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What You Need To Know Before Detraining

By: JJ Grogan PT, DPT, COPT

Most of us have heard the old saying before in our lives, “You can’t expect to sprint a marathon”. Although this line is often used in general life situations regarding the need to pace oneself and prevent personal or professional burnout, the same ideology can be useful in strength training. Strength training is defined as “the main process on the improvement of motor performance and consequently a basic demand of sport skill optimization” (Eduardo et al 2011). With a properly designed program, one can expect associated gains in strength, power, explosiveness, and sport-specific skills. But, an improperly designed program can lead to fatigue, soreness/pain, and overall lack of desired gains. Through the proper implementation of the concept of “detraining”, you can effectively work around the potentially detrimental effects of strength without limiting your long-term strength, endurance and power, and overall sport-specific skills.

What is Detraining?

Detraining is defined as “the loss of physiological adaptations and athletic performance when training is reduced or stopped completely” (Fleck, 1994). This concept is designed to be used as a means to prevent injury/overuse as well as be paired with in-season strength training programs to assist in maintaining preseason gains while not negatively affecting performance. Detraining does not necessarily mean a complete stop in training, but rather altering the variables associated with the training program: duration of sessions, frequency of sessions, the intensity of sessions as well as specificity of the muscle groups/type of muscle contractions trained. Current literature has shown that the most effective way to alter the program, while maintaining gains, involves reducing the volume and training frequency and attempting to maintain session intensity levels (Eduardo et al, 2011).

Close up male arms preparing sports equipment before practicing on it in modern health club

Benefits of Detraining

In the same way that strength training can improve performance, detraining has been shown to potentially decrease strength levels and athletic performance (Eduardo et al, 2011) when not paired with a strength maintenance program due to improper planning. So how can we modify the variables of our program to help us in the long run while not sacrificing success? According to Fleck (1994), cutting the duration of training by two-thirds and the frequency of training by half provides a sufficient training stimulus to assist in maintaining VO2 max and submaximal exercise performance. Therefore if you are typically training 3x a week and can decrease to 2x/week, while maintaining the intensity of the previous training sessions, strength will be able to be maintained in conditioned athletes. In this scenario, a typical sixty-minute program would be advised to decrease to forty minutes. Other variables in your program can also potentially be altered such as type of muscle training (ie plyometric vs concentric/eccentric) as well as the specific exercises within your program if desired by the athlete.

But how does this change in men vs women or even young vs older persons? According to Lemmer et al (2000), one rep max strength can be maintained during a 12-week detraining program in both older and younger individuals. Although there is limited research in regards to differences between the genders, the current information suggests that strength gains will be able to be maintained above baseline levels even after 31+ weeks of detraining in younger/older men and women (Lemmer et al, 2000). Despite this, it does benefit us to dive a little further into the available information to truly understand what occurs during this process. Although strength gains can be maintained in older individuals, we are not able to dismiss the fact that with these athletes there will be an observable decrease in muscle hypertrophy/absolute muscle strength with a 12-week detraining period (Tokmakidis, 2009). Even with this decrease in strength overall, strength levels have been observed to remain greater than pre-training levels in these individuals regardless of the intensity of their previous training. In terms of older adults, strength can be maintained even with a 12-week detraining program and will remain greater than their baseline levels despite the decreasing training. This is a valuable principle for all when attempting to stay in shape and improve their health status without getting frustrated if life throws them a curveball and derails their training program for some time. All is not lost!

Potential Issues with the Use of Detraining

When properly implemented, the use of a detraining period can be an effective tool to enhance long-term function and strength/power gains. If not associated with a proper detraining program, there are potential negative effects of the use of this principle. Such potential effects are: a decrease in muscle lactate threshold affecting muscular endurance, decreased utilization of oxygen within skeletal muscle, loss of muscle cross-sectional area, and loss of cardiac hypertrophy and contractility (Fleck, 1994). In addition to these effects, an improperly designed program can also have a direct correlation on sports performance or more specifically, sports-specific motions. As per Fleck (1994), muscle hypertrophy will be better maintained during a detraining period when the program consists of normal resistance training combined with an eccentric component to simulate specific demands. Therefore, if the detraining program is not well designed to address both concentric/eccentric muscle actions with the proper dosage, intensity and frequency there will be limited benefits and a potential increase in physiological stressors. The specificity of the program will be an integral factor in its efficacy to the athlete’s long-term goals without sacrificing strength gains.

