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What Happens to Your Body When You Skip the Gym?


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It's not all bad news! I take a couple weeks off every year, and it doesn't hurt too much. Don't wait so long that a break becomes the start of the comeback trail though... cause the comeback trail is a bitch!

Is the rule of thumb that longer than a week starts to lose muscle?

That seems to be what the article is saying. 

Endurance vs. Strength: Which Will You Lose?

Your body will react differently depending on whether you’re skipping endurance exercise versus strength training, says exercise physiologist and trainer Marta Montenegro, M.S., C.S.C.S.

That’s because your muscles contain both type I (slow-twitch) and type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers. Type I fibers contribute to endurance performance. Type II fibers are more powerful, and their “fast-twitch” capabilities help you power through high-intensity exercise or strength training.

During your day-to-day activities (like walking, talking, sitting at a desk, etc.), your type I fibers are contributing to the bulk of your efforts. But you really have to work to get your type II fibers to switch into gear. So, when you take a break from exercise, your type I fibers are likely still being used, helping to prevent them from breaking down. But some of your type II, fast-twitch fibers may be rarely, if ever used, if you aren’t working out, she says.

Breaks Aren’t All Bad

Before we terrify you into heading to the gym right now, know that it’s actually good for you to skip workouts from time to time. In fact, if you train hard , taking a break can actually help improve your strength, muscle development and aerobic fitness, says certified strength and conditioning specialist Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D., assistant editor-in-chief of the Strength and Conditioning Journal.

Days off can also improve your mental fitness. “Your body and mind both need time to recover for overall health and in order to achieve optimal performance,” says Ting. “Failing to recognize this and training too hard can lead to fatigue and, ironically, underperformance, the so-called overtraining syndrome.”

If you’re sore more than 72 hours after a workout, you’re feeling ill, or your fitness progress is stalling, it may be time to back off. How long should your break last? “There’s no hard and fast rule for how long a ‘break’ from exercise should be,” Ting says. “It may be as short as a few days, but it’s important to realize as well that it can also be up to one to two weeks without any significant detriment or loss in previous fitness gains.”

Related: Are You Crazy for Working Out While Sick?

Just remember that taking a break from exercise doesn’t (and shouldn’t) equate to gluing your butt to the couch and Netflix-binging. “Taking up some light activity that isn’t part of your typical training regimen, such as yoga or even a long walk or leisurely bike ride, can all constitute a ‘break,’” Ting says.

How to Jump Back Into Your Workouts

Depending on how long you took off—and lazy you were—you might not want to jump back into your workouts, but rather ease into them. If you’ve taken any more than a couple weeks off, you’ll probably notice some differences. After a month or more, you’ll definitely want to get started with a less-intense version of your regular workout, Ting says.

“The most important thing is to back off a little for the first week,” Schoenfeld says. “Choose a weight where you will be able to stop several reps short of failure on your sets. The following week you should be able to train at your previous level, assuming the reason for stopping wasn’t an illness or injury.” Meanwhile, if you’re getting back into running, start at a pace at which you can run comfortably and are able to speak in short sentences. After a week, try turning up the speed.

It can be frustrating to exercise at anything less than your max effort, sure, but gradual is the way to go to prevent injury. The last thing you want is to walk into the gym after a month off, try to squat your “usual” load, and throw out your back. (Hello, another month off.)

Luckily, when it comes to getting back into your pre-break shape, you do have muscle memory working for you, Schoenfeld says. There are two aspects to muscle memory. One involves your ability to carry out movements in a coordinated fashion. Wonder why your first rep on the bench press looked so sloppy? It’s because your body was learning which muscle fibers it needed to recruit, and which ones it didn’t, to properly perform the exercise.

Then second component of muscle memory involves your cells. “Muscles have satellite cells—basically muscle stem cells—that help to drive protein synthesis. Resistance training increases satellite cells and these changes remain for years,” he explains. “So even if muscle is lost from taking time away for many years, a person can regain the lost muscle much more quickly after an extended layoff.” Score.

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