Is it good to take a break from working out?

Many of us freak out when it comes to the idea of taking a break from the gym. 

I frequently see people on vacation busting their ass in some crappy hotel gym because they are terrified that if they take a break, they’re going to lose not only their motivation to workout, but also whatever gains they have made in the gym.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I still get a little anxious if I’m forced to miss a couple of workouts due to an illness or injury. 

However, it’s not just that we’re afraid our muscles are going to shrivel up and go away if we take a few days off, there’s a psychological part to this as well. 

We’re concerned that if we take a break, we might destroy our momentum and get out of the “habit” of exercising. 

We remember all of the times in the past when we failed to keep our workout plan going, and we’re afraid that if we stop (even for a few days), we may not be able to get things moving again. 

It’s not just laziness.

People take a break from the gym for a lot of different reasons.

Sometimes these breaks are planned in advance. Things like recovery days/weeks or vacations. Sometimes these breaks are unplanned like when we suddenly get sick or injured. 

Taking a break from the gym even if it’s just an extra day or two after an intense workout is a necessary part of our body’s recovery process. Most of us have learned from experience that if we continue to train too often or for too long, we’ll end up doing more harm than good.

Sometimes it’s better to take a short break now rather than being forced to take a much longer break (due to exhaustion, burnout, illness, or injury) down the road.

So the question is not whether or not we should take regular breaks from our training (we should). The real question is how long can we take a break without having it affect our strength, physique, or performance? 

How do we know when it’s time to take a break?

One of the questions that I get asked a lot on this topic is about how we’re supposed to know when we should be taking a break from our training.

In other words, how can we tell when our body actually needs some extra recovery time versus those times when we just don’t feel like getting out of bed and going to the gym?

Here are a few things to look out for that may indicate that your body needs a break from training:

  • A sudden change in motivation to train
  • Longer recovery time or excessive soreness
  • Cannot complete your planned workout
  • Higher resting heart rate (must understand baseline reading to know when it’s elevated–more on this below)
  • Falling HRV (a little more difficult to measure but a good secondary indicator–we’ll also talk more about this in a moment)

So once you figure out that your body may need to take a break, what exactly does that mean?

Does taking a break mean that you are supposed to sit around and do nothing, or does it mean that you just need to cut back on the amount of training you’re doing at the gym?

Older athlete resting after workout

Detraining vs. Tapering

Detraining is taking a complete break from training.

It doesn’t mean that you are simply switching from lifting weights to doing high-intensity cardio instead. Detraining means that you are giving your body a rest and a chance to fully recover mentally and physically.

Detraining can either be planned or unplanned depending upon the circumstances. For example, detraining can be used as a planned break in between training cycles (ex. 3 weeks of training followed by 1 week off) or a planned break such as a vacation or a post-competition recovery period. Detraining can also be the result of an unplanned event, such as when we get sick or injured. 

On the other hand, tapering (sometimes called a “deload“) is a reduction in the frequency, volume, or intensity of your workout. In other words, you are still working out, but you’re not doing as much.

Tapering is usually planned in advance and is used within a training cycle (ex. an intense week followed by an easier week) or it may be used right before a competition in order to manage fatigue.

Overtraining is not just about your muscles.

Some people mistakenly believe that if their muscles aren’t sore they don’t need a break from training.

Man resting on the bench

Overtraining is that point where continuing to train is going to have diminishing or even potentially negative effects.

Of course, there is physical exhaustion, but there can also be neuro-muscular, adrenal, and mental exhaustion as well.

In other words, even if you are doing everything your body needs to recover properly (good nutrition, low-stress levels, adequate sleep), your body is still going to need a certain amount of time to recover.

Maybe the 24-48 hours in between your workouts will be enough, or maybe you will need a longer recovery time because of an intense workout, a stressful time at work, or simply a bad night of sleep.

Mental burnout

One way to gauge if you’re ready to resume training is your overall motivation or excitement to train. 

