Q: Hi Richie and Gary. Let’s get straight to the point. Over the winter break, I honestly have not been lifting. As a college student, that means a full month without lifting weights or doing any cardio activity. How much strength did I lose and what is the best way to get back into it?
This is another great question from one of our readers. It is extremely relevant to many of us as well, considering most of us just came from a long winter break. And even if you haven’t, that cold season is bound to get you feeling lazy one way or another.
It’s also a popular discussion point elsewhere on the Internet. See: Reddit.com/r/fitness
Here is my answer to this question, based on personal experience and some conversations I have had with people similar to you.
Is there an easy way to calculate how much strength I lost over a period of time?
There is no one formula that is going to calculate exactly how much strength you lost. But you can calculate it, since strength is a measurable value. It will not be scientifically accurate, but you will get a general sense of where you are at in any given period of time.
It is simple, really. If you have been tracking your workouts, whether by smartphone app or by manually writing it down on a notepad, then you have actual logs of how much you can lift. In other words, you have documentation of your physical strengths. It is also fine if you mentally document it, so long as you have a general idea of where you were able to lift at.
After your break, in our reader’s case the period of time is one full month, you will go back to the gym and do the same routines you did before. Do this for a whole week to shake that rust off and truly see where your body is performing. In most scenarios — actually it would be incredibly surprising if you didn’t lose any strength over a full month — you will have lost a noticeable amount of strength. Either your rep count, the number of sets you are able to do, or the amount of weight you are able to lift, or all of them, will go down. For example, you can go from squatting 225 pounds and a month without lifting later, only be able to squat 185 pounds.
This also works with other non-gym related body health. For example, we always preach that “the gym” does not necessarily have to be the actual gym for you. Your “gym” can be your neighborhood for when you go out to walk. Your gym can be the mountains or a hiking trail. In some form or another, you are able to measure your performance in these tasks. It might not necessarily be strength. For instance, if you often jog around your block for a total of 1 mile every morning and then take a month break and find you are only able to jog half of that, your body has lost that stamina. Now it is your task to try to regain that ability to do the whole mile to make up for the lost time over winter break.
How much strength is typically lost after one month without lifting?
This one is a tough one to answer, to tell you the truth. Everyone differs. The reader who asked us his question mentioned he was a college student. Many people reading this blog are much older than that. Heck, I am in my 50s so my body drastically recovers much differently than a 20-year old’s body does. Also, your diet plays a huge part in bodily composition. If you have been eating junk that whole month off, very likely you have lost plenty of muscle mass, as you failed to feed your body with enough protein.
A good rule of thumb, however, and this is just a rule of thumb because as mentioned above, everyone’s bodies can differ wildly beyond expectations, is for every month you may lose 8-10% of your total body strength. So for example, let’s say you deadlifted and squatted 265 pounds for 5 reps. You also bench pressed around 185 pounds. One whole month goes by. After a week back in the gym, you find yourself deadlifting and squatting around 240 pounds for 5 reps. You now also bench 170 pounds. That is approximately a 10% decrease, and thus you have lost 10% of your strength. Does that makes sense?
Again, I want to emphasize how differently this can vary for everyone. Not only do genetics play a part in how well your muscles stay together, but also diet. It is actually the second most important thing you can control in a huge break like this, with the first of course being to actually lift or exercise. If you know you are going to be away from the gym for a while, make sure to still keep your protein levels up. Protein, of course, is the nutrient that supports your muscle system. Eating stuff like Cheetos while on break will tell your body that you don’t really have a need for those muscles. So even if you were eating less food, but were eating only junk food like Cheetos, your weight will definitely go down, but you will also have lost a lot of muscle mass, and thus strength. Also, even if you know you aren’t going to do lifting, at least stimulate your muscles with a massage stick, so at the very least your muscles are not sitting idle.
So how quickly can I regain my strength?
Typically, it is much easier to rebuild your strength than it is to get it for the first time. I have talked to a few of my nephews and nieces who are around college age and generally it can take from 2 weeks to 6 weeks to regain all of that strength back to normal. It sucks, I know, but that is definitely a faster rate than it was to get that strength in the first place. Many weightlifters can take a few months to go up just a couple pounds in their squat and bench press.
So my number one advice, well, is to lift and try not to get into that hole where you are away from the gym and eating junk food.
My second piece of advice, for those who failed to do so and are feeling lost, is to feel at ease with yourself. You have not lost all your strength, fortunately, and it is not all too time-consuming to regain that strength and get you back to regular shape.