gains to wither away.
Luckily this isn’t at all true, as sports science has shown again & again that resting/detraining for a week or two — and in some cases up to four weeks — causes no loss of strength or muscle.
A research study compared a group who continuously trained for 24 weeks to a group that took a 3-week break after every 6 weeks.
At the end of the study, researchers found no difference in the strength or muscle growth between the two groups. (1)
Another study measured strength differences in the squat & bench press on athletes, prior to & following a 14-day detraining period.
Once again, researchers noted no significant change in the participants’ strength. (2)
What looks like muscle loss is glycogen depletion
Working out less during your recovery week may reduce your appetite, and thus your caloric intake.
If you eat less during your week off — specifically, you eat less carbs — your glycogen stores in your muscles will likely shrink a little.
This may make you think you’ve lost muscle, but in reality, it’s the amount of glycogen within your muscles that’s lower.
No worries, once you begin training again & eating accordingly, your muscles’ glycogen will fill up right away. (3)
Strength gains retained even longer than two weeks
Finally, here are a couple of other sports science studies to pass along.
One was a systematic review of several existing studies done on the effects of taking an extended break from training.
They note that while cardiovascular fitness (VO2 max) is quick to decline after detraining, that even after 4 weeks “strength performance declines are limited.” (4)
And a study of four groups of people – both old & young women & men – tested their strength before & after they completed 9 weeks of strength training.
Researchers then tested them again, but only after 31 weeks (that’s almost 8 months) of detraining had gone by.
They found that everyone except the older women was still stronger than they were 10 months earlier before they had strength trained. (5)
Helps you avoid overtraining syndrome
Taking a week off soon after a few of those aforementioned symptoms creep up on you will keep you from getting flattened by overtraining syndrome.
The American Council on Exercise simply says that the overtrained state
“can be reached by one or both of the following two ways: too much exercise without enough recovery (or) chronic under-fueling.”
Here’s what overtraining looks like:
- Decreased performance
- Increased perceived effort during workouts
- Excessive fatigue
- Agitation and moodiness
- Insomnia or restless sleep
- Loss of appetite
- Chronic or nagging injuries
- Metabolic imbalances
- Psychological stress and/or depression
List courtesy of the American Council on Exercise (ACE)
There are several benefits you give your body when you schedule a much-needed recovery week.
Fatigued muscles get to rest
Stressing our muscles gets them to grow, but they grow when they’re at rest.
And after a long hard multi-week training period, they’re going to need more than just the day or two of rest per week they’ve been getting.
Giving them a whole week away from any resistance training is a great idea.
In order to continue the kind of progress you’ve been enjoying, your muscles need that time off to recover from the stress you put them through.
A rest week gives your body time to heal
You know how it is. Throughout a tough training cycle, little aches & pains, strains & tweaks start to show up the longer you go full bore.
Before any of those aches turn into something more serious, give your body a chance to heal itself.
A rest week is like a preventative health measure, helping you avoid injury.
Rest puts the nervous system back to normal
From former competitive bodybuilder Chris Zaino:
“After a good 8-10 weeks of hard training, and hours on the cardio, your nervous system also takes a beating. Many times over-training is due to a lack of recuperation of the nervous system.” (6)
And in an interview with PopSugar.com, trainer Nicolette Amarillas says
“The biggest reason to take a rest week is to reset the nervous system after an intensification or accumulation phase of a strength program.” (7)
Restore hormonal balance
Stress hormones need reducing
Long training periods of intense physical activity can cause increased stress hormones, namely cortisol & adrenaline, creating an imbalance that can negatively affect sleep quality & mood. (8)
The only way to restore normal levels of these stress hormones is to de-stress yourself, starting with cooling it with your workouts for a week.
Growth hormones need raising
Although sports science research has proven that resistance training raises growth hormone & testosterone in the short term (9), it has also found that excessive training without proper recovery reduces testosterone levels. (10)
But a study on strength training athletes who took a detraining break of two weeks indicated a boost in testosterone levels following that period of rest & recovery. (11)
Replenish glycogen stores
Your muscles rely on glycogen for their energy, and resistance training depletes your glycogen stores during your workout. (12)
It’s during your rest days that your body refills your glycogen stores, and when they’re adequately filled they help prevent fatigue. (13)
But extended intense training periods lasting weeks can deplete your glycogen stores whereby your normal rest days don’t replenish them.
That’s when the fatigued muscle signal I mentioned earlier shows up.
Taking a week off ought to restore your glycogen levels back to normal, as long as you didn’t put yourself in the overtrained state before chilling out.
Following an intense training cycle, a rest week is a great reward for your mind too.
Recover from mental fatigue
Staying right on schedule for weeks with your workouts, your diet, pushing for the extra rep…
You’ve used a lot of mental force to accomplish all that, and your mind might be a little cooked at this point.
Treat it to a week of not having to command the ship; it’ll help you avoid mental burnout.
Refill with motivation & enthusiasm
Former competitive bodybuilder Chris Zaino says that after a week of rest away from the weightlifting
“you will feel refreshed, energized, motivated, and stronger than ever to take on the next 8-10 weeks of the great progress in store for you.” (14)
And another former competitive bodybuilder, Russell Yeager, says just about the same thing regarding your recovery week:
“I think you will be amazed at the positive impact this time off has on your level of motivation and your overall progress in the gym.” (15)
Recovery week FAQs
Here are answers to a few of the commonly asked questions regarding taking a week off from a dedicated weightlifting &/or fitness plan.
How often should I take a rest week?
There’s no one size fits all answer that works for everyone, since there are too many differences between us:
- fitness level
- training experience
- workout program
- workout effort & intensity
Broadly speaking however, taking a recovery week is likely to be a good idea after anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks of dedicated training.
Will I lose gains after a week off?
Sports science has repeatedly shown that there is no loss of strength after even two weeks of detraining.
For example, a study showed that after a 2-week rest period, all of the participants had maintained their muscular strength. (16)
Another study using a two week detraining period found no loss of strength or Type I muscle fiber size, but Type II fibers did show a slight decrease. (17)
How do bodybuilders improve recovery?
To make the most of a recovery week or two, consider these time-honored tips.
Maintain a quality diet
You can cheat some; after all it’s a vacation from your strict routine.
Relaxing from calorie counting’s always a nice thing.
And you get to skip the pre- & post-workout ‘supplement cocktails’ too of course.
But keep your diet on the nutritious side of things.
Limiting sugar, alcohol, & junk food’s empty calories is a real good idea, because your body’s still processing your last several weeks of training during its recovery week.
Avoid stressing your body or mind
It’s called recovery week for a reason.
Besides your muscles, your whole neuromuscular system wants to get back to normal, after all the stress your latest training cycle put it through.
This goes for your mental software too. Be kind to yourself and keep everything low-key.
Get lots of good sleep
This is self-explanatory and should be a priority, given that this is a week dedicated to rest & recuperation.
Research has shown that during a detraining period, flexibility declines quicker than strength & muscle size do – losing anywhere from 7-30% after 4 weeks of detraining (18).
You don’t need to do any of your usual pre-workout dynamic stretching/flexibility drills, though you could if you’re feelin’ it.
Chill out with yoga or a good static stretch every morning or so.
Ease back into it
Don’t plough into the next training cycle at 100% right off the bat.
Ease into it over the first couple of weeks back before lighting up your next workout program.
I hope that my article on the benefits of taking a week off from working out is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.