Did you skip your gym session last week? Or the week before that? It’s quite alright if you did. Why? Because taking a rest day is actually highly recommended and crucial for the recovery of your muscles and building them.

It’s important to know that missing a workout here and there isn’t going to derail you from your fitness goals, unless you let it. Tone It Up trainers, Karena Dawn and Katrina Scott have seen this happen from time to time. They usually ask the trainee to dive back as quickly as possible but then again, it depends from individual to individual and what workout schedules they follow. “If you miss a workout, you can’t beat yourself up. Just get back out there and get your workout in the next day.” says Katrina.

But is it really that simple? What happens to the muscle that you gained and the consequent result on it when you skip multiple sessions? Liz Letchford, MS, ATC, PhD candidate, and personal trainer at DIAKADI gives us the scoop on the physiology and even has a timeline breakdown attributed to this. She calls this period of missed workouts as “detraining.”

It turns out that weight trainers are at a greater risk of losing strength over time. “With isometric training not including high-intensity exercise (classic weightlifting), strength loss can occur at a rate of 0.3-percent to 0.8-percent per week,” says Letchford. But those who have more of a cardio schedule typically retain their strength even when they take time off. It should also be noted that, the more advanced you are, the more you have to lose. “Those who are highly trained show a greater magnitude of strength loss when compared to untrained or moderately trained individuals.”

The muscle that you gained undergoes a process called “detraining” when you skip multiple gym sessions

One also sees a decrease in performance because the connection between your brain and your muscles isn’t firing up, and that connection becomes weaker during the first two to three weeks of missed exercise. If this happens then, “the muscles undergo a process that causes their fibers to get progressively smaller.”

The following is Letchford’s “Detraining Timeline”:

  • 3 days: You probably won’t notice any outward effects, but your body will start making subtle changes internally. “The body recognizes that it needs to mediate the loss of muscle fibers and begins to make changes to preserve that muscle. You won’t notice much, and you won’t gain fat as long as you don’t change your diet drastically.”
  • 10 days: “The muscle physiology changes and the physiological pathways that lead to muscle atrophy begin.” In other words: you start to lose tone.
  • 2 weeks: At this point you start to lose muscle mass, your strength remains intact. If you’re used to lifting 8 to 10-pound weights at the gym, you should be able to get back in there and resume your session, as if you’d never been gone. “Power athletes who incorporate HIIT, cardio, and running, will retain their strength, while strength athletes like bodybuilders will incur losses at this time.” You will not see a major shift in weight since there are no changes in the body-fat percentage.
  • 3 weeks: Liz described a “significant reduction in anaerobic power performance during activities like sprinting or HIIT.”
  • 4 weeks: This is the point where you will notice that you are running out of breath and find it difficult to match your regular capacity. Technically speaking, this includes up to a 10-percent decrease in your max force production of muscle also a decrease in VO2max
  • 6 weeks: “Strength can still be maintained depending on the activity,” Liz said, but you’ll keep losing power, meaning that you’ll definitely feel more tired when you hit gym again.
  • 6 to 8 months: If you have gone this long without working out then weights are going to feel heavier, and moves that were once easy for you will seem extra challenging- but the good news is there’s still plenty of chance for you to bounce back quickly.
  • 2 years: “Even after two or more years of detraining, muscle has the ability to retain up to 15-percent higher force than before the training program started,” she said. What this translates into is that even if you take two years off from exercising, you won’t ever go back to square one where you started. Your muscle memory is your savior here. “And if after a period of detraining, one wants to start it back up again, those who have experience with training will build strength quickly. This is because muscle memory stays long after muscles have atrophied.”

Keeping all this in mind, we again stress on the importance of taking a rest day or two in-between sessions. Even if you go 2 years without exercising for whatever reasons, your muscle memory is your saving grace and will always have your back. Besides this, there are no shortcuts to a healthy physique- exercise regularly, train meticulously and eat smart!

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