How to Implement Properly

So, with all this information about our ability to decrease our training but still maintain our previous gains, how do we implement this into our program to be successful? Although there are various training programs out there, the current literature suggests the most effective way to use this principle to our advantage is based on two factors: the intensity of our previous training program before the detraining period as well as the ability to maintain that session intensity during the detraining period (Eduardo et al 2010, Fatouros et al 2005).

Fatouros et al (2005) demonstrated that both younger and older adults can maintain strength levels with 20+ weeks of detraining, but will display a lower rate of strength loss if they had previously exercised at higher intensities. In this particular study, the rate of strength loss in the high-intensity strength training group was 20-25% lower. Typically, the higher intensity would be within the range of 50-80% one rep max. Additional support can be found with Tokmakidis et al (2009) finding that after 12 weeks of detraining, maximum strength and muscle cross-sectional area decreases but does not reach pre-training levels in older adults who had previously participated in 12 weeks of high (80%) and moderate (60%) intensity resistance training. Even with our older populations who may need to train at lower intensity levels, there is still a significant benefit in terms of overall health and function with strength training but the benefits may not be as long-lasting and sustainable when paired with a detraining program.

The other factor that will allow for the ability to benefit from a proper detraining program is the athlete’s ability to maintain the individual session intensity even with a decrease in training duration and frequency. According to Fleck (1994), multiple previous studies have shown that maintaining the intensity of the strength training program is needed to adjust with the change in session frequency to the recommended dosages. To maximize strength training, it is suggested to train in the 80% 1RM range to allow for the anabolic effects such as nitrogen balance needed to enhance muscle hypertrophy (Fatourus, 2005).

When to Implement Detraining Into Your Routine

Regardless if you are a novice lifter or a seasoned vet, the use of a detraining program could be beneficial to your current training regime. But, when should you introduce the use of this principle? One of the major benefits of a period of reduced training would be decrease stress on your muscles, joints, and other soft tissue that may be overwhelmed due to the current load of your training. Oftentimes, a detraining program will be introduced following a competition or sports event to offset the planned uptick in training intensity before the event. When paired with an effective mobility program, this can also enhance the benefits of this period. This can also be a practical decision during a period where you are experiencing a plateau in your lifts/power output. If we continually challenge our muscles, as well as the central nervous system, without proper rest and nutrition/supplementation you may lead yourself into a developmental plateau. Allowing yourself to offset the load on your musculoskeletal and nervous system will allow for short-term improvements as well as long-term gains with the gradual return to the prior strength training program.

Overall as seen with Fleck (1994), the changes in strength with short-term detraining may vary from one population to another in part depending on previous strength levels and training status. Despite your previous training levels or current goals with strength training, the proper implementation of a detraining program can be an effective way to decrease the risk of injury, allow for decrease fatigue and improve long-term function without sacrificing previous gains in strength. Various programs are available commercially for effective use of this principle as well as reaching out to a strength coach (CSCS) or athletic trainer in your area can be an effective addition to your team.

Disclaimer: Before beginning any strength or conditioning program, be sure to have been cleared by a medical professional to be screened for potential risk factors.

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Fatouros, I. G. (2005). Strength training and detraining effects on muscular strength, anaerobic power, and mobility of inactive older men are intensity dependent. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39(10), 776–780.

Fleck, S. J. (1994). Detraining: Its Effects on Endurance and Strength. STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING JOURNAL, 16(1), 22.<0022:dieoea>;2

Lemmer, J.  T., Hurlbut, Diane, Martel, Greg. , Tracy, Brian,  Ivey, Fred. Metter, Jeffrey. Fozard, James. Fleg, Jerome. Hurley, Ben (2000). Age and gender responses to strength training and detraining. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 32(8), 1505–1512.

Santos, E. J. A. M., ; Janeira, M. A. A. S. (2011). The Effects of Plyometric Training Followed by Detraining and Reduced Training Periods on Explosive Strength in Adolescent Male Basketball Players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(2), 441–452.

Tokmakidis, S. P., Kalapotharakos, V. I., Smilios, I., & Parlavantzas, A. (2009). Effects of detraining on muscle strength and mass after high or moderate-intensity of resistance training in older adults. Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging, 29(4), 316–319.

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