missing workouts - what happens?
If you train at The Perfect Workout and are like other human beings, you miss a session or two on occasion. You may be on a hot streak of attendance as you read this, but there are times of the year when life takes us away from the gym and into other places. Does summer ring a bell? How about the holidays? Even as president of The Perfect Workout, I too miss a workout here and there (in addition to my more-than-full-time job, I’m fortunate to have two young kids, a wife, and occasionally even enjoy a vacation).
How significant are these occasional lapses? If you miss a few weeks, should you just quit because the gains you made may have eroded? Thankfully, there is some evidence to shed light on this issue. Researchers from the University of Maryland found that even a hiatus for seven months does not completely eliminate the gains that younger (20-30 years) and older (65-75 years old) people received from nine weeks of strength training. In this study, the trainees (previously sedentary) performed intense strength training focused on their quadriceps (front thigh) in one leg. After nine weeks, all men and women ceased training completely. Then their strength was retested 12 and 31 weeks later.
After the initial nine-week training period, the younger and older adults gained 34% and 28% in strength, respectively. The tests at 12 weeks after no training showed that no real strength loss occurred. It was after this point when the losses started happening. Between weeks 12 and 31 of the detraining, the younger men and women lost 8% of their strength, while the older adults lost 14%. There were no differences in the strength lost between men and women of the same age groups.
There are three points that I want to point out from these results. First, many peoples’ bodies can hold the strength they initially build as beginners for up to three months after stopping training. (More advanced trainees will likely experience some losses in advanced fitness levels in less than 3 months.)
Second, even seven months after stopping training, the men and women in the study hadn’t lost everything that they gained from training! They trained for only nine weeks, and they still kept at least half of the strength they gained.
Finally, and this probably comes as no surprise to many, younger people are more adept at maintaining their gains from exercise. In the 31 weeks following the end of the strength training program, the younger group lost 24% of the strength they gained, whereas the older group lost half.
Let’s talk about what all of this means for you. It’s important for everyone to be consistent with their strength training program. Consistency is the only way to maximize gains in strength, health, and lean tissue improvement (muscle, bone, etc.). You won’t become stronger, fitter, or healthier unless you are actually working out on a consistent basis. However, all of us miss sessions from time to time. If you miss a few weeks, don’t become discouraged. Don’t quit. The study participants missed three months before their strength started eroding. You can miss a few weeks (vacation?) and may come back with little ground to make up.
Consistency is important for all of us, but especially for older adults. Fast twitch muscle fibers, which are the largest fibers and handle the greatest challenges in everyday life, atrophy quicker as we age. Older adults should pay extra attention to minimizing those necessary breaks from strength training.
The positive news is, once we gain some strength, our body appears to want to keep it. The study showed us a seven-month absence did not undue nine weeks of strength training! Imagine how long it would take to completely lose strength from months or years of training? I hope you and I never need to find out.
- Lemmer, Jeff T., et al. “Age and gender responses to strength training and detraining.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 32.8 (2000): 1505-1512.
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