Ask a Trainer (Vol. IV)

Hi everyone, and welcome to Ask a Trainer, Volume IV. Have you seen the first three volumes? Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III

You got questions? We got answers! Send an email to with all your fitness, health, and wellness queries. You might even end up in the next Ask a Trainer!

Today we’re going to talk about what happens when you stop exercising, how long you should be resting between weight lifting sets, finding people to support your goals, and finally maintaining a healthy body while losing fat.

If I stop exercising, will I lose the gains I’ve made?

Yes, eventually. Lets define exercise as “controlled bodily movement that leads to positive physiological, mental, and emotional adaptations to physical stresses”. Typically, a regular exercise routine will help you maintain a healthy body composition of Fat Mass and Lean Mass (i.e. weight control); strengthen your muscles for usage in every day life (and during emergencies); make you more resistance to disease (and better able to recover when you do get sick); and, help you manage stress by releasing endorphins and mitigating the stress hormone cortisol. Seriously, exercise is awesome.

BUT these effects only last so long. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, gains are lost at different rates and for different people. If you are extremely fit right now and stop exercising, you will see rapid losses in the first three weeks, which will taper off to slower losses as time goes on. For people of average fitness, the loss in the first three weeks is usually about 5-10% of aerobic power. Both groups will maintain muscular adaptations longer than aerobic ones, with strength and endurance lasting up to 2 months after you stop exercising.

Keep in mind that this what happens when you go from exercising regularly to complete inactivity. If you maintain a less strenuous exercise routine, you will still see losses, but only down to the point where your current routine keeps you.

For example, assume you build up your running endurance over 12 months so that you can run 6 days per week at 15 miles per day, and your marathon time averages 4 hours. If you drop your running down to 3 miles per day, you can reasonably expect your marathon time to increase dramatically. After a couple months you may lose the ability to finish at all.

Section Sources:

  • American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription – “Maintenance of the Training Effect.” 7th ed. Baltimore, Md: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2006.
  • American Council on Exercise. “If You Don’t Use It, Will You Lose It?American Council on Exercise. Retrieved April 22, 2009.

How long should I rest between Sets during resistance/weight training?

The amount of rest you need depends on how heavy you’re lifting and how many reps you’re doing.

  • For light weight, high rep workouts (e.g. 15+ reps at 50% 1 Rep Max) you generally only need about 30 seconds of rest between sets of the same movement.
  • For medium weight, medium rep workouts (e.g. 8-12 reps at 65-70% 1 Rep Max)¬† you should increase your rest between sets to 45-60 seconds.
  • for heavy weight, low rep workouts (e.g. 6 or fewer reps at 80-90% 1 Rep Max) you should increase the rest dramatically to 90 seconds or longer.

The heavier the weight, the more recovery time you will need in order to do more reps. Heavy weights place a high tax on your muscles in order to move through your full range of motion. It takes more relative effort to move heavy weights than it does to move light weights. This can be explained by the metabolic energy systems of the body.

Long-term energy is produced through the Aerobic System, which uses oxygen to produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate) fueled by blood sugar (glucose) and triglycerides (body fat). Aerobic synthesis is awesome; it produces 18x more energy than the anaerobic systems (see below). This is the system you hit when you train “cardio” like running or light weight/high rep weight lifting. Since it’s a long term powerhouse, you need less rest to recover from efforts requiring the Aerobic system.

Metabolic Energy Systems

Metabolic Energy Systems used over Time During Exercise

Glycolysis is the medium-term energy system. This can occur both anaerobically (without oxygen) or aerobically (with oxygen) at the same time. When oxygen is too low, the system produces lactate which sits around making your muscles sore until more oxygen arrives to help metabolize it. With oxygen present, the process results in Acetyl-CoA instead, which can be consumed by mitochondria in the cell. You can generally sustain this kind of energy production for 30-120 seconds, before your muscles stop firing efficiently. It’s biggest draw is that it is faster than the Aerobic System, and lasts longer than the Phosphagen System (see below). Tabata or High Intensity Interval Training are two examples of exercise methods that use this system heavily. These efforts require more rest than aerobic activities because this system takes a bit longer to recover.

The Phosphagen System is your extreme short-term, intense, burst energy system. While the Aerobic and Glycolysis systems use sugars and fats to produce ATP energy, the Phosphagen System uses Creatine Phosphate (CP) that is stored in the muscles. No carbs or fat are used at all, which becomes a problem as there is a very limited amount of CP stored in your muscles. The major benefit of this system is that it is incredibly fast at producing energy at the highest strength muscle contractions you can complete, with the drawback being you are limited to about 10 seconds of effort before you run out of juice. The recovery time is also significantly higher than the other systems, as CP has to be synthesized and shunted back to the muscles experiencing the deficit. Strength training for 1-5 reps at a time at very heavy weights uses this system almost exclusively, which is why you need a lot of rest between efforts.

Should I tell people about my goals and/or what I’m doing to work towards them?

