| June 5, 2021
By Trevor Mah
Read time: 4 min.
If you don’t use it, you lose it...but how long does it take?
What is Deconditioning? While we all like to stay on the gains-train forever on our fitness journeys, sometimes things just cause it to derail. Life gets in the way, we go on a long vacation, we get injured, or gyms simply close down for uncertain lengths of time. When this happens, it’s common to think to ourselves about how long until we really start to lose our progress.
There are many factors to consider, and there is no definitive answer because of all of our own variations. But here are some thoughts to keep in mind when facing these challenges. Remember, you are unique, just like everyone else.
For those who have a consistent training regimen and don’t miss any unnecessary days off, there is a lot more flexibility in taking time off compared to those who are less consistent. If you were already in the middle of seeing progress, then it will take longer for your hard work to go to waste and regress. If you train at a fairly high level of intensity, having a break can even be beneficial as your body recovers from all the stress and you have placed on it.
Generally though, strength and muscle related gains will start to degrade in as little as 2 weeks with absolutely no exercise. Genetics and other factors do come into play, and some people can probably stretch this even further. Your best bet is to maintain a little bit of exercise for those muscles if possible. If training options are still available, simply cutting back on volume or lowering your intensity can be an easy method to deload your body.
When it comes to cardio, regulars can see a significant dropoff after about 3 weeks of full stoppage of training. If you are a runner, your V02 max can decline quite sharply before it levels out to a lower baseline. Fortunately, cardio options are easier to maintain if you weren’t fully training your capacity at the gym. Sports and other physical activities are great supplements when your usual options aren’t available.
When it comes to injuries, there can be very limited or non-existent options available. The best way to go about it is to focus on what you can control and plan your attack when you are cleared to regain your former mindset.
Beginners and irregular exercise-goers tend to benefit from exercise quite quickly once they overcome the first hurdle of consistency. Positive changes occur at an exponential rate due to many neurological adaptations. Depending on where you are currently with your fitness, you will generally have more to lose if you have more.
For strength and muscle, irregulars tend not to see as steep of a decline compared to people who train more often. People who are at the beginning of their muscle gain journey may not have put on much to begin with, so they have less to lose. However, keep in mind that time off will still cause neurological regression such as power and muscle memory to decline regardless of how active you are. While the similar 2 week drop off is about the same range for irregulars, just try not to let everything fall off the rails at once.
What is Deconditioning? While we all like to stay on the gains-train forever on our fitness journeys, sometimes things just cause it to derail. For cardio, beginners will see the same decline in about 3 weeks similar to the regulars. Again, this depends on what you would consider beginner level for cardio training. Your VO2 max level, the amount of oxygen you can use during physical activity, will likely not be at a high enough level to see any sharp decline. Same recommendations apply here to simply just stay as active as possible when you can.
Being a regular with not with your fitness is not the only important factor. There are considerations such as diet, genetics, stress, age, etc. the list goes on. One key thing is to always be mindful of your potential bad habits that would cause you to regress in the first place. Setting yourself goals as well as a comfortable margin of safety will give you that much needed leeway with your progress and temper expectations.
Motivation can also be a huge factor. With time off and lost progress, it is understandable to find it difficult to climb that hill again. This is where you might want to reach out for others who may be in the same position as you are, or can find ways to encourage or hold each other accountable to stay off that slippery slope.
As mentioned earlier, diet and nutrition is one thing that is crucial no matter what your goals are. Eating habits are always within your own control and how much you choose to either spiral out or stay on course will make a significant difference when it comes to time off from training.
In conclusion, hopefully this has shed some light on what to expect or perhaps some things you may be experiencing. Surround yourself with supportive people and take the time for yourself to really see where you can make the most out of a tough situation.
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