Understanding Detraining

Bodybuilding Pose Wilfried Dubbels

Detraining, also called the principle of disuse or reversibility, states that you use it or lose it. Ever more progress fades as the length of inactivity grows. While this is an obvious thing to say, it does serve as a reminder that there is a limit to the “less is more” school of thought suggested on this site.

Longer than 2 weeks away from training for any form of exercise will lead to some detraining. The longer you have trained throughout your lifetime, the slower your gains will leave you. On the other more dangerous side, some claim that detraining can occur within a few days. They use this to justify training the same exercises 3 times a week or more. This fails all but the most budding of beginners, those with some pharmaceutical aid, and those that drew some lucky cards in the genetic lottery.

Intensity is the least forgiving element of exercise. How hard you work with heavy weights and the power output you produce during cardio must increase over time. In the long run, this forces volume and frequency to decrease but only to a point. Take these steps to avoid detraining.


Energy and persistence conquer all things.

– Benjamin Franklin

  • Deload and take a week off only when needed.

If you have overtrained, taking a week off to deload can give you a period to recover and reevaluate your program. A good routine should not require layoffs though. Time off drops the intensity to zero and also harms skill retention.

  • Train as frequently as possible.

Lifting once a week likely works best in the long run (though beginners may want 2-3) but almost never longer. Rest periods of much longer than a week divert time to return to a previous level of achievement. You will get very sore, which will delay recovery and have you training less frequently than may be ideal, due to the lack of what is called the repeated bout effect. This may even start a cycle of revert and return that leads to nowhere.

Some trainees, enthused by the potential for greater gains on an abbreviated program, still fail to give every set their best effort. Perhaps they regulated their amount of exercise and sessions correctly but fail to push hard enough to stimulate change.

The allure of allowing for too much recovery to achieve extraordinary results is just as misguided as those that indulge in far too much exercise. Never forget the hard work required, and that the reduction of exercise serves only to support this hard work.

Some benefits of exercise have nothing to do with intensity though. Some sort of light exercise daily helps with stress, productivity, and sleep. A brief walk can fulfill this need.

  • Perform cardio more often, at least at first.

Intervals place less of a recovery burden on your body versus lifting. You can thrive from performing it more often, though just like lifting, you should decrease the frequency as your power output increases. For instance, you could lift once a week and then perform 3-5 minute intervals 2-3 times a week, and decrease this if gains come to a halt.

  • Avoid injuries and sickness.

Use the safest exercises and avoid overtraining. Get enough sleep and eat a well-balanced diet. Take measures to reduce stress. Ignoring these factors can lead to a setback. This detrains you rapidly and can set you back for months at a time.

Both these systems reduce intensity for periods of time. They rely upon the mere hope of improvement in the future. This detrains you and wastes valuable time building back up to a previous level of fitness.

Avoid Detraining

When in doubt, you should do too little exercise versus too much. The pendulum can swing way too far the other direction though. Performing a single lifting and cardio workout once every two weeks almost certainly has no value for anyone.

Use a high intensity during exercise. Develop a system that allows that by balancing how much work you do and how often you do it. This often requires much less exercise than most realize but still its limits.

Avoid taking much longer than a week to recover from any form of exercise to prevent detraining.

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