3 min read

How, When, and Why to Take a Break from Working Out

Fitness Editor
Deborah is our fitness expert and certified trainer. She writes many of our articles about fitness. She also creates free training programs for whatever your goal may be.

There are many reasons you might want to take a break from working out. Whether it’s a vacation, illness or injury, a closed gym – or if you just don’t feel like it! What happens during your time off from exercising regularly? How fast do you lose hard-earned muscle mass? What can you do to keep your body feeling good while you’re recharging? 

How to take a break from working out: what you should know

A break in a workout routine, sometimes known as detraining, does have an effect on your efforts. The difference depends on your fitness level, as well as how long a time you take off. You’ll mostly see changes in endurance, muscle mass, and strength. Fat gain isn’t necessarily linked to time off from exercising, since your body only stores fat if you eat significantly more calories than you consume. We’ll explain below why a calorie deficit can actually accelerate your muscle loss.

Endurance

Endurance is the first thing that suffers from an extended break. After a few days, your endurance performance will start to decline. (1) If your hiatus lasts longer than four weeks, it can drop down pretty significantly. Your lung capacity can weaken by as much as 20%. (2)

Strength loss

Don’t worry, your gains won’t disappear overnight. Here’s how muscular degradation happens, though. In the first 1-2 weeks of inactivity, muscle tone decreases and glycogen levels lower, meaning your muscle cells store less water. As a result, your muscles look smaller. But this isn’t muscle loss! Short breaks in training don’t lead directly to muscle loss. (3)

A white couple walks on the beach, holding hands and gazing at each other.
©Westend61

From about week 4 of a longer exercise break, however, your body slowly begins to lose muscle mass. Your training condition, your genetics and, among other things, your diet, all play a role in how much muscle mass you lose. Gradually you’ll lose strength, and your coordination and flexibility will also decrease if you’re inactive for a long time. (4) Remember, your muscles don’t get converted into fat! 

To sum it up: 1-2 weeks off only affects your endurance. You won’t notice a larger muscle loss until after about a month off.

Health advantages of taking rest days

Taking a week or two off has its healthy advantages. It allows you time for muscle recovery and can bring stress hormones like cortisol into check. It gives your body time to regenerate.

Your ligaments, joints, and tendons need twice as long as muscles to adapt to a new workout intensity. So, when you take time to let your body rest, they’re given enough time for recovery.

An extended break from your strength training or exercise routine also has a positive effect on your motivation. It lets you reset physically and mentally for when you go back to lifting weights or doing high intensity exercise.

5 tips to fight muscle loss

A wild berry whey protein shake sits next to the canister of Whey Protein mix
©foodspring

#1 Protein, protein, protein

Your muscles are largely made up of protein. Not only do they need it to grow; it also protects them from losing tone! Regardless of how much you’re moving, it’s important to cover your protein needs to keep a healthy lifestyle. Try to eat about 1.5g per kilogram of body weight every day.

Our tip: Protect yourself during your workout break! Our shakes not only taste delicious, they support your muscles with 24 grams of protein per serving.

https://www.foodspring.co.uk/whey-protein">Discover Whey Protein

#2 Keep it moving

Try to integrate more movement into your everyday life. If you’re on vacation, explore your surroundings on foot or take a few laps in the pool. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Stay active!

A group of adult friends laughs during a snowball fight.
©Sam Edwards

#3 Don’t aim for a calorie deficit!

Think that a lack of intense exercise means you should eat less to compensate? Not so fast!  Especially when you’re taking a breather, your body needs more energy to prevent too much muscle loss. Now’s not the time for a caloric deficit – make sure you’re fueling your body!

#4 Get enough sleep

Use this time to recover properly, and start with good sleep. Poor sleep can promote muscle loss, and a lack of sleep leads to an increased release of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol has a negative effect on testosterone production and promotes both muscle loss and fat gain. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep per night. 

Understand Cortisol with our deep dive

#5 Get your 5-a-day

Supply your body with important vitamins and minerals even when you’re doing less exercise. Try to eat at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables every day.

Your muscle memory: The muscle memory effect

Your muscles have a kind of memory. If, prior to taking a break, you worked out regularly, you’ll get back to your old shape faster. In a way, your muscles have “stored” their old habits and strengths. Once you’re back at it, they’ll make progress more efficiently.

Photo of a shirtless man doing an uneven plank on outdoor benches - one hand is at the same level as his feet, while the other hand supports him from the next riser up, nearer to his shoulder level. The caption MUSCLE MEMORY EFFECT is overlaid in white text.
©milos-kreckovic

Our tip: Don’t pick up the same weights you were lifting beforehand. To reduce the risk of injury after a workout pause, start with lighter weights than you’re used to, and build your way back up.

Summary

  • A training break of 1-2 weeks won’t cause a serious muscle loss.
  • The first thing you’ll notice decreasing will be your stamina.
  • Supply your muscles with sufficient protein during your time off to support their maintenance.
  • Stay active during your break from exercise.
  • Retained muscle memory helps you get in shape faster when you resume your workouts.
Article sources
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