So, Now You Just Want to Maintain?
Take Home Points:
- Individuals who want a break from hard training often seek to "maintain" their newfound size and strength.
- Continuing to lift weights at one's previous "Top End" training levels is unsustainable due to the stress levels accrued from that training.
- In adults, a complete break from training is likely to yield only small reductions in muscle size during periods of less than 20 weeks. However, strength levels are likely to drop within 3 weeks of training cessation.
- Older adults may start to lose muscle size and strength earlier than younger adults during breaks in training.
- In older adults, the rate of muscle size and strength loss after a complete break in training accelerates rapidly as time goes on.
- Although Top End size and strength cannot be maintained at all times, one can keep their current strength levels above their Baseline levels by reducing their training volume and/or intensity and creating a program that cycles volume and intensity up and down over time.
When your strength training novice linear progression (NLP) ends you have some choices to make as discussed in my previous article. One choice briefly mentioned in that article is to stop new progress and keep the progress (gains) you made thus far. Said more simply, this is a choice to “just maintain.” I have heard many reasons why individuals want to maintain after their NLP. Some of the more common ones are wanting more time outside of the gym for sports or family, wanting a break from the hard training, and wanting to switch to another type of training modality as the primary focus. Surely "maintaining" will be easier to do, in that it will require less hard work and less complicated training. Or will it? As we will explore in this article, the idea of “maintenance” is a complicated one.
What Exactly Do You Want to Maintain?
At the end of a properly performed NLP, everyone will have gained an appreciable amount of size and strength. As a quick refresher:
Muscle Size (hypertrophy) obtained after one’s strength NLP will be in the form of new contractile proteins (actin and myosin) in the muscle fibers and, to a lesser extent, some sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (increases in the non-contractile protein component of the muscle sarcoplasm such as glycogen, enzymes, water and so on).
Muscle Strength obtained after one’s strength NLP is a bit more complicated as it is a function of 1) the size of one’s muscles (as just mentioned above), 2) how many motor units are now neurologically trained to contract, and 3) the skill proficiency in how one is measuring their strength (for example, a 1RM back squat with a barbell requires more skill than a 1RM leg press).
Individuals may want to maintain one or both of these two features. Note that muscle strength is partly dependent on muscle size. We will come back to this point later.
Physiologically, What Happens When You Stop Training?
Although this article is about “maintaining” it’s important to frame this discussion in the context of training’s extreme opposite: not training (also known as training cessation and detraining). In an ideal world, if we stopped training, we would still retain all our adaptations. However, that isn’t the reality of human biology. Physiological adaptations are costly to maintain. Energy needs to be expended to build and maintain cells, tissues and organs. If there is no immediate need for these constituents or they are not needed in the quantity/level they used to be, your body will “streamline” its operations so that it isn’t “wasting” energy and materials. I am being a bit metaphorical here, but the truth is your body doesn’t know key things such as how super important your new adaptations will be when you are 70 years old and beyond. Consequently, several physiological mechanisms occur in muscle during breaks from training:
- Muscle Protein Synthesis Decreases (Affects Size & Strength). Without the regular stimulus of exercise, the body's protein synthesis machinery becomes less active.
- Protein Degradation Increases (Affects Size & Strength). The ubiquitin-proteasome degradation system increases during training cessation.
- Anabolic Hormone Levels Decrease (Affects Size & Strength). Key players downregulated are testosterone and growth hormone.
- Neuromuscular Function Declines (Affects Strength): Training adaptations also involve improvements in neuromuscular function, including increased motor unit recruitment, enhanced coordination, and improved muscle activation patterns. Detraining can lead to a loss of these adaptations, resulting in decreased strength and coordination.
- Mitochondrial Changes (Affects Strength): Mitochondria are responsible for energy production in cells. Training promotes mitochondrial biogenesis, the creation of new mitochondria within muscle cells. With detraining, there is a decrease in mitochondrial content and oxidative capacity, which can impair muscle function.
An interesting takeaway from above is that muscle strength is dependent on 5 factors while muscle size is only dependent on 3. We can then reason that, all other things being equal, it will be a bit easier to retain muscular size than strength. Let's see if the evidence from current the literature will support this theory.