I realize this may seem a little vague, but recovering from training is highly individualized and depends on multiple factors (sleep, nutrition, level of training, age, stress levels, medical conditions, etc..), which means that it can be almost impossible to predict for someone else.

In other words, it’s not about following some formula or counting the number of days on the calendar. It’s more about you and your ability to physically and mentally recover from your training.

And the most frustrating part is the fact that this can change from week to week.

One week you may be ready to hit the gym after taking a day off, while other times you may need an extra day or two to recover before your next workout.

It’s not just about sore muscles.

Again, too many people fall into the trap of thinking that just because their muscles aren’t sore, it means their body is ready to go.

Muscle soreness is only one part of the recovery equation. We forget that when we are working out, we are not just training our muscles, we’re training our nervous system as well.

Many people don’t realize that becoming stronger is often as much about increasing the efficiency of your nervous system as it is about increasing the size of your muscles.

So how exactly do you measure the recovery of your nervous system?

Listen to your heart.

Other than monitoring your fatigue and degree of muscle soreness, one of the best ways to monitor your overall recovery level is by monitoring your heart.

Measuring your resting heart rate

Your resting heart rate is how fast your heart is beating when you are resting (i.e., not moving). For most of us, the best way to find your resting heart rate is to take your pulse when you first wake up in the morning before you get out of bed.

If you have a Fitbit or Apple Watch and wear it while you’re sleeping, it will automatically track your resting heart rate for you.

So what do we do with this information?

Since we are all unique and at different places on our fitness journey, there isn’t really a chart to tell us what our resting heart rate should be. 

That’s okay because we’re not interested in a particular number. What we’re really looking for is how today’s number compares to yesterday or last week’s resting heart rate.

In other words, we’re not looking for some type of bigger or better number here. Ideally, we are looking for the opposite, which is a return to our baseline number.

Let’s say, for example, we have taken a vacation or a few weeks off from training. After monitoring our heart rate during that period, we find that our average resting heart rate is around 50bpm (beats per minute). This would become our baseline number.

The general rule here is when our resting heart rate is 3-5bpm higher than our baseline number, our body is experiencing some type of stress that is has not fully recovered from. This could be from a workout, but it could also be from lack of sleep, stress at work/home, illness, or something else.

Although we may not be able to tell exactly what’s causing the issue, we can tell that our body is still dealing with something and has not yet fully recovered.

As a quick example, here is a graph of my resting heart rate over the course of an average week. I say average because notice how it starts off at around 48-50 (my baseline) on Sunday and slowly rises as my workouts, levels of stress, and lack of sleep slowly accumulate throughout the workweek.

By Saturday morning, my resting heart rate has gradually climbed to 55bpm, and my body is telling me that I need to get some extra sleep and possibly take a break from training over the weekend.  

I know from experience that if I catch up on my sleep and take it easy for a day or two, my resting heart rate will likely return to baseline by Monday morning, and I’ll be ready to go. 

I have also learned that if I ignore all of this and just keep going, I’m probably going to get sick, injured, or mentally burned out sooner than later.

Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

Your heart rate variability or HRV is a measurement of the time interval between heartbeats.

In other words, instead of measuring your actual heartbeat, it measures the amount of time your heart rests in between heartbeats. While it may sound complicated, HRV is simply another way that we can measure our body’s overall recovery status.

Unfortunately measuring HRV is not as simple as taking your pulse.

If you have an Apple Watch, however, it will automatically calculate your HRV for you in the Health app. There is some debate as to the overall accuracy of these readings since traditionally HRV readings are taken with a chest strap. 

However, much like your bathroom scale, whether the HRV reading is 100% accurate is not the point. What’s more important is seeing the overall trend and what direction the numbers are heading.

Generally speaking, when it comes to HRV, the higher the number, the better. That is, the more time your heart is resting in between beats (within reason of course), the better. 

