Detraining Effects on Strength Characteristics

Lockdown saw gyms close and, apart from a lucky few, most won’t have had access to gym equipment. This time out from your usual program will have had an effect on your body and knowing how to adapt your training can be the difference between getting stronger and injury.

In this blog, I will cover the research into the effects of detraining, this will give you information into what has potentially happened to you over this lockdown period.

What does previous research tell us about the effects of detraining? #

The force production of strength-trained athletes has been shown to decline by only 7 – 12% during inactivity periods ranging from 8 to 12 weeks. This force decline appears to be related to a decreased electromyogram (EMG) activity in addition to reductions in fibre areas and muscle mass. In strength trained and team athletes, the fast twitch: slow twitch ratio and fibre cross-sectional area have been shown to decline. The table below is taken from a review paper by Mujika & Padilla (2000) on how long term detraining effects muscular characteristics.

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Mujika & Padilla (2000)

The graph below demonstrates that over the long term in novice strength trained individuals, short term breaks from strength training has little effects in muscle cross-sectional area; while completing 25% fewer training sessions.

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Ogasawara et al. 2013

A study by Kubo et al 2010, looked into the effects of detraining on both muscle and tendon morphological & mechanical structures. 14 participants with limited strength training history took part in 3 months of isometric knee extension strength training x4 times a week followed by 3 months of rest. Below are graphical representations of their results.

The main findings of this study were that the adaptations of tendon properties and muscle CSA to the resistance training are slower than those of muscle strength and neural activation. The also found inversely that the adaptations of the former to detraining are faster than those of the latter. 

Simply, muscle adaptations happen faster than tendon in novice athletes. Notably, there is an imbalance between the muscle functions and tendon property adaptations after 1 – 2 months from the start of training. This will be important when considering how to return to loaded resistance training.

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1st Graph — Relative Change in Cross-sectional Area of Muscle (%)

2nd Graph — Relative Change in Tendon Stiffness (%)

Staron et al. (1991) reported that a 6 week retraining” period following 30 – 32 weeks of detraining in previously trained women elicited a rapid return to the trained state (this phenomenon has been termed muscle memory”). The two graphs below represent the data in the squat and leg press.

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1st Graph — Squat

2nd Graph — Leg Press

Muscle Memory #

Whenever we strength train, our bodies add little things called myonuclei. These myonuclei are where the term muscle memory” comes from and are like putting money in the bank, they are still there after periods of detraining. This is a big plus if you have been resistance training for long periods as you will have built up more myonuclei.

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So what can we take from this information?

  • If you have done some strength training exercises during lockdown, then your loss of strength will be mitigated.
  • Trained individuals have stored myonuclei which help the return of force characteristics during retraining.
  • In well trained individuals have the ability to return to pre-trained levels in a short period of time when compared to the period of detraining.
  • In individuals with low training age, muscle adaptations go as quickly as they come.