What Happens When You Stop Working Out?

Right now, no one should be embarrassed to ask the question that’s on all of our minds about losing your fitness gains during a pandemic …

“Andy: Is it true that if you don’t use it you lose it?” – The 40-Year-Old Virgin

But, seriously, how long does it take before you start to when your gym time is replaced with extra Netflix time?

How quickly do you lose muscle when you stop working out? What about strength? Is it different if you’ve been exercising for years?

In this episode of That’s Healthy, Right?, we dig into the research on how quickly your body can become “detrained” and deconditioned. We break down what you can expect for cardio, strength, and endurance gains, and how long you can take off without experiencing a drop in performance.

Have a question you want to be considered for the show? To submit a question, email a voice recording that you can do here to info@bornfitness.com.

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Training and Detraining Effects of the Resistance vs. Endurance Program on Body Composition, Body Size, and Physical Performance in Young Men — Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 

Strategies and Solutions for Team Sports Athletes in Isolation Due to COVID-19 — Sports

Detraining and Tapering Effects on Hormonal Responses and Strength Performance — Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 

Detraining increases body fat and weight and decreases VO2peak and metabolic rate — Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 

Three Weeks of Detraining Does Not Decrease Muscle Thickness, Strength or Sport Performance in Adolescent Athletes  — International Journal of Exercise Science 

The Development, Retention and Decay Rates of Strength and Power in Elite Rugby Union, Rugby League and American Football: A Systematic Review — Sports Medicine

The effects of aerobic, resistance, and combination training on insulin sensitivity and secretion in overweight adults from STRRIDE AT/RT: a randomized trial — Journal of Applied Physiology 

Post-Season Detraining Effects on Physiological and Performance Parameters in Top-Level Kayakers: Comparison of Two Recovery Strategies — Journal of Sports Science and Medicine

Influence of detraining on temporal changes in arterial stiffness in endurance athletes: a prospective study — Journal of Physical Therapy Science

Metabolic Characteristics of Skeletal Muscle During Detraining From Competitive Swimming — Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise

Endurance and Neuromuscular Changes in World-Class Level Kayakers During a Periodized Training Cycle — European Journal of Applied Physiology 

Heart Rate Variability and Its Relation to Prefrontal Cognitive Function: The Effects of Training and Detraining — European Journal of Applied Physiology 

Detraining Produces Minimal Changes in Physical Performance and Hormonal Variables in Recreationally Strength-Trained Men — Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 


Adam Bornstein: If we were a higher budget show, I’d definitely have started this episode with a clip from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, where Steve Carell’s character asked the wonderful question, “Is it true that you lose it if you don’t use it?”

And in this case, we are talking about strength and cardiovascular endurance and wondering how long it takes for your body to really lose the progress, the gains, the improvements that you make from your training.

And I’ll admit, I was pretty surprised by what I found when I dug into the research. Admittedly, there isn’t as much as I would have thought, but there’s enough to draw some pretty simple conclusions.

And it is that, yes, you do lose it if you don’t use it and a lot quicker than I would have expected.

So just kind of combing through the research over the last 20 to 30 years, you see differences in how people will become detrained. So lose the progress they make comparing strength training to cardiovascular exercise.

From a strength standpoint, it seems like you have about a two-week threshold to hold on to both strength and muscle. But somewhere between that two and three week period is where you really start seeing the detraining start to kick in.

So there was a 2013 study that showed that people who were training just once a week, their lower body, we’re still able to hold their strength after two weeks of detraining, but these are people who were training consistently once per week

But once you get beyond that three week period, that’s when things start to get a little bit crazy. And some research shows that you can have up to a third of your strength decrease after that three week period, which is pretty significant.

From a cardio standpoint, the decrease is even quicker. So what you’ll see in your cardio is that around the 10 to 12 day period, so less than two weeks, you really start seeing a drop in your VO2 max.

VO2 max, is this measure by which you’re able to assess your maximum capacity to take in, transport, and use oxygen during exercise, and the more efficient you are with this, the better your cardiovascular endurance.

You start seeing up to a 20% decrease in VO2 max in studies that looked at endurance cyclists. You also start seeing a decrease in the enzymes in your blood that are associated with endurance performance, and that decrease can be up to 50%.

So pretty significant and you see this decrease, not only for longer distance cardio exercise, but also shorter distance aerobic work, or even sprints and aerobic work. So even quicker than strength training, you will lose some of those cardio benefits.

What’s interesting to note is that beginners will lose strength, muscle, endurance at almost a similar rate as more advanced trainees or those who train consistently, but the biggest difference is the speed by which you can gain it back.

If you train consistently or have been training for a long period of time, you can gain your strength, muscle endurance back in as short as two to four weeks. It’s almost like a one to one ratio.

So if you take a longer period of time off, don’t worry, you’re going to get it back pretty quickly. But if you train inconsistently, not that often, it can take months for you to gain back the strength that you lost in just a few weeks.

Also of note, younger people – probably not surprisingly – will be able to bounce back quicker. So, those in the 20 to 40 range have a pretty quick bounce period. Whereas once you get 65 plus, it is harder to hold on or maintain that strength.

The bottom line, you do lose it if you don’t use it. But as long as you’re within that two week period, so if you go on vacation for a week or two and you decide not to exercise, don’t sweat it. Longer than that, that’s when you have to begin your journey back to gaining what you lost.