1500 words = 10 minutes
Lots of videos and pictures
Part 1 of 2: Here I discuss what happened when I didn’t even lift for the last 3 months, and some of the science of detraining. Part 2 gives some practical recommendations.
The last 2 years have been relentless training-wise. Squat/bench/deadlift 3-4x/week for high volume, high frequency. I needed a change of scene.
So after my last competition in October, I took some time off powerlifting-focused training. I YOLOd hard during the Dec-Jan exam period and only trained 3 times over 5 weeks, amidst gym closure and time spent scrutinising the vagina (risky click).
After exams, training was still very relaxed, and looked like this until March with many missed sessions:
Throughout, my macros were approximately YOLO/YOLO/YOLO.
1) Both myself and Jonny’s training progress had been grinding to a halt recently, and we needed a switch of focus.
2) More time for flibblybibbly
3) Strength progress was stagnant, so I’d be bashing my head against the wall by trying to eek out progress without addressing the root causes. It would be more fruitful to work on some untapped attributes.m
4) Address structural issues: tissue quality, restrictions, flexibility
5) Free up more time and energy to focus on Propane, studies, meditation and yoga.
Did I become captain chubster? Or lose all my strength?
Here’s what happened:
– I hit a PB after the first 2 weeks off (130kg paused feet up bench), likely from the previous overreaching and supercompensation:
– Strength was maintained
– I’m looking a little flatter, and a bit softer. Annoying, but realistically these subtle changes are only something that I’d notice
– Weight remained (frighteningly) stable within 0.5-1kg of previous range.
– My work capacity is down a little. I’m more out-of-breath on exertion
– Less of the chronic aches and pains from training with such a high frequency.
So that’s it.
Jonny and my periods synchronised
Around the same time, Jonny’s lifting was also stagnating, so he took 6 weeks of rest, with no macro tracking and no heavy training. In that time, he just did some single leg work and light movement.
This gave his knee and hip niggles a chance to clear up, and allowed him to take a step back, gain some perspective adapt his technique. This took his squat from 220kg —> 240kg and deadlift from 292-300kg. We’ll discuss this further in part 2.
A quick science refresher
If bodyweight is stable, logically there will be a slight increase in bodyfat. Is this a concern? Most likely no – it will return on resuming training if you play your cards right. Worst case scenario, a 2 week cut should drop 1-2kg.
Most of the aesthetic difference observed from training will be as a result of resting fullness, which is affected by myogenic tone and muscle glycogen. Particularly if you’re used to training the big lifts with a high frequency and volume.
After the supercompensation period, you might notice some strength loss after a layoff. Strength is a skill, and a very specific one at that. For example, even for the SAME plane of movement, there is only a 15% carryover in ROM from the trained range to the untrained range. This partly explains why Jimmy-quarter-squats struggles to hit the same loads with full depth. See our interview with Emmet Louis for why this is important to consider when improving your flexibility (flexibility is strength in disguise).
So, loss of motor neurone excitability/motor pattern efficiency is the cause of the acute drops in your lifting numbers. i.e. simply being out of practice. This starts to happen after 2 weeks.
People are often quick to jump to the ‘pls halp i’ve lost all my muscle‘ conclusion after a layoff or diet. When dieting, the reduction in work capacity from eating less food is often confused for strength loss. As you may have seen here, I believe true strength loss during a diet is primarily due to attitudinal factors that affect training intensity.
Greg Nuckols wrote a great piece on myonuclei and the repeated bout effect here. In short, the process of gaining muscle is: mechanical tension (stimulus) —> microtrauma —> stimulation of satellite cell proliferation —> donation of myonuclei to muscle fibres —> protein synthesis of myofibrils (contractile tissues).
The myonuclear domain determines the medium-term ceiling for growth of the actual contractile proteins. During detraining, the contractile tissue degrades first, but the satellite cells and myonuclei stick around for months, if not longer. So the potential to return to your previous level of muscle mass remains.
Therefore, you can regain it faster than it took you to reach it the first time. Phew.
1) Body composition & appetite
- The power of habit: If you’ve established eating patterns with your food choices, portions and frequency, the momentum will carry you to maintain your body composition without any conscious effort.
- Appetite is beautifully regulated to match your activity, as long as you don’t override it.
I didn’t overeat because:
1) I have been on maintenance/offseason macros for 2 years (400C/175P/90F), following a long diet and gradual reversal (5 year time lapse video here) – i.e. I’m in a chronically fed state.
2) I was busy revising. The devil could not make work for idle stomachs.
3) I ate according to hunger, rather than structure/social expectations
‘Eat until full? maybe not captain chubster, but definitely captain obvious.’
Switching to YOLO macros would categorically NOT have worked as swimmingly if I was dieted, i.e. coming from a chronically underfed state. Propane coach Harrison experienced this recently at the end his diet from 85kg to 74kg for a competition. After the competition he transitioned to the YOLO life too soon (he maintains he didn’t choose the YOLO life, and that the YOLO life chose him). As a result his weight climbed to 79kg pretty quickly requiring him to get back on controlled macros to manage his weight before it got out of hand. This can be caused by:
a) Not establishing a new metabolic setpoint for his new lower weight
b) Eating a calorie-restricted diet for so long, then switching to having no targets is a recipe for disaster, both psychologically and physiologically. I’ve talked briefly about the extreme, chronic hunger that creeps in at single digit bodyfat here, and it truly is insurmountable.
It’s not the same as the type of inter-meal hunger after not eating for a few hours. You’ve been artifically underfeeding for WEEKS, and your body ain’t no fool – it holds a grudge.
2) You have limited RAM
Training takes up a lot of time, mental and physical energy, and taking time out can allow you to dedicate your resources to something. This is periodising, the same way you might do Smolov Jr to specialise your bench press .
If other priorities in your life are calling, it’s not a crime to press the ‘maintenance’ button and coast while you do a big push on a work project, meditation, reading, language learning, etc.
Blast and cruise.
If you time it properly, you can even use block periodisation to leverage these quiet periods to your advantage: accumulate volume during the quiet periods, then dial back the frequency, increase the loads/intensity during busy times. If you need any help planning these phases, we’re always on the other end of a phone call.
Strictly focusing on non-training stuff for an uninterrupted block of time creates significant, and long lasting positive changes in your training support system, which will do wonders for your long term prospects of succeeding with your training goals. Thus, the purpose of the No Season is to improve your life, which improves your training support system, which inevitably improves your training in the long run.
Principles of regaining lost strength:
‘First, the more you’ve done something, the easier it is to regain if you lose it, and the harder it is to lose.
Second, the harder something is, the harder it is to keep. Duh. Keeping a 675 deadlift is harder than keeping a 405 deadlift. Keeping a 230 lb physique lean is harder than keeping a 180 lb physique lean.
Third, the more experienced as a trainer you are, the more rapidly you can regain things you used to have but lost… because it’s easier to regain something you once had than get it for the first time.’
I had neither the need nor the balls to do absolutely nothing for 3 months. Maybe you do – perhaps you’re taking on a project at work that requires deep focus, going travelling, working on a new sport, having kids, etc.
Right. I’ll stop there for now.
So far we’ve covered our experience with detraining, some encouraging science to settle our hearts that the catabolism monster isn’t hiding under your bed, and lessons learned. In part 2, I’ll cover recommendations, how you can structure a no-season, with tactics for damage-limitation to your strength and physique. And even how to leverage it to your advantage.