How Much Time Off Is Too Much?
You will notice that once you get hooked with training, everything will change. Getting your exercise in isn’t so much a drag as it becomes more of a necessity. Your nutrition choices get naturally easier and better, you enter the amazing positive feed back loop of the more you train, the healthier and happier you are. And you just keep going!
Everything is swell until you have to take some time off! When people go away on holidays, business trips or any other reasons why they can’t hit the gym for a certain period of time, they ask me “What should I do while I’m away?”. My answer is always the same: nothing!
If you’re going on a holiday, enjoy it! Rest your body and your mind. If you are on a business trip and exercise helps you keep cool, then by all means go to the hotel gym, but the truth is, a week, even two weeks outside of the gym have very minimal impact on your fitness performance.
How is that possible?
There has been studies (link to them) that shows minimal decrease in strength for up to 4 weeks in advanced athletes. Beginners can take longer. This study, albeit a little old, shows that after 2 weeks of detraining, there was a 12% reduction in eccentric force in knee extension but very limited reduction in concentric force in the bench press, squat, vertical jump and knee extension. They also noticed a reduction of 6% of type 2 muscle fiver area.
However, these studies show that the muscle atrophy you experience is primarily due to a reduction in muscle glycogen. Glycogen can bind to water, so when your glycogen stores become smaller, you have less water in your muscle, which causes them to look smaller.
All the studies (link, link, link) agree that after 4 weeks, you rate at which you lose your fitness increases a lot. The physiological adaptions your acquired during training simply go back to there starting level.
Where does that leave us?
Does that mean you can absolutely slack off during your vacay? Technically yes, although it should be noted that the above studies followed people that were living their day to day lives. Complete immobilization (Like lying on the beach for hours on end every day) can increase the rate of muscle loss.
The studies were focused mainly on muscle cross sectional area and force output and did not track changes in body composition. So even though you will not lose your strength, keep in mind that you need to change up your diet when you stop training. If you used up 500 calories training every day, you need to decrease your daily diet by that much if you want maintain a similar body composition.
Unless you are an athlete in the middle of their season, taking a 2-3 weeks break off the gym will not stall you long term results. As long as you stay reasonably active throughout the day, no more than you have to, but at least walking/hiking/exploring, you won’t lose muscle during that time.
You may look a little smaller due to lower muscle glycogen but these come back quick.
Nutrition needs to be adjusted if you wish to maintain body composition.
The most important part of not going to the gym is to recharge your mental energy. You will come back more motivated than ever and will regain any fitness loss in no time!