Missing workouts or having our normal exercise schedule altered can lead different people to different conclusions. Among those who’ve already settled into a training program, there can be a certain neuroticism that comes with the idea of missing workouts – after all, we’ve worked hard to get where they are. And among those who are just starting an exercise routine, there can be a defeatist attitude about missing a workout – leading to the exercise equivalent of yo-yo dieting.
Both of these individuals are approaching the problem with the same fear – that their hard work will end up being for nothing. After all, many of us have been told that it only takes a few days or a week to start losing progress. Does the attitude that we should never miss a workout hold any water? Let’s see what the science says:
Based on the evidence we have, it’s reasonable to assume that a break from working out of up to three weeks will result in little to no muscle or strength loss. Furthermore, the science shows that even if we cut back our exercise levels significantly we can maintain strength and fitness levels for months at a time. It’s safe to say that missing a workout here and there is not a big deal – the real killer is quitting altogether.
How long does it take to lose muscle due to inactivity?
It’s been commonly repeated over the years that it takes around one week to start losing muscle due to inactivity. But is this claim true? Sort of … but not really. First, let’s take a look at where this logic comes from.
There is some science pointing to this conclusion. For example, in 2016, a study was performed on ten healthy young males who were subjected to one week of complete bed rest. It was noted that the one week period led to a significant decline in lean tissue, quadriceps muscle mass, and one repetition maximum in the 10 males. The study even notes that “Short (<10 days) periods of muscle disuse, often necessary for recovery from illness or injury, lead to various negative health consequences.”
Here’s the problem – the study describes complete inactivity. It even notes that “all hygiene and sanitary activities were performed on the bed.”
It’s likely that, even if you miss a workout or a week (or two) of workouts, you won’t be restricted to complete bed rest. What’s more likely is that you’ll continue to go about your daily life – getting in and out of your car, going up and down stairs, and generally moving around your world.
So how long does it actually take to lose muscle?
Let’s take a look at some of the science that likely more closely describes your situation:
Quitting lifting for two weeks
This 2017 study had resistance trained individuals completely stop lifting for two weeks straight, but specified that they continued to carry out their daily activities.
What they found: The study found no significant decrease in muscle mass after two weeks.
Quitting lifting for three weeks
This 2012 study compared muscle mass and strength between two groups of young men who were assigned to complete a bench pressing session at 75% of 1 RM for three sets of 10, three days per week. One group of lifters followed the program for 24 weeks straight, whereas the other group trained for six weeks and then stopped lifting for three full weeks for a total of three cycles.
What they found: They found that training continuously for 24 weeks produced similar gains in muscle size and 1-RM strength as the group that lifted for six weeks and took three weeks off for three cycles. These results would indicate that even taking three weeks off should produce no ill results.
Quitting for six weeks or more
A 2018 study had individuals lift for 11 weeks and then take six weeks of complete detraining (aka stopped workouts).
What they found: They showed significant muscle loss after 6 weeks. This is consistent with other literature on the topic, including this 2006 study in which lifters trained for 8 weeks and then detrained for 8 weeks, also showing significant muscle loss.
One thing to note, however, is that in both studies, the individuals retained more than half of the muscle they had built. Not too shabby for taking 1-2 months off!
What about stopping, and starting again?
This 2011 study compared the effects of continuous training for strength versus “interrupted” training. A continuous training group trained for strength for 15 weeks straight, whereas the interrupted training group performed strength training for six weeks, took three weeks off, and returned to normal training for six more weeks.
What they found: The researchers assert that “there were no significant decreases in muscle cross-sectional area (muscle mass) or 1-RM after the 3-week detraining.”
What about cutting volume down?
Perhaps the most fascinating study relevant to this topic is this 2011 study in which individuals performed three days per week of resistance training for 16 weeks, then they entered a 32 week detraining period in which they slashed their original volume to one ninth.
What they found: The results of the study had this to say: “Strength gained during phase 1 was largely retained throughout detraining with only a slight reduction at the final time point.”
The takeaways: so, is it OK to miss a workout day or two?
The literature cited above would suggest that yes, it is OK to miss a workout, or even a week or two. As stated above, the real killer of progress is quitting altogether. Based on the information above, we can reasonably assume that:
- Detraining for 2-3 weeks at a time will likely lead to no muscle or strength loss, as long as we start again.
- Detraining for 6-8 weeks at a time will likely lead to significant muscle loss, but over half of your progress should be retained, as long as you start exercising again.
- Doing “something” is significantly better than nothing, as noted in the study about cutting volume. In this case, it was shown that even the most minimal workouts should lead to retaining progress for a whopping 7 months.
When is it OK to take some time off from exercise?
Contrary to what the “never take a day off” types would have us believe, there are many good reasons to skip a workout:
- Going out of town or on vacation
- Having a baby
- Busy season at work
- Taking an extra rest day due to feeling beat up and wanting a break
- Being extra tired or stressed due to some unforeseen circumstance in life
- Less than ideal recovery or nutrition leading to excessive soreness
As noted in our other articles, the key to lifelong fitness probably has more to do with consistency over the long haul than anything else. And we believe that enjoyment leads to consistency.
Sometimes you can’t workout, and sometimes you just don’t want to. Relax. The real key is to keep coming back to it.
We’ve All Been There
The truth is, we’ve all been there. We’ve all been in situations where we need to cut back, quit for a week or two, or even switch to extreme minimalism for a bit. Everyone’s physical activity will ebb and flow over the years.
We’ll leave you with this thought experiment. Who is better off:
- A person who exercises three times per week for four weeks, takes a vacation, and quits for the rest of the year, or …
- A person who exercises three times per week for four out of every six weeks, all year long?
(Hint: the first person completes 12 workouts per year, and the second completes over a hundred)
Yeah, we thought the answer should be obvious as well.
So, the next time you need or just want to skip a workout or miss a week due to, you know, real life events, don’t sweat it. We’re busy people, and we have other priorities – there’s no reason to feel guilty. Just make sure to hit the gym again when the smoke clears.