Take A Break From Training To Maximize Your Gains

Inverted TRX Row.

Today we are looking at the concept of short-term training cessation.  You’ll know it better as the idea of taking a few days off after a training cycle.  For the more casual fitness enthusiast and lifter, it’s taking a break every now and then from lifting for a few days.  For the competitive athlete, especially a strength/power athlete this is an especially important topic when planning how to taper off their workouts prior to a competition.  Knowing the correct number of days to rest after your last workout before competing could mean the difference between improved performance and missing out on a podium.

Keep in mind we are not talking about long periods of rest lasting multiple weeks that could lead to a detraining effect.  We are limiting the discussion to the impact of taking a few days off prior to a competition.  For the average lifter who doesn’t compete the same principles apply, allowing the body enough recovery every now and then to enable higher levels of progress.

The Study

Today’s study looked at maximal strength along with related physiological measurements and whether a 3.5 day rest period or a 5.5 day rest resulted in a better outcome.  The subjects were younger adult males (18-31) who were experienced in weightlifting.   They followed a 4 week strength training program then took the prescribed number of days off before undergoing additional testing.  They then had a 7-10 day break before repeating the training program and then taking the other length break prior to retesting.

Utilizing a force plate, the subjects were tested on a vertical jump with a countermovement, a mid-thigh pull and an isometric bench press.  EMG recordings of the vastus lateralus (outer front quadriceps muscle) and triceps were taken on the mid-thigh pull and isometric bench press respectively.  The physiologic measurements included salivary concentrations of cortisol and testosterone along with plasma levels of creatine kinase (CK).  Creatine kinase can be used as a measure of muscle damage.

The counter-movement jump showed increases over time with a significant change from the pretesting to the testing done after the rest period but there were no notable difference between the two rest periods.  Relative peak force for the mid-thigh pull improved over time but did not quite reach a level of statistical significance.  Again no difference between the two cessation periods was seen.  For the isometric bench press there were significant improvements over the training period along with significant changes from the pretesting to the post cessation testing though there were still no significant differences between the two cessation periods.

While not at a statistically significant level, there was a decrease in cortisol values for both rest periods suggesting a reduction in physiological stress after the cessation period.  There were no significant changes in testosterone or creatine kinase.

Putting It All Together

At first glance this study doesn’t seem to show a great deal of important results but if we take a moment too look closer at how it can be applied you might think a little differently.  Testing was done right at the conclusion of the 4 week training program and when the subjects were retested after their cessation period there was significant improvement.  If I told you that after every few weeks of training if you wanted to maximize the results of those past few weeks that you needed to take a few days off you would probably think differently about skipping a few workouts.  Too many gym goers work hard to develop consistency and get the notion in their head that time off equates to lost progress.  While too much time off most certainly does, data such as this study show that a few days of rest, less than a week, seem to have a beneficial effect.

Athletes and their coaches have known this for a long time.  Taper periods are a common component of training plans for competitive athletes.  The question for this population is always what is the optimal period to taper?  There is actually very little research available on the topic and this study suggests that there isn’t any difference between 3.5 and 5.5 days.  If this is the case then athletes can relax a little about how long they rest and if they keep it under 6 days but give themselves at least 2-3 days they should be fine.

The complicating factor that hasn’t been answered is how different types of training and different levels of intensity may change this result.  Certain workloads and training approaches may fatigue the system more than others and require greater amounts of rest to achieve maximal performance.

So there you have it.  Official permission, if you have been training regularly and hard for a few weeks to take a few days off.  Trust me; your body will be glad you did.  You’ll be glad you did.

Pritchard, H., Barnes, M., Stewart, R., Keogh, J. and McGuigan, M. (2018) Short-Term Training Cessation As A Method Of Tapering To Improve Maximal Strength.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 32(2): 458-465.

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