The Detraining Effect: How Long Does It Take to Get Out of Shape?

The Detraining Effect: How Long Does It Take to Get Out of Shape?

(Last Updated On: April 20, 2019)

istock_000011174569xsmallIn the ideal world, you’d exercise regularly throughout your life. But sometimes life intervenes and you have to take time off. Whether it is a family crisis, a work obligation, an illness or an injury, sometimes you end up on the sidelines. Unfortunately, you can’t become fit and expect to maintain fitness gains if you stop working out. If you stop exercising for a significant period of time, your body gradually loses the adaptations that made it so easy to bench-press 120 pounds or run an 8-minute mile. This is called the detraining effect, and it basically means “you lose it when you don’t use it.”

The Detraining Effect: How Long Does It Take to Get Out of Shape?

How quickly you detrain depends on the level of fitness you achieved, how long you’ve been training and the length of the break you take from exercise. Studies show that athletes and seasoned exercisers lose their fitness gains more slowly than exercise newbies. In one study, participants who had exercised regularly for only 2 months lost all of their fitness gains after 8 weeks of a sedentary lifestyle. Participants that had been training for a year lost only half their gains after 3 months of no training.

How fast do you lose strength gains when you stop doing resistance training? In one study, men who lifted heavy weight lost 12% of their muscle strength after only 2 weeks of being sedentary. Their type 2 muscle fibers also contracted by 6.4%. The good news is it may be easier to recoup those gains the second time around due to the phenomenon of “muscle memory.” This simply means the neural circuitry is still there to stimulate muscle growth; you just need to reactivate it by lifting.

The Good News about Exercise and Detraining

It’s pretty discouraging to think all of the fitness gains you worked so hard to achieve could be cut by half or more in only a few months. But there is some good news. If you reduce how often you train rather than sitting in an easy chair, you can maintain your gains longer. With resistance training, decreasing your training to only one to two times a week will maintain most of your strength gains as long as you lift with the same intensity.

In terms of aerobic fitness, most people will lose their endurance training benefits in a few months if they’re completely inactive. Declines in aerobic fitness can be seen as early as 10 days after being sedentary. But if you can still fit in a few, short aerobic workouts a week, you can maintain some of your fitness gains. This is especially true if you exercise at a high-intensity during those sessions. The key to preserving most of your gains is to keep the intensity high even if you cut back on the time or frequency of the sessions.

Keep Exercising Even if You Have to Cut Back

Everyone needs a day or even a few days off from exercise and such brief breaks can be beneficial by allowing the body to rest. It’s easy to get burned out mentally if you work out intensely every day. You won’t lose your fitness gains if you allow your body to rest and recover for a few days. If you have to take a longer break, make time for a few intense exercise sessions to maintain your fitness if you can.



Exercise Physiology. Fifth edition. 2001.


Related Articles By Cathe:

Can You Lose Most of Your Fitness Gains in Only Two Weeks?

Training Consistency: How It Can Make or Break You

The Detraining Effect: How Long Does It Take to Get Out of Shape?

7 thoughts on “The Detraining Effect: How Long Does It Take to Get Out of Shape?

  1. Great and timely article Cathe. I recently developed Cervical Radiculopathy (bulging disc between C6 and C7 pressing on the nerve root serving my left arm.) After getting the pain under control, no small feat, I’ve been faced with significant training challenges. Among my most disheartening sideline is my ability to do push ups. We all know how long it takes to finally keep up with you in the push up category and the reality of having to start all there and with all left-arm weight training tested my resolve to train with intensity.

    I’m encouraged by your article and will relax as I allow my muscle memory to reconnect my left arm to feeling powerful, strong, and capable.

    Thanks for the boost!
    Lorraine Esposito

  2. i just had my 4th foot surgery, and looking at a 6-8 week recovery period. im very depressed that im couch bound. any suggestions for me ?

  3. There are lots of things you can do without standing on your foot to keep your body conditioned! Try some Pilates, core strength, bench work, etc. Use your recovery time to investigate new workout options – the increased blood flow from the activity will probably also increase your recovery to the foot as you bring in more oxygen to the body! There’s always an upside to everything~

  4. At Marilyn…do pull ups! Cathe’s bodymax 2 uses the stability ball for much of her upper body workout. Core workouts, I know…easy for me to say what you can do. I really feel for anyone who is injured and has to take any length of time off. IT IS DEPRESSING. I am sorry and there is no way around it, but try some of my suggestions and Mindy’s suggestions.

  5. I had rotater cuff surgery 4 weeks ago…it is very depressing because I am a fitness insturctor. I still have 2 more weeks of my arm in a sling and then 6 months more of no weight lifting. At this point I can raise my arm straight out infront of me with out assistance. It will be sometime before it gets to the point of over my head or even behind it. I have started back on my spinning bike, but it is rather limited, and some core work with arms folded over my chest. Any other suggestions?

  6. 10 weeks ago had a lobe of lung removed because of lung cancer. doing fine getting started back at working out. i was working out 6 days a week before its very slow going any suggestions.

  7. Kim… I have a suggestion. when I was a kid I suffered from asthma … I loved swimming and we had a pool in the back yard… my dad got me to start testing to see how far I could go underwater without coming up for air. by the end of it I could swim 4 lengths of an Olympic sized pool without coming up to breath… it increased my lung capacity and it increased my control over my breathing… I’ve rarely had problems with it since (toxic chemicals are the only thing that has triggered an attack)… I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through but I hope this helps! 🙂

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