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How Taking a Week Off From Lifting Works

Weight Loss

Strength training/weight lifting is a fantastic (and underrated) way to get lean and toned.

Why?

While strength workouts don’t burn as many calories as pure cardio, they encourage your body to maintain or build muscle while you lose fat, and they rapidly improve your metabolism.

(Also read: Running results after one month explained)

But can you get shredded within your first month of lifting? Is that a realistic goal for a 1 month weight lifting before and after?

It all comes down to how you’re eating.

“If you are eating a healthy whole food diet and ADDING weight lifting to your routine, you should expect to lose anywhere from 4-8lbs,” writes Boan, emphasizing that you’ll need to cut calories to meet your weight loss goal (lifting alone isn’t enough).

Strength coach Sarah Ray from Volt Athletics says new lifters will experience a rapid boost in metabolism, which leads to better calorie burn at rest and can help you lose weight.

However… “Sometimes (the scale) will move up. This often discourages new lifters, but I promise you are NOT bulking up!” she adds.

“Resistance training is designed to put stress on muscle fibers that causes small micro-tears. Your body responds to these micro-tears and the inflammation that comes along with it by initiating a healing response (rebuilding those micro-tears to form more muscle!) and retaining fluids to help alleviate the inflammation.”

Bottom line, lifting weights on its own won’t make you lose weight. In fact, the scale could move up as you add muscle and retain more fluids.

Create a daily calorie deficit and eat enough protein and it’s possible to lose fat AND get stronger in your first month.

(More on that here: How much weight should I lose?)

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lift

lift verb1. to raise or bring to a higher position. The box was so heavy I couldn’t lift it.2. to take and carry away. He lifted the table through into the kitchen.3. (of mist etc) to disappear. By noon, the fog was beginning to lift.4. to rise. The aeroplane lifted into the air. noun1. the act of lifting. a lift of the eyebrows.2. (American ˈelevator) a small enclosed platform etc that moves up and down between floors carrying goods or people. Since she was too tired to climb the stairs, she went up in the lift.3. a ride in someone’s car etc. Can I give you a lift into town?4. a raising of the spirits. Her success in the exam gave her a great lift.lift off (of a rocket etc) to leave the ground ( ˈlift-off) nounKernerman English Multilingual Dictionary © 2006-2013 K Dictionaries Ltd.

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What Muscles Does the Deadlift Work?

Main Muscles Worked

Deadlifts challenge hundreds of muscles, tendons, and bones throughout our bodies, but they’re best for working our hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors, and traps.

The deadlift does a good job of bulking up our sup
The deadlift does a good job of bulking up our superficial back muscles.

The deadlift trains our hips through a deep range of motion, making it perfect for building bigger glutes. While doing that, the weight is held in our grips and hanging from our traps and rear delts, with our lats pulling it in close. All of these muscles are worked hard enough to grow.

Where the deadlift truly shines, though, is in its ability to work our deeper back muscles—our spinal erectors and transverse abdominis muscles (TVA). These are the muscles that hold our backs straight as we lift the weight up.

The deadlift is even better at working our deep ba
The deadlift is even better at working our deep back muscles.

The deadlift is technically a hip hinge—an exercise for bulking up our glutes and hamstrings. But because of how hard our back muscles are worked, it’s best described as a full-body lift for the entire posterior chain.

What Should Feel Sore After Doing Deadlifts?

The deadlift is a hip hinge, working our glutes and hamstrings through a deep range of motion. Feeling soreness in those muscles a day or two after working out is, and it’s what most people expect. But remember, the deadlift also trains our spinal erectors, so it’s also common to have a sore lower back after deadlifting.

People often worry when their lower back burns after a hard set of deadlifts or when it gets sore the next day. But the deadlift trains the lower back. So just like all of our other muscles, our lower backs will burn, get a pump, and get sore afterwards.

Does the Deadlift Work the Neck?

Of all the big compound lifts, the deadlift is the one that’s the most likely to bulk up your neck. In fact, if you count your upper traps as part of your neck, then the deadlift is a great neck exercise. The deadlift will absolutely bulk up your traps.

The deadlift is great for our traps, questionable
The deadlift is great for our traps, questionable for our necks.

However, if you’re also interested in bulking up your sternocleidomastoid, which is the muscle that will make your neck thicker, then the relationship between the deadlift and your neck becomes more tenuous.

If you deadlift with classic technique, eyes forward, keeping your spine neutral from top to bottom, then the deadlift probably won’t stimulate any neck growth whatsoever. This is generally considered the safest deadlift technique, and it’s our default recommendation. (We aren’t sticklers about it, though.)

