The benefits of a week without training

Posted by Dayne Hudson in Muscle Building

Estimated reading time: 5mins

The benefits of a week without training

Taking a week off training.

Let's start with good ol' fashioned anecdotal bro-science: trawl through any online fitness threads, and ask anyone at the gym, and they'll tell you about the benefits they experience from having a week off.

You'll read about anything from nagging injuries disappearing, to people feeling refreshed and recovered. Others feel like it's a great break for the mind.

But there's always a handful that swears they'll lose muscle mass, and the week off is a bad idea.

So here's the first scientific truth: you need three weeks of NO training before you lose muscle mass.

So that shuts down the "I'll lose gains, bro!" myth right away.

Good. So let's look at even more studies.

Further research compared a group that trained continuously for 24 weeks to another group that took a 3-week break after every 6 weeks.

And what did they find?

No difference in the strength or muscle growth between both training groups!

Further research measured strength differences for squats and bench presses after a 14-day break.

They tested them before and after, and there were no differences in strength afterwards.

But interestingly, the authors noted:

"Levels of plasma growth hormone (58.3%), testosterone (19.2%), and the testosterone to cortisol ratio (67.6%) increased..."

Now a boost in muscle growth hormones isn't bad at all. But that doesn't always mean more growth will come as a result. The authors state:

"Changes in the hormonal milieu during detraining may be conducive to an enhanced anabolic process, but such changes may not materialize at the tissue level in the absence of the overload training stimulus."

In English, whilst taking time off the gym might help us with favourable muscle growth hormones, it doesn't mean we're going to grow more muscle without actually training at the same time. So it might all be redundant.

Which is the perfect time to deliver another home truth about our muscle growth: a boost in testosterone within our normal limits (in other words, not taking steroids) doesn't result in additional muscle gains.

And you can bet my heart broke when I first learnt that years ago.

But shattered dreams aside, here's what we know so far together with this blog:

  • We're not going to lose size or strength during a week off
  • We might get a little boost in muscle-building hormones
  • Which won't lead to more muscle gains in a general sense

So where are the further benefits in a week off then?

A week off might be very beneficial for muscle growth
A week off might be very beneficial for muscle growth

Well, I would speculate (if I may) that given research reveals lower testosterone decreases physical work and performance, a week off, and thus a boost of testosterone, isn't a bad idea per se.

I mean, we saw play out in the 14 days squat and bench press study cited above anyway.

I'd also add that low testosterone has also been found to cause fatigue, loss of vigour, irritability or depressed mood, poor concentration, and disturbances of sleep.

And on the other hand, higher levels of testosterone have been found to be better for our mood.

So, a better mood resulting from a week of recovery away from the gym may just translate into better workouts. Or at least, the desire to HAVE better workouts?

Also, you know that feeling when you've trained so hard week in and week out, maybe not gotten quite enough rest, and turn up to the gym fatigued?

Well, that's likely because of lower testosterone levels and thus overtraining, which research has found occurs when excessive training minus adequate recovery happens.

That's the sign it's time to take a week off.

But is there a guideline here generally? Not really.

This is entirely personal preference and depends on how hard you've been training in a given period. There are no scientific principles that I'm aware of, but if I had to speculate on time frames, I'd say maybe every 12-16 weeks.

But again, if you're recovering well with adequate protein and sleep, you might wait for 20 weeks.

There's one piece of bro-science that tends to ring true: "listen to your body, bro."

Rest, don't be afraid of it!
Rest, don't be afraid of it!

The bottom line on taking a week off without training

Is that a week away from resistance training shouldn't hinder strength or muscle size according to the research we currently have. A week off results in a boost in muscle-building hormones, which won't mean more muscle growth, but perhaps a better mood for when we return to training. A better mood might translate into better workouts, and thus a new and improved mindset to training. Consider a week off every 12-16 weeks, or even longer if you're consistently getting enough sleep and adequate protein. Pay attention to your body!

References:

  1. McMaster DT, Gill N, Cronin J, McGuigan M. The development, retention and decay rates of strength and power in elite rugby union, rugby league and American football: a systematic review. Sports Med. 2013 May;43(5):367-84. doi: 10.1007/s40279-013-0031-3. PMID: 23529287.
  2. Ogasawara R, Yasuda T, Ishii N, Abe T. Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Apr;113(4):975-85. doi: 10.1007/s00421-012-2511-9. Epub 2012 Oct 6. PMID: 23053130.
  3. Mujika I, Padilla S. Detraining: loss of training-induced physiological and performance adaptations. Part I: short term insufficient training stimulus. Sports Med. 2000 Aug;30(2):79-87. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200030020-00002. PMID: 10966148.
  4. Nassar GN, Leslie SW. Physiology, Testosterone. [Updated 2022 Jan 4]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-.
  5. Johnson JM, Nachtigall LB, Stern TA. The effect of testosterone levels on mood in men: a review. Psychosomatics. 2013 Nov-Dec;54(6):509-14. doi: 10.1016/j.psym.2013.06.018. Epub 2013 Sep 7. PMID: 24016385.
  6. S. Bhasin, G.R. Cunningham, F.J. Hayes, et al. Testosterone therapy in men with androgen deficiency syndromes: an Endocrine Society clinical practice guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab, 95 (6) (2010), pp. 2536-2559
  7. S. Bhasin, S. Basaria. Diagnosis and treatment of hypogonadism in men. Best Pract Res Clin Endocrinol Metab, 25 (2) (2011), pp. 251-270
  8. Maso F, Lac G, Filaire E, Michaux O, Robert A. Salivary testosterone and cortisol in rugby players: correlation with psychological overtraining items. Br J Sports Med. 2004;38(3):260-263. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2002.000254
group of product images for proteins
group of product images for proteins