When I first looked into the research on this topic, I found more articles than I expected, but the quantity was still fairly small. In addition, the articles were of mixed quality, largely focused on older adults, and with somewhat conflicting results. So, to be fully transparent, we need more high-quality studies for confidence in the specifics of this topic. This is likely because when you stop training, rates of loss will depend on many factors, including your age, individual genetics, training history, and duration of detraining.
With the aforementioned disclaimer in place, let’s take a look at what some of the evidence does indicate as of now, beginning first with the worst-case scenario of doing no strength training at all after our NLP.
Muscle Mass Loss
In one study, young adult men (n=9) and women (n=10) increased their quadricep muscle thickness after 10 weeks of training and were then subjected to 20 weeks of detraining - the result was muscle thickness returning to baseline (before training levels) (PMID: 30991013). A small meta-analysis (6 research studies) of adults 65 years or older found that 12-24 weeks of training cessation resulted in no significant loss of muscle mass, but 31-52 weeks of training cessation did result in significant muscle mass loss (PMID: 36360927)
Taken together, the above data suggests that muscle mass (size) is fairly resistant to detraining over the course of a few months. However, with extended breaks from training (i.e., 5+ months) muscle size losses are more likely – possibly to an extent where you lose all your training adaptations (though this is likely more of a risk for older adults). This data tracks well with my observations - trainees don't tend to look that much "smaller" after a few months of detraining. Yes, muscle is comprised of components such as water and intracellular molecules (enzymes, glycogen stores) which may reduce in number during training cessation. So, there may be some small visual changes, but the muscle contractile proteins built during training are fairly complex structures that are not likely to be broken down quickly.
Muscle Strength Loss
Let’s look at a few individual studies first. A study in state/national level adult male soccer players (PMID: 37015015) found that a month of training cessation resulted in *higher* peak force and mean power output. So basically the athletes got stronger by stopping training? This might seem counterintuitive, but remember that these athletes were training hard. They likely accumulated a great deal of stress in their training and the break from training dissipated fatigue, enabling them to perform better than they were during training. I highlighted this study as an example of how specific training history can impact results (we will come back to this later).
A study in adults 60 years and older found that 12 weeks of training cessation resulted in significant losses in knee flexor strength (PMID: 19302225). Another study in older adults (80-88 years of age) found significant reductions in strength (60-87%) after 6 weeks of detraining from an 8-week resistance training program (PMID: 20440099).
Whenever possible, it's best to take all the available literature into account (instead of zooming on on specific studies) and for strength loss after training cessation we can do just that using the meta-analysis by Bosquet and others in 2013 (PMID: 23347054). Over 100 studies were included with individuals of all ages. The results indicated that up to ~28 days of detraining, strength loss was minor or nonexistent. However, beyond 28 days strength decline was significant and worsened as time progressed. Looking closer, strength losses across body parts and sexes seemed to behave similarly, but in older populations, strength loses were significantly greater (near twice as much) than in younger adults.
Taken together the above data suggests a slightly different story than for muscle size; a few months of training cessation does reduce strength levels for all age groups, with losses being far greater for older adults.
Muscle Strength is More Vulnerable
Generally speaking the data supports my original theory based on the underlying physiology - strength is likely a bit harder to maintain than size. There are many changes that take place during training cessation and each of them negatively affects your ability to exert maximal force (strength). Note, if you are measuring your strength on a resistance machine, you may find your strength is a bit more stable during periods of training cessation, but the decreases will likely still become apparent. Note also, if your strength training focused on the barbell lifts, taking a break from training will cause your skill proficiency with those movements to drop and thus your ability to hit maximal numbers will also likely drop more than indicated in the literature discussed above.
Will I Really Be Just As Strong After A 20 Day Break?
Although the literature suggests you will be just as strong after a 20 day break from training (if you are not an older trainee), I suspect that most people will see drops in strength. Once reason is the skill component mentioned above. Many of the studies in the literature were not examining people training with the barbell lifts at very hard/heavy weights. In addition, the gradual reduction in your cellular machinery (water, enzymes, glycogen stores) will set most people up for significant soreness if they jump right back into their previous weights after several weeks off. It will be hard to hit your typical strength numbers when you are dealing with excessive soreness.
