It’s that time of year again, summers here and spending time in the gym becomes a secondary thought behind showing off what you earned in the gym – your muscles. It might be that the beach or the park is too tempting in the sunshine, or that family commitments mean you’re going on holiday, visiting relatives or being distracted in some format or another from your usual training routine. The question is how much should you let yourself be distracted with thoughts of your training, or can you relax in the knowledge that some rest and recovery is not only not a bad thing but actually a very positive thing.....
I think most people would accept what many authors have been saying for decades; that our muscles don’t grow during training. They are stimulated to grow by training, but they actually recover and make supercompensatory responses (e.g. getting bigger or stronger) during our recovery process. But the question we really want to know is how much recovery do we need to make these responses?
Many people likely follow a training routine that includes multiple resistance training sessions per week. Whilst some evidence has suggested that strength gains are appreciably the same when training each muscle or muscle group only once or twice per week compared to a higher frequency (1), it is also logical that interindividual genetic differences likely mean that some people can accommodate and respond favourably to a higher frequency of training. Many authors have suggested the use of training journals to track your strength and size gains to find your own individually optimised training frequency and routine (1), but this still doesn’t answer as to what kind of longer break from training you can afford.
The concept of periodization has been defined as “the cycling of specificity, intensity, and volume of training to achieve peak levels of performance”(2). The process of adapting to our physiological demands was best explained to me when I was younger from a Darwinian perspective; that if our environment changes or somehow challenges us then we must make adaptations, in this case - muscular strength, size, endurance, etc.Indeed, authors have suggested that applying some form of structure to your training has the potential to enhance results (3, 4). In addition this likely ties with our specific goals or muscular size and strength and varying our phases of training based around the variables of volume, frequency, intensity and rest. However, evidence is equivocal as to which method of periodization is most beneficial (5) and more recent theories have advocated ‘autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise’; a method which considers whether a person is physically and psychologically best prepared to train (6). This is an interesting and often forgotten concept. Physical stress causes hormonal responses which are unfavourable to continued exercise and growth hence our need for recovery. However, psychological stress can often result in the same physiological responses and thus can likely also affect our training potential. Whether the body is recovering from a hard workout or a lack of sleep, from family stresses or financial concerns, these stresses can likely all affect our training. Perhaps we should periodize more suitably around our work/family life, as well as other stresses. After all it is unlikely we can accommodate those things around our training.
Recovery, Atrophy and Hypertrophy
With this in mind the guidelines to focus on physiological and mental preparedness to train seems logical. So the idea of taking a break in the form of a holiday might be particularly good advice. Both physically and mentally we are hopefully diminishing our stresses and affording our body some well-earned recovery.But what about muscular atrophy - the decrease in size of our skeletal muscle! After all that hard work you don’t want to lose it by not training.
Two recent studies by the same research group have considered the effects of continuous vs. non-continuous resistance exercise (7, 8). The 2011 study by Ogaswara, et al. (7) compared groups performing either continuous training for a 15-week period (CTR) or a group that trained for 6 weeks, performed no training for 3 weeks, and then trained for a final 6 weeks (RTR). Both groups trained using a free weight bench press, and muscle cross-sectional area of the pectorals major (PM) and triceps brachii (TB) was measured using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) before and after the 15-week intervention revealing some interesting findings. After 15 weeks there were no significant differences in the hypertrophy between the RTR and CTR groups for both TB and PM. During the 3-week no-training period for the RTR group results showed no significant atrophy in the TB and PM. Finally the rate of growth of the TB and PM significantly decreased from the first 6 weeks to the final 6 weeks in the CTR group, however, there were no such changes in the RTR group.
The 2013 study by Ogaswara, et al. (8) reported similar findings for a continuous (CTR) vs. periodized (PTR) resistance training groups over 24 weeks. The CTR group trained for 24 weeks, whilst the PTR group trained for weeks 1-6, 10-15 and 19-24, e.g. they trained for 6 weeks then had a 3-week break from training, and repeated the cycle. Results were similar to their earlier study; at the end of 24 weeks there were no significant differences in TB and PM cross sectional area. In addition the rate of growth had decreased in the CTR group from the first 6-week cycle to the last, where no such changes occurred in the PTR group.
So what does all this mean? Well continued training seems to have a cumulative effect on the body; when you begin training you will make the most significant gains in size and strength, but these will likely diminish as your training continues. Taking a 3-week break from training appears to have no negative effect on muscular size, and in fact improves your rate of growth when you return to training. So basically, you can holiday or enjoy the weather or a break from the gym more than guilt free – you can do it KNOWING that when you get back to training your body will likely make better adaptations than prior to the break.
- FisherJ, Steele J, Bruce-Low S, Smith D. Evidence-Based Resistance training recommendations. Med Sport 2011; 15(3): 147-162
- Graham J. Periodization research and an Example Application. Strength Cond J 2002; 24(6): 62-70
- Kraemer WJ, Häkkinen K, Triplett-Mcbride NT, et al. Physiological changes with periodized resistance training in women tennis players. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2003; 35(1): 157-168
- Kraemer WJ, Ratamess N, Fry AC, et al. Influence of resistance training volume and periodization on physiological and performance adaptations in collegiate women tennis players. Am J Sports Med 2000; 28(5): 626-633
- Buford TW, Rossi SJ, Smith DB, et al. A comparison of periodization models during nine weeks with equated volume and intensity for strength. J Strength Cond Res 2007; 21: 1245-1250
- Mann JB, Thyfault JP, Ivey PA, et al. The effect of autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise vs. linear periodization on strength improvement in college athletes. J Strength Cond Res 2010; 24: 1718-1723
- Ogasawara R, Yasuda T, Sakamaki M, et al. Effects of periodic and continued resistance training on muscle CSA and strength in previously untrained men. ClinPhysiolFunct Imaging 2011; 31:399-404
- Ogasawara R, Yasuda T, Ishii N, et al. Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training. Eur J ApplPhysiol 2013; 113:975-985