I remember as a teenager reading one of the 2-inch tall bodybuilding “encyclopedia” books that were popular in the 1980s. Of note in this particular volume was a few pages written by an emerging pro, a guy who had an impressive physique, but was not yet championship-level. This fellow was a huge advocate of taking time off from the gym, with a phobia of overtraining. His recommendation was something like: skip the gym for one week each month, and then stop for a whole month each year.
Funny thing—I never heard about this guy again.
This month, I returned to the gym after a 30+ day vacation in Spain. The lessons I learned about rebounding from a gym layoff warrant their own FAQ.
Do I lose all my gains on a month-long vacation?
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, my cardio conditioning held up much better than my weight training. Steady state activities like jogging, and HIIT like jumping rope, were essentially the same after my trip, with just a little more soreness the following day.
On the other hand, my resistance conditioning has fallen off a cliff. The amount of weight I can move and the number of sets I can do before going wobbly is down by at least 25 percent. It’s a mess, actually. In the future, I’m going to bring a mental list of bodyweight exercises on vacation. A cold restart, at least at this age, is just too difficult.
How can I stay fit on my vacation?
Fitness is about more than just exercise, and I’ve written before how exercise is the least important aspect of maintaining health. On vacation, elevate what you can control: sleep well, receive plenty of sunlight, and consume high-quality food intermittently.
Depending on your plans, you can also stay physically active, with at a minimum, some significant walking. It occurrs to me that my cardio conditioning held because, as I noted, “Ibiza, and really all of the Spanish coast, is a community built into a cliff. Although I haven’t been to the gym since early June, I end every day covered in sweat … Permanent residents must have the greatest hamstrings and calves on earth.”
In fact, I don’t know how restorative—physically—vacations really are. For me, after yanking heavy suitcases off airport conveyor belts, lugging a stroller around Spain, and sleeping awkwardly on pull-out mattresses, my body needed a vacation from my vacation.
As a side note, these rules for staying fit outside the gym apply not only to vacations, but also to life generally if you’re sidelined by injury.
How do I know when I’m ready to start training again?
The bodybuilding pro with the downtime obsession had at least one thing right: taking a break from the gym is important for mental health, independent of whatever aches and pains need time to heal. As I wrote previously:
Taking a break from the gym is great not just for the physical rest, but also for stepping away from the mental grind. I’m not even talking about what’s required to motivate yourself day after day. The gym environment itself creates anxiety and stress.
When you’re younger, you know you’re ready to return to the gym when you’re climbing the walls at home and desperate for a place to explode. Now, at this stage of life, I didn’t have boundless energy bouncing me towards the gym; instead, I felt a powerful magnetism, where I couldn’t help but gather my things, and go.