On the other hand, if you tend to look up while deadlifting, then as the barbell pulls against your collarbones, your sternocleidomastoid might get stretched out under a heavy load, which can cause some neck growth. However, that brings the very top of your spine out of a neutral position, and even though that area of your spine won’t be bearing any load, some spinal experts argue that it’s more dangerous. (There’s very little evidence one way or the other. It depends on how cautious you want to be.)

Regardless, no matter what position your neck is in while deadlifting, there’s no real guarantee that your neck will grow. And even if your neck does grow, it’s unlikely that it will grow very quickly or very much.

As a result, if you want a thicker and stronger neck, I would recommend doing some dedicated neck training. You won’t need extra work for your upper traps, but you’ll probably want some extra work for your sternocleidomastoid.

Potential Answers

Based on those factors, the potential answers can be all over the place and range from one extreme (do a lot of something) to another (do none of that same thing).

For example, maybe your off days would ideally involve doing a certain amount and type of cardio. Maybe a certain amount and type of stretching or mobility work. Maybe some form of active recovery. Maybe some other unrelated form of training for some unrelated sport or activity you happen to be training for.

Then again, maybe you should be doing absolutely nothing on your off days.

That’s why I hate this question. I get a ton of people who tell me they’re using The Beginner Weight Training Routine, or The Muscle Building Workout Routine, or a program from The Best Workout Routines, and they follow that up with “so um, what should I be doing on my off days?”

I really don’t have all that great of an answer for them.

Keeping Your Spine Strong Healthy

Sometimes you’ll hear that the deadlift is dangerous, and it certainly can be. There’s an inherent risk in every lift. What we want to do is minimize those risks while still reaping as many benefits as we can.

There are two common mindsets about lifting, and they seem to be most at odds when it comes to the deadlift. Some people see themselves as invulnerable and they rush right into things regardless of the risk. Other people see themselves as fragile and they shy away from things that might hurt them.

The guys who rush recklessly into lifting will often get hurt, and the deadlift can be especially bad for that. Lifting with a rounded back makes the lift a bit easier on the hips by shrinking the moment arm, like so:

Deadlifting with a neutral spine requires more hip
Deadlifting with a neutral spine requires more hip strength.

This allows people to rest the weight on their spines and muscle it up with their hips. That’s no good. Our spines are strong, and they’ll often hold out for quite a while, but there’s only so much stupidity they can take. It doesn’t always happen, and it doesn’t always happen right away, but these guys often get hurt.

Cautious people hear about these injuries and they psyche themselves out. Any soreness in their lower back worries them. They start to see the deadlift as an assault on their fragile spines.

But even if you believe that your spine is fragile, you’ve still got a couple of different approaches you could take. The first option is to tiptoe around your spine, never stressing it, and abandoning it to get gradually weaker. The other approach is to toughen your spine to the point where it isn’t fragile anymore.

Bone in a healthy person or animal will adapt to the loads under which it is placed.

Wolff’s Law, discovered by Julius Wolff, PhD

Now, what’s neat about the spinal erectors is that although they span your entire spine, they’re made up of many different little muscles that span just a couple of vertebrae. This means that your back might be strong in some places, weak in others. You could have a strong lower back and a weak upper back or vice versa. What’s nice about conventional deadlifts is that they do a great job of strengthening our entire spines from top to bottom.

Progressive overload is a gradual process. A few pounds here, an extra rep there. A slightly stressed disc today, a slightly stronger disc tomorrow. We may start off lifting modest weights with fragile backs, but our spines will adapt along with our muscles, growing tougher as we grow stronger (study).

Intensive training will increase the bone mineral content (BMC) to an extent that the spine can tolerate extraordinary loads.

Spinal loading research by Granhed et al

We do still want to be cautious, though. For example, we recommend deloading now and then, giving ourselves a chance to fully recover from any minor damage that we may be accumulating. Every few weeks, do a couple of easier workouts. Every few months, take a week off. Every few years, take a month off.

You don’t necessarily need to take time off from lifting, just from heavy spinal loading. For example, you could spend a few weeks every year doing 1-legged Romanian deadlifts instead of conventional deadlifts.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In order to minimize our risk of injury while reaping all of these rewards, we need to deadlift with good technique. And different people have different ideas of what that looks like.

