Training hard is clearly important for developing muscle and strength.
It’s logical to think the more you train, the more you gain. You’d don’t to take your foot off the gas.
This has some truth to it. More training volume (up to a point) tends to produce more size and strength on average.
But some evidence indicates, maybe counterintuitively, that training breaks could improve long-term muscle and strength gains.
In this article, we’ll examine this evidence, try to figure out how deloads fit into this, and wrap up with potential takeaways.
Table of Contents
Part I: 6 Weeks on 3 Weeks Off
This 2013 Japenense study by Ogasawara et al. is one of the most interesting weight training studies ever conducted.
14 previously untrained men were recruited and assigned into a continuous or periodic group.
The continuous group trained for 24 weeks straight, while the periodic group alternated between training for 6 weeks and completely resting for 3 weeks for a full 24 weeks.
During the training weeks, both groups trained 3 times per week, with each session consisting of training the bench press for 3 sets of 10 repetitions with a 75% one-rep max load, with 2-3 minutes of rest between sets.
Note, the 75% one-rep max load was updated every 3 weeks.
By the end of the 24 training weeks, triceps growth, pectoralis major growth, and bench press one-rep max strength gains were similar between both the continuous and periodic groups.
That is, despite the periodic group training 25% less (due to the training breaks they took) they still saw similar gains to the continuous group by the 24th week.
The graphics tell us how this was possible.
For all the measurements (pectoralis major growth, triceps growth, and bench press strength) the continuous group continued making gains across the 24 weeks, but we can see their gains progressively slowed and become less as time went on.
For example, during the first 6 weeks, the continuous group increased their pectoralis major size by around 15%. But by the last 6 weeks of training, they only increased their pectoralis major size further by approximately 5%.
Conversely, the periodic group lost some muscle and strength during their rest weeks, but once they resumed training, their gains increased at a greater and faster amount versus the continuous group, ultimately resulting in similar gains by the 24th week.
In fact, the periodic group, continued to experience a similar amount of gains throughout their training weeks, their gains did not slow down and become less.
For example, during the first 6 weeks, the periodic group increased their pectoralis major size by around 15%, and by the last 6 weeks of training, they again increased their pectoralis major size by around a further 15-20%.
Now, here’s the key point, what happens if this study continued beyond 6 months?
Given the continuous group gains gradually slowed down, while the periodic group continued experiencing similar gains across their training weeks, it’s very possible the periodic group would surpass the gains of the continuous group at some point.
In other words, training breaks could enhance your long-term muscle and strength gains.
Part II: Training Breaks “Resensitize” You
Why did the continuous group’s gains slow down as they continued training, and how did the periodic group continue gaining a similar amount during their training weeks?
Desensitization and resensitization of anabolic pathways could be the respective answers.
Within your muscles, myofibrillar protein synthesis and myofibrillar protein breakdown are always ongoing.
Myofibrillar protein synthesis refers to the creation of proteins that increase your muscle size, while myofibrillar protein breakdown is the destruction of these same proteins.
When the amount of myofibrillar protein synthesis exceeds the amount of myofibrillar protein breakdown, muscles increase in size.
At the cellular level, myofibrillar protein synthesis is stimulated by signaling pathways.
Signaling pathways are where a bunch of proteins activate one another to ultimately increase or decrease protein synthesis or breakdown.
The PI3K/AKT/mTOR pathway is one of the best-known pathways that increase myofibrillar protein synthesis.
One part of this pathway involves the p70s6k protein enzyme, and researchers often measure the activation of this protein after lifting weights.
As you’d expect, phosphorylation (which can be thought of as activation in this case) of p70s6k is increased after lifting weights.
And this brings us to our main point, another study by Ogasawara et al. found after 12-18 consecutive training sessions (training was performed every other day), phosphorylation of p70sk6 gradually decreased across these training sessions.
In other words, the consecutive training sessions desensitized and lowered activation of p70s6k, implying lower myofibrillar protein synthesis increases and by extension, muscle size gains.
However, taking a 12-day break from training was enough to resensitize p70sk6.
Now, this study was done on rats. But a recent study corroborated these findings in humans.
They found only 7 training sessions (consisting of leg presses and leg extensions) were enough to significantly reduce the phosphorylation of p70s6k after training. However, a 10-day training break was able torestore p70s6k’s responsiveness.
Therefore, consecutive training sessions seem to desensitize the anabolic pathways, potentially explaining why the continuous group saw progressively fewer gains, but training breaks can resensitize the anabolic pathways, potentially explaining why the periodic group continued gaining a similar amount of gains during their training weeks.
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Part III: 10 Days off Better Than 3 Weeks Off?
We just saw that 10 days of no training was sufficient to resensitize p70sk6 in humans.
But recall the periodic group took 3 weeks off between training weeks.
