Fitness

Here’s How Many Days Of Exercise You Can Miss Before Losing Strength

It's more than you might think.

Here's how many workouts you can skip before you lose strength and momentum.
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While it can take a lot of time and effort to get into a workout groove, you will eventually start to feel stronger, faster, and more supported by your muscles when you stick to it. At that point, you’ll breeze through your jogs, slay your 12-3-30, and lift 20-pound dumbbells with ease. But let’s say you have to skip your workout for a couple of days — or even a few weeks or months. Will you lose all your progress and land back at square one?

As with all things related to exercise, how much momentum you lose from missing workouts will depend on your fitness level, for one. To build and maintain strength and endurance, it’s recommended that you work out at least three days a week, says Lalitha McSorley, PT, a physical therapist and personal trainer at Brentwood Physio. “This type of regular physical activity helps to build up muscles over time and can lead to better overall health and fitness,” she tells Bustle.

Stick with a structured weekly routine that includes cardio workouts and full-body strength training and you should notice a difference in your fitness levels in about eight to 12 weeks. “During this time, the body gradually adapts to the new physical activity and muscle fibers become stronger,” McSorley says. If you get to this point and find that you need a break, here’s how many days of exercise you can miss before you lose momentum.

How Many Days Of Exercise Can You Miss?

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You might skip a workout if you’re sick, physically or mentally tired, you're on vacation, or if you’re too busy to hit the gym, McSorley says. Other times you simply might want to take a rest day for no real reason at all, and that’s OK, too. It’s always best to take breaks and listen to your body, instead of pushing through and doing a workout when you aren’t feeling it can sometimes lead to fatigue, injury, and burnout.

Will doing so sabotage your fitness game, though? Thankfully, even if you want to skip a couple of days, experts say you won’t see any change in your strength or endurance. It’s only when you hit pause on your workout routine for three to four weeks of zero exercise that you might start to notice a difference in how strong you feel, McSorley says.

Whenever you take an extended workout break, your muscles will start a process called muscle atrophy. “Muscle atrophy, otherwise known as sarcopenia, is the degeneration of muscle tissue due to disuse or lack of exercise,” McSorley explains. “It typically results in a decrease in muscle mass, strength, and power, as well as an overall decline in physical performance.”

This means your next workout following your break might feel tougher than usual or a little more tiring since you’ve lost some muscle mass. That said, how much your muscles atrophy will depend on your fitness level. If you had a solid routine going and were pretty strong, McSorley says it’ll likely take an entire year without workouts before you land completely back to square one. If you were brand new to working out, however, the process will happen faster.

How Long Does It Take To Rebuild Muscle?

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How long it takes to bounce back to your former fitness level will depend on how many years of training you have under your belt, says Aaron Robey, a certified personal trainer. “Some people may need three months while others may need 12,” he tells Bustle. That said: “Your muscles will always return to their strongest point if you work them properly.”

Of course, unless you’re an athlete or working towards a certain goal like running a half marathon, it likely won’t matter that you lost some progress — so you can take your time getting back into it.

It’s also totally possible that you’ll bounce back super fast once you start your routine again. “Some individuals who have been working out for a long time develop muscle memory and can get back to a certain level after taking a break faster than others,” McSorley adds.

How To Maintain Your Fitness Routine

It’s totally fine — and even encouraged — to take exercise breaks when you need them. Life is busy and you can’t expect to stick with your routine perfectly all the time. But if you’re worried about losing momentum in the gym, there are ways to work around blips in your schedule or moments of busyness that are preventing you from sticking to a routine.

“If you have to miss workouts due to life circumstances or physical fatigue, try to fit in shorter but still effective workouts,” McSorley says. This might look like a five-minute yoga stretch, a 10-minute walk, or a 15-minute HIIT routine that allows you to squeeze in a little something until you can get back to it. After all, any movement is better than none.

Studies referenced:

Amaro-Gahete, FJ. (2019). Changes in Physical Fitness After 12 Weeks of Structured Concurrent Exercise Training, High Intensity Interval Training, or Whole-Body Electromyostimulation Training in Sedentary Middle-Aged Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Front Physiol. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.00451.

Evans, WJ. (2010). Skeletal muscle loss: cachexia, sarcopenia, and inactivity. Am J Clin Nutr. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2010.28608A.

Gundersen, K. (2016). Muscle memory and a new cellular model for muscle atrophy and hypertrophy. J Exp Biol. doi: 10.1242/jeb.124495.

Wall, BT. (2013). Skeletal muscle atrophy during short-term disuse: implications for age-related sarcopenia. Ageing Res Rev. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2013.07.003.

Yang, YJ. (2019) An Overview of Current Physical Activity Recommendations in Primary Care. Korean J Fam Med. doi: 10.4082/kjfm.19.0038.

Sources:

Lalitha McSorley, PT, physical therapist, personal trainer at Brentwood Physio

Aaron Robey, certified personal trainer