There are two popular ways of deadlifting (properly):

  • Strongman-style: the strongman mentality is to build a back that’s tough even in unsafe positions, and so they deadlift hard and heavy. The barbell starts a bit higher, allowing for heavier loading. They use lifting straps, again allowing for heavier loading. And they allow hitching—resting the barbell on the knees and then dragging it up the thighs. You’ll also see strongmen lifting with rounded backs during a variety of different lifts, including deadlifts—on purpose.
  • Powerlifter-style: the powerlifter mentality is to deadlift with absolutely textbook technique. They still deadlift heavy, of course, but the barbell starts low, there are no lifting straps, and there’s no hitching. This forces lighter weights, a longer range of motion, and a steadier amount of stress on the spine. All lifts are done with a neutral spine, and most especially deadlifts.

Dr Stuart McGill’s research found that deadlifting with a rounded back puts around 950% as much shear stress on our spines. No surprise, then, that strongmen have about twice the injury rate of powerlifters (source).

Most of us will want to deadlift more like powerlifters, keeping our spines in the neutral range. If we do that, we can expect a lower chance of getting injured than joggers, soccer players, and triathletes.

We aren’t just trying to stay safe, though, we’re also trying to get bigger and stronger. And beyond the beginner stage, improving means that we need to push outside of our comfort zones and fight to add weight to the bar.

Challenging deadlifts will cause our backs to flex
Challenging deadlifts will cause our backs to flex. That’s okay.

As we lift closer to our max weight, or as we near the end of a hard set, our textbook form will start to waver. If our back strength is our limiting factor, then our spinal erectors might stretch out a bit, and our backs might start to flex. That’s normal.

As we add weight to the bar, our spinal erectors will all grow strong together, and the stress on our backs will be shared between the many different vertebrae in our spines, minimizing the stress on any one joint.

The trick is that the curve must be modest and smooth. As long as we only flex a degree or two at each vertebra, we’re still within what’s called the neutral “range,” where our vertebrae are still more or less in the middle of their range of motion. In this slightly flexed position, the shear stress should still be tolerable, and our risk of injury should stay low.

Point being, deadlifts should be done with care to reduce our risk of injury. But we also need to lift heavy, hard, and with confidence in order to provoke beneficial adaptations. If we can balance caution with aggression, then over time our entire backs—including the bones and connective tissues in our spines—will become bigger, stronger, harder, and more robust.

Focus on Other Activity

A week off from lifting is just that — a week without focusing on sets, reps and heavy iron. You might enjoy some cardio exercise during a week off or keep exercise informal, such as taking a bike ride with your family or a long walk with your significant other. McCall says it takes a couple weeks of inactivity for noticeable losses in strength and muscle mass to occur so don’t worry about serious effects on any progress you’ve made.

Final Thoughts

Newbie gains are an exciting and important stage in every lifter’s journey. It is often what gets people hooked on training and really drives their motivation up in the first 6 months to a year. 

Going beyond the first year you are sure to notice a drop off in progress, however there are several things you can implement like increasing strength and eating enough of the right food to keep you progressing for years to come. 

It’s all part of the process, it’s to be expected and even embraced as a challenge we’re all destined to be hit with unless you choose to go the enhanced route.

Why Do Newbie Gains Stop?

To answer why newbie gains stop you have to consider why they happened in the first place: because the stimulus was new and your body was learning how to be efficient.

You may be surprised to find out that the scientific community actually doesn’t fully understand the mechanism of muscle hypertrophy and so the reasons behind why and how we build muscle is still being actively researched. 

However, we do know that the accelerated response does stop eventually for everyone.

The repeated bout effect is an effect researched within the strength and conditioning community that sits on the principle that doing the same thing over and over again isn’t going to impact you the same way each time. 

Therefore, every repeated bout will be less impactful until whatever you’re doing doesn’t work anymore.

In 1999, McHugh et al. discussed the repeated bout effect and some potential mechanisms most of which are thought of to be neural, cellular or influenced by connective tissue. 

Meaning, your nervous system or your muscle tissues communicate better and become a lot more efficient over time; however, a conclusive mechanism on what causes this is still up in the air.

At the microscopic level, you are eliciting fewer hormones for muscle protein synthesis and creating less prolonged damage to the muscle as a well-trained person, possibly resulting in a less significant training effect, as discussed in a paper by Damas et al. 

From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense because we are adaptive creatures, from an athletic perspective this is just an unfortunate reality you have to come to terms with.

At a micro-level you see the repeated bout effect start to kick in when you notice that you’re just a little less sore this week than you were last week from the exact same workout. At the macro level, you eventually see it as hitting a plateau with either muscle gain, strength gain or both.

Hitting a plateau?  Check out our articles: 

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