Yes, depending on the person. Lets be honest, we all have a multitude of people in our lives. So are supportive, loving, kind, positive, and push you to be the best you can while some others…well, not so much. The key is to share your goals with the people who will support you in them, and ignore the people who aren’t helping you. The best kind of support structure is one that also pushes you to accomplish your goals. Here are some characteristics of a good supporter:

Genuine Desire for Your to Succeed

Someone who is supportive only for selfish reasons, and not because they care about you, may end up pushing you in the wrong way. Be careful of anyone who has a personal stake in your success. That doesn’t mean business partners, or someone who stands to benefit from your success doesn’t also want you to succeed for your benefit, so don’t discount them based solely on motivation. Make sure to also watch for how they support you.

Positive About Your Goals

A supportive person keeps positive about your goals and doesn’t reprimand or belittle you when things don’t go as planned. They help keep you on track with encouragement, and not with punishments. Sure, you may ask them to help you figure out small consequences for not finishing micro-goals (e.g. they won’t let you get dessert if you didn’t workout that day, per your request) but they’re always framing it in a positive light. Positivity goes a long way towards helping you achieve what you want.

Help You Be Positive AND Realistic

But positivity without realistic assessment is not terribly helpful. Your supporter should also help you come up with and strive for realistic goals. If you tell them you want to train for one month and go from couch potato to marathon runner, they should applaud your intent but help you set a better timeline. Again, they should be positive about this: “That sounds awesome, and I really want you to make that happen. Are you sure you’ll have the time to run that much? What if I help you setup a schedule over the next 3-4 months instead, that way you don’t get overwhelmed? I’ll even text/call/run with you sometimes to help!”

These aren’t the only characteristics of a good support structure, but they’re some of the most important. Use them as a basis for deciding who you want in your corner, and you’ll take another huge step towards future success.

A big shout-out to my wife, Bethany, who is ten kinds of awesomesauce with how supportive she is with All The Things, and my mother, Mary, who has never once let me think that I’m not capable of anything.

How quickly can I lose fat, without losing muscle too?

The human body can only adapt so fast, and that’s just as true with weight management as it is with anything else. When you try to push it, you run into issues. A pound of body fat contains 3,500 calories worth of energy, so that means that in order to lose 1 lbs. you need to induce a 3,500 calorie deficit over some period of time. The time period doesn’t really matter, either. Technically you could lose 1 lbs. per year by eating ~9.6 calories less than you need each day. That’s a little slow, sure, but it works!

Generally, people want to lose as much body fat as they can, as fast as they can, while still maintaining good health. The upper limit on healthy fat loss is about 2 lbs. per week, which would require a caloric deficit of 1,000 calories per day! At this rate of loss you are almost guaranteed to lose muscle mass along with the fat mass, so it doesn’t really fulfill our needs. It’s also not the most healthy thing, as you’ll feel pretty drained and weaker than normal from not getting enough nutrition and food.

A more realistic goal is to lose 1 lbs. of fat per week while still maintaining roughly the same muscle mass. This is called a Cut, and requires an average deficit of 500 calories per day. This deficit can be achieved through diet or exercise, but for best results should include both. A typical cut week may include eating 300 calories less per day than you need at your current weight, and an additional 200 calories of exercise each day (or 400 calories of exercise every other day). Exercise needs to include both cardio and moderate weight training, or else you’ll start losing muscle mass too.

A Note on “Super Miracle Diets”

Some diets bill themselves as being able to help you drop 3-5 lbs. per week. These can take a lot of forms, but they normally include extreme caloric deficits, heavy food intake restrictions, very heavy cardio, supplements (incl. caffeine), and other “crash” diet methods.

Here’s the thing:

They technically work for the specified amount of time. Seriously.

For that couple weeks you’ll probably lose 10-15 lbs eating/drinking/taking whatever they tell you. It’s actually not that hard to make up one of those diets and sell it. It’s just extreme dietary programming, and when you don’t have to follow it, it’s really easy to do the math and tell someone else to follow it. (Oh, and of course charge $50 for the plan because, hey, economics in action!)

Here’s the other thing:

They don’t last and they are horrible for you. Seriously.

These crash course, super extreme, 1000 calories or less per day, juice cleanse, herbal cleanse, supplement filled, processed food, short-term diets are almost the worst thing you can do for yourself (aside from using heroin, which is also bad, mm’kay?). You might as well just eat normally for the same amount of time and then binge for two weeks after that, since that’s about what your body will feel like anyway a couple weeks after you finish one of these diets. From my experience (personal and with clients), 90% or more of people will bounce-back after the initial weight loss period to regain all the weight they lost OR gain more weight because their body is so messed up it doesn’t function correctly.

You need a dietary lifestyle that you can maintain. Quick fixes and magic pills would be awesome. Trust me, if there was a “Look Like Gerard Butler in 300” pill that worked I’d buy stock in the company, become a distributor, and take three a day. But there isn’t, so instead I do pull-ups and go easy on the pie. Long term commitment trumps short term sprints any time.


And that’s it! Join us next time for more fitness and health goodness!