Nothing can kill motivation like burnout. Whether it’s from pushing through muscle soreness one too many times, trying to function on too little sleep, or just overall fatigue, taking an intentional break from working out is necessary. My biggest question, though, when I’m taking a break is how long can I break before I begin to lose muscle, momentum, and all that I have worked hard to gain. Basically, how long can I be lazy before it begins to show?
Cardiovascular fitness begins to diminish after about three weeks. For the first couple weeks the strength is still there, but after three weeks real loss begins to happen. Breaking for a month or longer can leave you playing catch up, and taking two months off will cause you to lose all progress and put you back at the beginning. It’s also important to note that the benefits exercise has on lowering blood sugar, reducing stress, and improvement on insulin sensitivity are more short term, and cardiovascular exercises must be done daily to see benefits in these areas. If high intensity exercise is wearing on your body and your mood, continuing a light schedule of walking or another relaxing form of movement can help retain these benefits without putting stress on your body.
Muscle that isn’t being used will eventually atrophy (lose strength, shrink, diminish, etc.) However, muscular strength takes longer to lose than cardiovascular fitness. It can take months to lose all progress, and even then your muscles will be able to remember lifting and you might not have to go back to the very beginning depending on how fit you were when you began your break from exercising.
So, how long can you break, really? Taking a week to rest and recover every 8-10 weeks is healthy, and up to two weeks of rest can be mentally beneficial if you are struggling with burnout without causing you to lose all your progress. The greatest secret about strength training is it only takes working out one time per week to maintain your current level of muscular fitness. So, if you are struggling with burnout or a busy schedule, simply cutting back to one day a week will keep you in maintenance mode until you are able to jump back into the workout game.