Unfortunately, as noted in a recent analysis, the research isn’t crystal on the time course of muscle and strength loss during detraining.
Of course, strength and muscle loss would likely be a lot less (if any at all) with a 10-day break. In fact, one study by Haun et al. found that muscle fiber cross-sectional area was not significantly decreased after 8 days of not training.
Thus, what if the periodic group instead of taking 3 weeks off, only took 10 days off between their training weeks.
Given muscle and strength loss would be a lot less (if any at all) during a 10-day break, and this duration may be sufficient to resensitize anabolic pathways, perhaps the periodic group would have seen more gains and surpassed the continuous group earlier.
Of course, this is speculation, but it’s very possible.
Before moving on, I want to note it’s not clear how glycogen and its associated water changes fit into this.
Lifting weights can increase glycogen and thus water storage within muscle fibers, so some of the muscle size loss with detraining is likely related to glycogen and water decreases, not actual contractile tissue loss.
Unfortunately, how much glycogen fluctuations can impact muscle loss and re-gain isn’t super clear.
Yet, some data indicates it might not be that important.
One study found by just over doubling the relative concentrations of glycogen within the quadriceps (which was achieved by having subjects first lower their glycogen levels through carbohydrate restriction and then significantly increase it via extreme carbohydrate intake), the cross-sectional area of the vastus muscles increased by 3.5%.
This seems like a decent muscle size change, but remember this was achieved by just over doubling the relative concentrations of glycogen stores.
Here’s the thing, one study by Haun et al. found although glycogen did increase with training, the relative concentrations of glycogen remained the same, indicating glycogen concentrations only scaled with increases in fiber size.
Thus, the effect of glycogen fluctuations on muscle size might be very little when discussing lifting weights only.
Overall, more research is needed to examine the relationship between glycogen and muscle loss during training breaks.
Part IV: What About Deloads?
So far, we’ve been talking about complete training breaks. But what about deloads where you reduce volume and/or intensity?
Well-structured deloads likely maintain muscle and strength, and if they can still resensitize your anabolic pathways, they could be an alternative to taking training breaks.
However, I’m skeptical deloads would enable resensitization of your anabolic pathways, as even though your volume and/or intensity is decreased, you’re presumably still stimulating the anabolic pathways to a fair degree, potentially preventing if from re-setting.
But this is me purely speculating, future research is needed.
Part V: How Does Periodization Fit Into This?
Recall both the continuous and periodic training groups kept training with the same regime, the barbell bench press was trained for 3 sets of 10 repetitions with an intermittently updated 75% one-rep max load.
However, what if some kind of periodized regime was used instead, whereby volume and intensity fluctuated throughout the program.
One idea behind periodization like this is to consistently vary the stimulus so gains continue increasing at a good rate, something that could have helped the continuous group.
Yet, the current research does questions this.
Periodized training does not seem to produce more muscle growth than non-periodized training.
Strength gains do appear to be greater with periodized vs non-periodized training. But a limitation is in the studies finding this, the periodized training groups ultimately train with heavier average relative loads, something that’s better for strength. If you equate average training relative loads between non-periodized and periodized regimes, strength gains appear to be similar.
Having said all of this, a major limitation with all the periodized research is pretty much all of them last between 6 and 16 weeks. So longer study durations are unquestionably needed to make better conclusions.
Nevertheless, if periodization is superior long-term, the question is by what mechanism?
If periodization regimes can reduce the amount of desensitization experienced by your anabolic pathways, then perhaps training breaks would not be all that important. But at the same time, perhaps periodization plus training breaks would be even better for long-term gains.
If periodization regimes work through some other mechanism, then again, the combination of it with training breaks might be even better for long-term gains.
But future research is needed to establish the true effectiveness of periodization in the long term.
Part VI: Takeaways
In summary, short training breaks (around 10 days) could resensitize anabolic pathways responsible for muscle growth. Over the long-term, this could mean occasional short breaks will result in you building more muscle and strength.
It’s not clear if deloads would be sufficient to resensitize anabolic pathways, if they are, this is another route one could take if they do not wish to stop training altogether.
Overall, more research is needed in this area, and for the time being, it would be misleading of me to state for a fact that short training breaks will 100% build you more muscle and strength in the long term.
Based on your interpretation of the data overviewed, you may wish to experiment with training breaks.
At the very least though, a practical takeaway from this article is that you should not be worried about training breaks. Whether you want to try and let a nagging injury heal, or life’s unpredictability gets in the way of training, taking time off is perfectly fine.
At the very worst, your muscle and strength remain the same or decrease during the time off (depending of course on how long you take off), but if you did lose muscle and strength, once you resume training, you will regain this lost muscle and strength at a faster pace, thanks to muscle memory.
At the very best, you actually resensitize your anabolic pathways and set yourself up for more gains once you return to training.
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