For many trainees seeking maximal strength and hypertrophy, taking more than a couple of days off the gym in a row is a scary thought. However, previous research has demonstrated that these adaptations can be well-maintained by performing just a few hard sets per week.
Interestingly, other mechanistic data suggests that anabolic signalling may decrease in response to chronic resistance training, but can be largely restored after a short detraining period.
This study compared the effects of a periodic vs. continuous resistance training program on muscle size and strength. 14 untrained subjects were randomly assigned to a periodic or continuous training group.
Both groups performed the bench press exercise 3 days per week for 3 sets of 10, at 75% of their 1RM. Training load was adjusted every 3 weeks, and was increased when subjects could perform 12 reps or more on the last set of their training session.
The continuous training group performed the protocol consistently over the course of 24 straight weeks, while the periodic group performed 3, 6-week cycles of training with a 3-week detraining period between each cycle.
The researchers found that both groups experienced similar increases in muscle size and strength after 24 weeks, with differences primarily in the time course of their measurements.
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Although the subjects in the periodic training group lost a small amount of muscle mass during the detraining periods, they regained size in the subsequent retraining periods, and ultimately experienced similar gains by the end of the study.
The bottom line: While we wouldn’t necessarily recommend consistently taking three-week breaks from training if you’re an advanced lifter, a clear takeaway is that occasionally taking a break from the gym shouldn’t have catastrophic effects on your long-term progress.