Recently our customer Dave Lovett from Queensland asked a real head scratcher of a question when filling out the Xpeed Survey.
“If you can't train, how long does it take to start losing strength”?
It’s a great question with a few layers to it, so let's start peeling the onion, that’s a layer reference for those of you playing at home! When you stop strength training, how long it takes to start losing strength depends on several factors, including your training history, genetics, age and other lifestyle factors. Understanding how all of these things interact, can provide valuable insights into the rate at which your strength levels may decline when you're not actively training.
The general consensus amongst strength professionals is that it takes about 2 - 3 weeks before you start seeing strength losses. This is backed by research, a 2013 report on rugby and football players found that the strength of the athletes in the study decreased just three weeks after they stopped training. Naturally, the more time that passed, the more strength loss the players’ experienced. Interestingly, there is a training concept called "minimal effective dose" which is the minimum amount of training required to maintain a particular fitness level. When it comes to strength training you can be successful in maintaining strength by training maximally in your lifts once a week. So a good thing to take away from this blog is to know your ‘minimum effective dose with squats, hinging, presses and pulls. If you’re ever in a training cycle that you know is going to be disrupted, you can fall back on these numbers and be satisfied that you won’t fall off the edge of a cliff with your strength gains.
But how do the interconnected factors mentioned above affect strength when you stop training? It starts with understanding your Training History. If you've been strength training for a long time the good news is that your body would have gone through several physiological changes to adapt to the training stimulus. These adaptations are below.
|Hypertrophy||With consistent training, your muscles increase in size and become more efficient at generating force. The result? More muscle mass to support your strength.|
You may have heard this adaptation lazily referred to as ‘muscle memory’. Basically over time, your nervous system becomes more efficient at recruiting muscle fibers, which improves the coordination and synchronisation of muscle contractions. As a result, your body has improved neuromuscular efficiency.
|Connective Tissue Strengthening||Your tendons and ligaments may become more robust, which provides better support for lifting heavier weights.|
|Metabolic Changes||Strength training leads to metabolic changes. This enhances the way your body utilises energy and nutrients to support muscle function.|
This means that with a good training history your body is better equipped to maintain your existing strength levels even if you temporarily stop training. In contrast, people who are relatively new to strength training haven't experienced these adaptations to the same extent. So their muscles, nervous system and connective tissues are still in the early stages of development. Therefore, when they stop training, they may experience a quicker decline in strength because their bodies haven't yet fully adapted to the demands of strength training.
Older individuals tend to lose strength more quickly than younger individuals. This is partly due to the natural ageing process and the fact that muscle mass and strength tend to decline with age.
As much as we wish to deny it, our muscle mass will decrease with age, a phenomenon known as sarcopenia. According to a review published in the Journal of Gerontology, muscle mass can decline at a rate of approximately 1-2% per year after the age of 50. This is backed up by other studies found in Harvard Health Publishing, where they found that after age 30 you begin to lose as much as 3-5% of muscle mass per decade. In fact, most men will lose around 30% of their muscle mass in their lifetime.
|Strength decline with age||
Multiple studies have shown that muscle strength also decreases as we get older. This is attributed to both a reduction in muscle mass and neurological factors. A study published in the National Library of Medicine found that grip strength, a commonly used indicator of overall strength, tends to decline with age, with a steeper decline after the age of 65 in men and women.
|Hormonal changes||Changes in hormonal profiles, such as reduced levels of testosterone and growth hormone, play a role in muscle loss and strength decline with age.|
Aging can lead to a reduction in functional capabilities, making it more challenging for older individuals to maintain muscle and strength. This can be due to a number of different factors such as reduced physical activity with ageing, loss of flexibility and mobility, loss in balance and coordination and chronic health conditions can limit an older person's ability to engage in physical activity, including strength training. Getting old sounds fun doesn’t it!?! Despite all of this, it’s important to remember that regular and well designed strength programs can help us slow down the loss of muscle and strength, improve functional capabilities and enhance overall quality of life as we age.
|Frequency & Intensity||
The frequency and intensity of your training also matters. For example, if you were consistently lifting heavy weights and training frequently on a structured program, you might start to lose strength more slowly compared to someone who was lifting lighter weights and training infrequently.
|Nutrition & Lifestyle||
A balanced diet ensures your body has the essential protein and nutrients to support muscle health, while an active lifestyle helps maintain muscle function and overall physical fitness. Conversely, poor dietary choices and a sedentary lifestyle may accelerate the decline in strength as your muscles are not adequately nourished or challenged, making it more difficult to maintain your existing strength levels. Therefore, a combination of a nutritious diet and an active lifestyle can be instrumental in preserving strength over time.
|Type of strength||
It’s true that maximal strength may persist for a more extended period due to neural adaptations, muscular endurance is reliant on physiological changes that fade more rapidly in the absence of training. However, it's worth noting that engaging in some form of resistance training, even at lower intensities, can help maintain both maximal strength and muscular endurance during periods when you can't engage in your usual training routine.
|Genetics||Some people may have a genetic predisposition to maintain muscle and strength better than others, even when they're not training. We all have one of these friends!|
As a general guideline, you may start to notice a decline in strength after a few weeks of inactivity. This is because your muscles begin to atrophy due to a lack of stimulus. However, it's important to note that the rate of strength loss can vary widely among individuals. To maintain your strength, it's advisable to engage in some form of resistance training on a regular basis, even if it's at a lower intensity or with lighter weights during periods when you can't engage in your usual training routine. This will help to slow down the rate of strength loss.
I’ll put it to you this way… Think of your strength as a plant and your strength training as the process of nurturing and cultivating that plant.
The mature plant: An experienced strength trainer has been diligently tending to their plant for a long time. This plant has deep roots, a robust stem and many branches and leaves. When they take a temporary break from caring for the plant, the matured plant can endure the period of neglect without withering away completely. Its well-established root system and strong structure help it maintain its vitality.
The young sprout: A novice strength trainer, on the other hand, has just started cultivating their plant. It's a young sprout with developing roots and fragile leaves. When they temporarily stop caring for the plant, the young sprout is more vulnerable to adverse conditions and it might start to wither and lose some of its growth.
As with most things in life, energy flows where attention goes and your strength training is no different.
Simon has a Bachelor of Human Movement, is a certified FMS trainer and has worked in the fitness industry since 2003. Simon started his fitness journey as a trainer with iNform Health and Fitness before moving into commercial radio and then back into fitness with Bodyism in the United Kingdom and Australia. A career highlight was being one of Daisy Ridley's personal trainers on Star Wars IX - The Rise Of Skywalker.