To give you a quick example of what I’m talking about here are two months worth of HRV readings from my phone.

The one on the left is fairly typical with daily fluctuations, but as you can see, the general trend stays above 50 or higher and averages about 63ms.

In comparison, the image on the right includes a week when I had come down with a cold and an example of when I had probably pushed myself too far and paid the price. Notice how the HRV line gradually trends down and dips below 50ms several times before bottoming out.

Finally, just to show how these two heartbeat measurements are connected. Here is a chart of my resting heart rate during that same period of time when I was sick:

Notice how my resting heart rate was elevated for almost a week before I got sick, and then it spiked the following week. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice (or stubbornly ignored) the warning signs even though my body was obviously showing signs of exhaustion through both my resting heart rate and HRV readings.

Of course, like an idiot, I simply ignored them and kept going.

I do want to point out, however, that even though I was battling through some fatigue at the time, my muscles were not any more sore than usual and my motivation to train was high. 

When you take a closer look at my resting heart rate and HRV numbers, however, you can clearly see that something was going on behind the scenes. Again, this goes to show that you can’t always rely on how you may “feel” on any given day. 

So let’s say you’re smarter than me and you begin to notice your numbers trending in the wrong direction, indicating that you might need to take a break from the gym.

How long of a break should you take, and more importantly, how much is it going to harm your long-term progress?

How long is too long?

At what point does taking a break do more harm than good?

Assuming for the moment that you are not taking a break due to illness or injury, the amount of time you may need to take off could mean anything from missing a single workout, to taking off several weeks to recover from an intense competition.

The good news is that research has shown that taking a 2-week break from training will not decrease your strength or overall muscle size. 

In fact, one study found that taking a 2-7 day break from training (versus a traditional training taper) may actually improve subsequent strength and performance due to the overall reduction of your body’s neuro-muscular fatigue.

The bottom line:

Overall, the research tells us that we don’t have to be afraid of taking some time off from the gym and giving our body a chance to fully recover. 

Planned breaks are fine, but they don’t always take into account our constantly changing lifestyle when it comes to our stress levels, the amount of sleep we’re getting, or our overall recovery status.

Giving ourselves the flexibility to take a break when our body is telling us that we need one versus going by the calendar on the wall may be a more intuitive and practical approach.

If you’re suddenly lacking the motivation to train, feeling more fatigued than usual, or your resting heart rate numbers are elevated from your baseline numbers, your body may be telling you to take a break from training. Start with an extra day or two of rest and then continue monitoring your resting heart rate and HRV numbers until they return to baseline.

Don’t be afraid to step away and take a week or two off from your training, knowing that you are not going to be hurting your long-term progress.

Finally, when you return to the gym after taking some time off, be sure to go slow and gradually ramp up your training to previous levels to reduce your levels of muscle damage, fatigue, and soreness.

References:

Andersen, L. L., et al. (2005). Changes in the human muscle force-velocity relationship in response to resistance training and subsequent detraining. J Appl Physiol

Hwang, P. S., et al. (2017). Resistance Training-Induced Elevations in Muscular Strength in Trained Men Are Maintained After 2 Weeks of Detraining and Not Differentially Affected by Whey Protein Supplementation. J Strength Cond Res

Pritchard, H. J., Barnes, M. J., Stewart, R. J. C., Keogh, J. W. L., & McGuigan, M. R. (2018). Short-Term Training Cessation as a Method of Tapering to Improve Maximal Strength. J Strength Cond Res

Bosquet, L., et al. (2013). Effect of training cessation on muscular performance: a meta-analysis. Scand J Med Sci Sports

Kraemer, W. J., et al. (2002). Detraining produces minimal changes in physical performance and hormonal variables in recreationally strength-trained men. J Strength Cond Res

Izquierdo, M., et al. (2007). Detraining and tapering effects on hormonal responses and strength performance. J Strength Cond Res

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