How to easily maintain strength, once you are strong.

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Once you are strong, you will stay strong. Even if you stop exercising, you’ll only lose 1% strength per month, regardless of age. In this article we are looking at what the minimal effort is to maintain strength in times you don’t exercise (a lot). We also look at whether it matters if you are 25 or 65 years old.

Imagine you found a nice rhythm in strength workouts and you manage to do about 3 sessions a week. Then al of a sudden you lose motivation, have a busy project at work or experience any other reason to not be able to keep up with your training plan. Is that a disaster?

In 32 weeks (~7,5 months) how fast will your strength decrease? Could you stay strong if you managed to go to the gym once a week, even though this would be a very short session? And will your strength decrease faster when you are 25 or when you are 65 years old?

Phase 1: training

Let’s assume you are doing 3 strength workouts per week, for 16 weeks now. That’s the exact situation a 2011 study looked at. If you had no experience in resistance training, chances are your strength increases by 40%, just like the participants in this study. This study found no difference in strength progress between the participants aged between 25-35 and 60-75. Although the older participants started at a lower strength level, and might therefore progress more easily.

Phase 2: detraining

Now something changes in your life and all of a sudden you don’t have the time or energy to exercise as often as you did. We are going to look at 3 options…

  • Option 1: you don’t exercise at all for the next 32 weeks
  • Option 2: you manage to exercise once a week, but do only one third of the previous workout effort
  • Option 3: you manage to exercise once a week, and do a full workout like you did before

… and see if it matters whether you are between 25-35 or 60-75 years old.

Wk. 0 start exercising 3 times a week

Wk. 16 exercise less, or not at all

Wk. 46  end results

Option 1: what happens if you don’t exercise at all

If there is no way you can keep exercising, then your strength will decrease regardless of age. You will lose about 7% between week 16 and week 48. That does mean you do have 23% more strength at the end test (wk. 48) than at the beginning (wk. 0), when you did not have an exercise history. It wasn’t all for nothing.

Strength x Time (weeks). Train between wk. 0 and wk. 16, detrain afterwards

Option 2: what happens when you exercise a lot less than before

Imagine you are able to exercise once a week, but spend only one-third of the usual time in the gym. Instead of doing 3 workouts per week with 3 sets per workout, you now only do 1 workout per week with 1 set. In total, that is one-ninth of the previous work volume. What would happen?

Not a lot actually. Of course, you won’t see a lot of progress, but there is not a lot of strength loss either. Somehow you will increase strength in the beginning, and then fitness stays at the same level between week 24 and 48. Again regardless of age. Sounds positive to me!

Strength x Time (weeks)

Option 3 what happens if you train once a week

If you have the discipline and willpower to keep exercising once a week and do a full workout, the results are even better. We will see a slow but steady increase in fitness, regardless of age.

Strength x Time (weeks)

In summary

The results show that regardless of age, losing strength will not go as fast as gaining strength when you are new to strength training. Alternating frequent exercise with time periods in which you do not exercise, is not a disaster. It is better though to train at least once a week, then total detraining. The amount of sets you do in this workout do matter, but not a lot, as you can see in this last graph.

So, don’t stress out if you spend a little less time in the gym than you are used to. Just pick up the rhythm once you are ready for it and enjoy working out!

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