It’s natural people stop and start again, or want routines that require fewer demands on life. I’ve discussed the benefits of rest and short breaks from lifting in previous columns, but not long breaks. What happens when lifters don’t or can’t lift for a while? Do their gains go away, or do some of them stay? And what happens when they start lifting again? What does extended time off do to a trained body?
Lifting programs are like conveyor belts that we stay on for all sorts of reasons. It feels good to get under the bar; it’s an escape from the real world — it’s a meditative pursuit. Beyond that, growth occurs over time, so we have to keep doing it. The strain that helps grow muscles is best felt over weeks. We can get stronger in one day, but not by a lot. After 12 weeks, though, we see a difference. And so we keep on.
Growth not only occurs over time but demands it. Programs take up hours a night, and hewing to one — getting your diet right, getting enough sleep — can feel like a job. If we’re a bit big, or strong, it’s because we’ve put in the work and we keep working out because we’ve made it this far. In practical terms, it goes on forever: learning to hold a squat in the “hole,” its deepest position, can take weeks; getting to an elite-level lift number can take several long years.
And so we tie in effort with progress: we’re afraid that if we stop exercising, our muscles will suddenly shrink, and we’ll become weak, or become our before pictures. Which is partially true, but not totally. Long breaks from lifting erode strength and size, but not right away. Muscles have memory and come back pretty quickly after detraining, and can be kept up, and even grow, with sporadic, less demanding training regimens. Even as lifters stop working out completely, the benefits they’ve worked toward remain.
What happens to strength when you detrain?
When lifters detrain, a fancy word for stopping to lift, their muscles atrophy after a couple of weeks — some studies suggest longer. Strength drops off around the three-week mark, and endurance slows down as well. Detraining shrinks muscles’ stores of water and glycogen — the energy that’s stored there and which is used for training — pretty immediately.
The science behind the aesthetic is that lifting promotes intracellular hydration and makes muscles store glycogen and water, and look bigger. When muscles stop getting trained they lose those stores and appear to shrink.
Strength gains have a different rate of diminishment than size. Generally, beginners and more advanced lifters both maintain their strength for three weeks after training is stopped. (This is why deload weeks work: they’re within that three-week wheelhouse.) After that strength then falls off. Studies on detraining suggest serious variance, but the timeline, for workaday lifters, is nearly uniform. If you don’t lift, you have a few weeks. After that, you get weak, and if you start up again, your maxes will shrink.
Strength and size can’t really be maintained while detraining but, there are ways to hang onto it, or even progress, with modified, less-frequent workout routines that focus on eccentric movements.
What are eccentric movements? Practically, they’re simple. All exercises contain three phases of movements: eccentric, or muscle lengthening, concentric, or muscle shortening, and isometric, when muscles are held at a fixed length.
During eccentric movements, muscles lengthen and stretch out. The easiest-to-visualize example is lowering yourself down during a chin-up: at the bottom, your arms are at their longest. Relating to the three movements, we can look at the squat. Lowering down into the hole is eccentric, since the quad muscles get stretched, standing back up is concentric, since they contract, and flexing at the top, or the bottom, is isometric because your muscles are static.
These eccentric routines can be done at less frequency since they feel harder than concentric and isometric lifts, can support heavier weight than these movements combined, and — when done in isolation — demand long recovery times. An eccentric, or negative movement can support up to 1.75 times the weight of a concentric, or shortening movement. Negative lifts do more damage to muscles, so they grow more. The movements have been shown to build flexibility and stronger joint movement as well.
What does eccentric exercise mean?
Practically, it’s a little bit tricky. Eccentric programs aren’t as codified, or prevalent as traditional powerlifting programs, and seem to be used more for athletic training — one day of eccentric squats a week for a serious athlete — than for goal-oriented lifting.
But they work. Chin-up programs have long recommended slow lowering programs to help get lifters to a full range of motion, and anecdotal evidence of heavy-duty eccentric routines’ benefits on athletes is rich.
“But timed and programmed correctly, it’s a loophole — an escape from the five-day-a-week powerlifting complex.”
It’s not exactly, detraining, it just takes less time. Doing sets of long, controlled squats down, or explosive box jumps, or negative chin-ups are taxing and can support serious weight. Workouts like this, compared to a regular squat day, can take up a whole week to recover. On a biological level, it’s still a workout. But timed and programmed correctly, it’s a loophole — an escape from the five-day-a-week powerlifting complex. It’s not detraining, but it’s almost time off.
Lifters can also maintain strength by changing their workouts’ focus. One recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom suggests lifters who work off a velocity profile — how fast they can lift a certain amount of weight — pick up more gains than lifters working off a traditional one-rep max. Velocity maxes are much tougher to calculate than one-rep maxes. Because of this, they don’t really factor into most workaday lifters’ programs.
But the concept is freeing. Having lifters lift their optimal daily load — the weight their velocity max determines is their max for that day — is more fluid and specific than programming off a static one-rep max, established before a program, and which might not vary at all for weeks. In the study, velocity lifters’ training loads were nearly 10 percent lower than the 1RM group during workouts, but they lifted significantly more. (This velocity max differs from the “daily max” employed by the Bulgarian system — but it’s not that far off. No one knows more about lifting than the Bulgarians, so to me, there’s some serious truth here. )
How to get your strength back
But even lifters who stop lifting completely have something to work with. Strength and size fall off during detraining. But they return more quickly than even beginner gains when lifters get under the bar again.
Considering what we know about “beginner gains,” this is significant. The explanation is cellular. Muscles that are exposed to training grow myonuclei, which are additional nuclei that oversee muscle cells, required since muscle fibers are relatively big to begin with. These myonuclei have been shown to maintain themselves after detraining. What this means practically is up for debate, and still a bit grey — many experiments have been done on mice and rats, and Greg Nuckols, a gifted powerlifting writer, notes that many human studies are longitudinal and don’t include atrophy, and therefore are limited.
But other studies have suggested a correlation between myonuclei and strength coming back, and anecdotal evidence on the subject is right in line with that too. Other studies are even more surprising. Some recent research suggests detraining helps muscles adapt better to anabolic signaling — the bodily reactions that tell our muscles when to grow — when training resumes.
It all makes for a heartening picture. Taken together, the persistence of muscle memory, the Lincoln study’s proof of velocity-based training, and the hypertrophic, brutalizing results of occasional eccentric exercises spell out a broader, less linear path to strength. It’s wider than the one we immediately recall when we think about gains: the long, workweek slog of maximizing cumulative weight moved and effort.
It’s a healthy reorientation. Should the only road to strength be a workweek-type program that demands a lifestyle commitment? While the best paths to getting seriously, insanely strong still are, there should be other ways. Powerlifting routines, to be sure, are ideal for strength building: they’re designed to build and maintain it over as short a time as possible. When they’re followed, they work. But they’re not the only path to respectable strength.
So it’s helpful to think of eccentric workouts and velocity training work as scenic routes to a less-crowded beach. Following them might not build the kind of strength that wins powerlifting contests, and lifters who detrain often probably won’t reach elite status. But the science behind both is encouraging and promotes a more holistic, less time-beholden conception of strength.
And once strength is there, it stays, at least in terms of potential. Lifting doesn’t just put on muscle, but it changes their cells. If we want to stay big, of course, we have to keep lifting. But we can lift a bit less if we lift even harder, and if can’t don’t do that either, we might be able to grow even bigger once we return. If we stop, it’s still good that we started. It’s not just use it or lose it here, it’s something else altogether.