We’ve all been there. The first session back after a break at Christmas or a holiday and everything feels so, super heavy. You wake up the next day and you feel like you’ve been hit by a bus.
It’s a common belief that taking time off the gym can lead you lose all the muscle you worked so hard for.
"Is this true?"
No! Research suggests that you can actually get away with taking a break for a good few weeks before muscle atrophy aka muscle loss starts to occur. A 2017 study by Hwang et al. found that a two-week period of no training in resistance trained males did not result in any loss of muscle mass or strength.
A big factor here is protein intake. Protein is the key macronutrient when it comes to muscle protein synthesis and muscle maintenance. Once a good protein intake is achieved, the risk of muscle loss is greatly reduced, even when low levels of activity are present.
"Then why does it feel like I’m back to square one again with my body composition?"
Not only does training feel much harder and recovery feels much poorer when you return from a break, you also feel like you don’t look like you did before. At all. Why is this?
Bloating and Water Retention
While some fat gain is probable post-Christmas or a holiday, it’s more than likely mostly due to water retention’s and bloating. Increasing water intake is a sure way to flush out any excess water and help get your digestion moving again. Fibre intake is another area which can commonly be neglected over the festive period, so increasing your intake of vegetables, fruit, oats, beans, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds will help to get your fibre intake back where it should be
Reduced Muscle Glycogen Stores
Reduced muscle glycogen stores are also thought to contribute to not feeling like you look your best after a period of no training. Muscular contractions during training increases glycogen uptake by muscles, giving them a fuller appearance. When someone is training, glycogen isn’t taken up as effectively, meaning the muscle doesn’t have as full an appearance. But this is just artificial size, not real size.
Reduced Muscle Inflammation
Another factor is reduced muscle inflammation. When someone isn’t training, muscle breakdown isn’t stimulated and therefore, no muscle inflammation occurs. Whereas when someone is training, muscle inflammation can contribute to the “pump” people see and feel. So when someone isn’t training, this pump is absent.
"Is taking time off from the gym a bad thing?"
No, in fact, taking some time off can actually be a good thing for your body and training. It gives your body a break. Exercise and training is amazing for your body but it’s also a stressor on your body. If you exercise intensely and often, you add stress to a body that may already be stressed from other life stuff like work, relationships, travel, late nights, etc. So sometimes, a break from one or more of those things is needed and it might be the gym. Christmas is a time when you’re probably going to have more late nights, less sleep and sometimes more stress due to family and financial pressures so giving yourself a break probably isn’t the worse idea. Often a break can do wonders for your recovery, meaning that when you do go back, you’re refreshed and more ready than ever.