The purpose of this article is to cover strategies to follow during time off from training. People get all kinds of different ideas like doing cross training, going for runs, trying a new exercise, so on and so forth. Hopefully this article can clear the air a little on what is an intelligent approach to taking time off. If done correctly, rest is actually the time when athletic performance will peak and be at a high level most consistently.

The focus of periodization (long-term training progression) is effectively managing the structural adaptations of muscles and tendons along with adaptations of the nervous system. The primary purpose of time off is to allow full neural recovery. Unfortunately, neural recovery does not occur in sync with structural recovery. Being completely inactive for an extended time makes the nervous system very fresh, but it will result in weakening of the muscles and tendons. With those structures, “use it or lose it” applies quite accurately. There is actually one particular positive adaptation that occurs during inactivity following a couple months of hard training. (That’s covered later.) However, complete rest is not something to be used regularly, because it does result in loss of strength and fitness.

The correct approach to time off is to rest enough to allow neural recovery while being active enough to maintain structural strength. Strength training is the activity that involves the most neural stress by far. Therefore avoiding strength training is crucial to a successful rest period. That does not mean just lift once a week. That does not mean only lift light. It means no strength training. That is critical to bringing athletic ability to a peak. The other part of the equation is simply to engage in regular athletic activity. That could mean playing your sport, testing your vertical or 40-yard dash, throwing down some dunks, or whatever. Perform the movements that you are trying to improve. You can do frequent workouts, but the total stress level should be low. That allows full neural recovery over the course of the rest period. And it allows structural repair to occur basically overnight without structural decay due to inactivity. Lastly be aware that stretching is not neurally or structurally stressful on the body. It does not require recovery time, and it will not interfere with recovery. If flexibility needs to be improved, a rest period is a great time to make a strong commitment to stretching and take care of that issue.

The main concern people have with this model for a rest period is that they are not doing enough work. They are worried about losing the ability they have gained. It’s important to realize the athletic performance qualities are not as fragile as people tend to think. With regular athletic activity, coordination and springiness are certainly not going to disappear. In fact they may improve. Flexibility is easily maintained. People may think they can lose their explosiveness, but explosiveness is largely a quality of the nervous system. It actually goes up during time off due to neural recovery. Strength is really the only thing you have to worry about losing, and it’s not as big of a problem as people think. Yes, not lifting for a couple months may result in a decrease in your max squat. If you’re a powerlifter, by all means freak out about a 10% drop in strength. But for a running and jumping athlete, it’s important to realize that a max squat uses a lot of muscle fibers and a lot of neural drive beyond what is relevant to athletic movements. The muscle fibers that are used during jumping and sprinting will be kept strong by the regular athletic sessions. The other reason that a temporary drop in strength is not a tragedy is that regaining strength is usually easy, far easier than gaining it originally. After an active period of no lifting, even if it’s several months long, an athlete can typically regain strength levels within a month of consistent lifting.

Now consider the benefits of time away from strength training. First, there is full recovery of the nervous system and a peak in athletic ability. Also, training hard wears out the body in a way that is hard to describe. Recovery is not just a short term process. Most people understand that you need a day or two off after a hard workout. But people are less aware of the need for a whole week off after several weeks of training or a whole month off after several months of training. Over time, the body just becomes less willing to adapt to stress, even with rest between workouts and variety in the training plan. This is not very well explained; it just happens. A period of reduced physical stress allows the body to refresh itself. When intense training begins again, the body is once again capable of responding well. So a successful rest period will not only peak athletic abilities, but also improve the likelihood of further improvement in the future. That should be enough to convince you to try it.

Microscope image showing the variety of muscle fiber types.

The other topic I want to cover is one of my favorite topics in all of sports training. It’s called the Overshoot Phenomenon. This will take some explaining. First let me clarify that when I use the word explosiveness, I mean the speed at which muscle tension is generated, also known as rate of force development (RFD). A key factor that determines explosiveness is the twitch speed of muscle fibers. People have created three labels (type 1, type 2A, type 2B) for classifying muscle fibers, but in actuality there is a whole twitch speed spectrum of far more than three types of fibers. Every person has fibers in all areas of the spectrum. People with a higher percentage of fibers on the fast-twitch end of the spectrum have an advantage when performing explosive athletic movements. It has been discovered that muscle fibers actually shift up or down on the twitch speed spectrum in response to one’s activities. However, no one has really figured out how this happens. A muscle fiber’s type is identified by the chemical composition of the head of the myosin protein within the muscle cells. We do not yet understand the signaling process or means by which that chemical composition changes, but the point is that it does happen. Here’s the surprising part. Completely sedentary people (people with spinal injuries for example) have an extremely high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers, an even higher percentage than highly trained athletes. Seems impossible, right? The explanation is that fast-twitch fibers are powerful and use a lot of energy, while slow-twitch fibers are very energy efficient. A sedentary person does not need to conserve energy for any activity, so the body has no need for energy efficient muscle fibers. Thus, your lazy couch potato friend very well may have a higher percentage of fast-twitch fibers than you. Unfair, right? It gets worse. When you begin or increase the volume of explosive training and lifting, muscle fibers actually shift down toward the slow end of the spectrum, because the increase in activity level requires more efficiency in the muscle fibers. There are other factors that affect explosiveness, but in this area, explosive training actually makes an athlete less explosive. Pretty bogus, right? Here’s the payoff, though. During a period of rest following a period of explosive training, muscle fibers shift back toward the fast end of the spectrum. If the rest is long enough, muscle fibers actually surpass, or overshoot, their twitch speed from before the training. So you end up with a higher percentage of fast-twitch fibers than you started with. No one has been able to explain why this happens. That is the Overshoot Phenomenon. This is not a new or secret discovery; it’s taught in undergraduate sports training classes. Yet people never seem to talk about it or take advantage of it in training. I don’t know if they just can’t handle taking time off or if they don’t believe it works or what. Let me assure you that the Overshoot Phenomenon is proven. It’s called a phenomenon because it’s unexplained, not because it’s unreliable. It’s confirmed by research, it shows up in stories from sports history, and I’ve personally experienced it multiple times. It’s never failed me. As a result I have gained high enough RFD to hang power snatch 70% of my max squat. This is an extremely valuable tool to be used in training.

The discovery of the Overshoot Phenomenon and some of the other muscle fiber type research clue us in to the behavior of muscle fiber type adaptations. The general principle to understand is that muscle fibers, if not used, default toward the fast-twitch end of the spectrum. Activity pulls fibers away from the fast-twitch end, but how far away depends on the nature and volume of the activity. This has several applications to training. First, having a lower activity level promotes a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers. That is a great evidence for the “Less is More” principle. Instead of joining “Team No Days Off,” try doing three good workouts per week. Instead of spending 5 hours at the gym, shoot for an hour and a half. Second, avoid endurance work and conditioning when you can. There is no reason you need to be in peak cardiovascular shape in the off-season. Third, when it comes to a rest period, do your best to have a low total physical stress level. Just do enough to maintain what you need to maintain. In the case of jump training, that means you just need to do enough jump practice or other explosive training to hold onto your explosive strength. Avoid endurance activities or conditioning. And do not do strength training. Lastly, look for opportunities to take advantage of the Overshoot Phenomenon. It requires inactivity. As stated before, complete rest is not recommended often, because of the loss of structural strength. However, if there is already a reason for you to be inactive, go ahead and do it. There are benefits. An injury, a vacation, or the end of a hard season may be a good time to use the Overshoot Phenomenon to your advantage.