Why You Can't Just "Stay Where You Are"
Recognizing that you can’t completely stop training and expect to maintain all your strength and size, you might be wondering if there is a way you can just keep the size and strength you have at the end of your NLP by “staying where you are” in your training. The short answer is no. At the end of your NLP you have achieved a new “Top End” for your size and strength. This level is closer to your absolute genetic potential and came with a progressive increase in stress (e.g., weight on the bar, volume of sets lifted) over time. There certainly was some dissipation of stress over time as you achieved these new size and strength numbers (or you would have been run into the ground), but the stress level is still so high that “hanging out” there would be problematic (remember the trained athletes I mentioned earlier who got stronger when they stopped training). A graphical representation is below:
As you can see above, stress increased very rapidly initially in this NLP and then started to slow down. The slowdown represensents some programming tweaks that helped the individual recover (i.e., light days). Nevertheless, the stress continued to rise and became much greater than what existed when the individual started their NLP. Let’s say their last heavy squat weight in the above graph was for a set of 5 at 285lbs. If the individual then tried to just repeat that week after week (even with a light day) they would continue to add a ton of stress to their body and eventually wouldn't be able to recover. The end result would be their getting run into the ground (overtrained).
In short, you cannot expect to keep your Top End size & strength at all times. Even while continually training for increases in size & strength there will be ups and downs in the numbers as you balance stress and recovery. What you can do is work to keep your current size & strength above your “Baseline." Your Baseline is the level of size & strength that you can easily maintain with whatever standard level of physical activity you have in your life. This Baseline is somewhat of a moving target as it will drop if you become very inactive, as you get older, if you become severely ill, etc. However, as long as you continue to lift weights with structure and intent, it is fairly easy to stay above your Baseline.
How Much Training Do I Need to Stay Above Baseline?
So, how can we maximize the size & strength we carry above Baseline without continuing to push for new levels of size & strength? The answer is to reduce our training just enough to strike the balance. We don't have a lot of data from the literature to guide us here but an article (PMID: 21131862) comparing resistance training breaks in young (20-35) and older (60-75) men found that a month of reduced training to 1/9 of the original training volume was enough to maintain muscle size and strength over the course of 8 months in the young groups, but not the older group. The older group needed to stick with 1/3 of their training volume to maintain strength, though some muscle mass was still lost. Here again we see there is no one-size-fits-all prescription.
Putting The Data Into Practice
As a starting point we can likely drop our training volume (how many sets we do of each lift) by about 1/9th (~10%) to maintain a decent amount of size & strength. However, remember that the individuals in the aforementioned studies were not pushing near maximal weights with a barbell. In our example of the lifter who ended their NLP with a 285lb squat, simply reducing the number of sets might not be enough to dissipate the stress. The amount of weight being lifted in each set (the intensity) also matters and we don't have studies examining this in detail. As such, we are likely going to need to drop both volume and intensity down a bit. Once we do, what then? Do we just hang out there? Well, odds are we aren't going to drop volume and intensity just right. So, we risk over- or undershooting it. In addition, just staying a one set of weights is going to make for a very boring time the gym. So, while we can't maintain our Top End strength, we maybe can maintain some percentage of it, but we really can't do it effectively by just staying in one place over time. There really needs to be some sort of progression to what we do, even at this lower level. And so, in the strictest sense of the word, "maintaining" really isn't possible; we need to move forward and backward below our Top End strength to keep from losing too much of our size and strength gains. Many possibilities exist for this and if you are interested in a programming template to accomplish this goal, check out my Strength Maintenance & Hypertrophy program in our shop. The program takes an approach where your Top End strength numbers are dropped a bit and you build back up more slowly and with a bit more exercise variation.
Unfortunately, just as we cannot create a size or strength training program that is optimal for all, neither can we create a program to "maintain" size and strength optimally for all. There are just too many variables at play including age, training history, and absolute strength at the time of training cessation. What does seem clear is that size and strength are somewhat resistant to detraining effects (at least compared to say, metabolic conditioning). This is likely due to the fact that building size & strength requires building new tissue (contractile proteins) and establishing new neurological patterning, neither of which are easily lost in the short term. Still, both can be lost given enough time and it is therefore best to do some form of "maintenance" strength training during any break from periods of regular strength training.