The Reversibility Principle in Sports Training

The Reversibility Principle dictates that athletes lose the effects of training when they stop working out. Conversely, it also means that detraining effects can be reversed when they resume training. In short, If you don't use it, you lose it. (1)

While rest periods are necessary for recovery, extended rest intervals reduce physical fitness. The physiological effects of fitness training diminish over time, causing the body to revert back to its pretraining condition.

Detraining occurs within a relatively short time period after an athlete ceases to train. Only about 10% of strength is lost 8 weeks after training stops, but 30-40% of muscular endurance is lost during the same time period. (2)

While studies report statistically significant (See Research Terms) losses of fitness, athletes usually feel the effects of missing workouts in a shorter period of time. Generally, they notice losses in endurance and conditioning more quickly than strength.

The Reversibility Principle Does Not Apply to Retaining Skills

Sport skills are retained for much longer periods of time. A skill once learned is never forgotten, especially if well learned.

Coordination appears to store in long-term motor memory and remains nearly perfect for decades, particularly for continuous skills (e.g., cycling, swimming). (Also see Sport Memory) Over time, strength, endurance, and flexibility are lost, but athletes remember how to execute sport skills and strategies. (3)

The challenge often concerns regaining precise timing after detraining. In other words, the motor skill programs remain intact but the body's physical tools for executing the programs become rusty and must be resharpened.

Coaching Tips on Applying the Reversibility Principle

1. Conditioning. After long rest intervals, begin a conditioning program to rebuild sport fitness. After several weeks of detraining due to illness or for other reasons, athletes may need to increase training volume and reduce intensity to regain general conditioning.

2. Active Rests. During the off season, active participation in other sports or activities minimizes detraining effects and can even facilitate skill learning. Avoid long rest periods with complete inactivity.

3. Retraining. Increase exercise gradually and progressively after long periods of inactivity. Athletes should avoid performing intense work without first reconditioning. (See the Overload Principle )

4. Avoid Maximum Attempts. Athletes should not attempt to lift single maximum weight loads early in conditioning. They will remember how to properly execute the lifts, but may sustain an injury if they overestimate how much weight they can lift compared to their peak performance.

5. Flexibility. Emphasize stretching exercises to regain joint flexibility. This is particularly important for older adults who participate in senior sports.

Other Sports Training Principles include:

Balance Principle

Individualization Principle

Overload Principle

Recovery Principle

Specificity Principle

Transfer Principle

Variation Principle

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1. Powers, S.K., Dodd, S.L., Noland, V.J. (2006). Total fitness and wellness (4th ed.). San Francisco: Pearson Education.

2. Costill, D. & Richardson, A. (1993). Handbook of sports medicine: Swimming. London: Blackwell Publishing.

3. Schmidt, R.A. & Wrisberg, C.A. (2000). Motor learning and performance: A problem-based learning approach (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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