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When you first got into fitness, everything you read and everyone you spoke to said consistency is king.
The more you put into your workout routine, the more you get out of it. There are no shortcuts or free lunches. You learn, you hustle, and hustle, and hustle, until…finally…you get the body you want.
Don’t have time? You just don’t want it enough.
Don’t feel like going to the gym? Same thing–suck it up.
Don’t want to lift heavy? Have fun staying small.
And, no stranger to hard work, you meet the challenge every step of the way. You give 110% to your training. Every day…week…month…and year.
So far, things have gone as you envisioned. You’re bigger, leaner, and stronger than you’ve been in a while, and you don’t want the party to end.
But, what if it does have to end, at least for a little while?
What happens if you have to take a few days, a week, or even a month away from the gym?
You’ve always heard that, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” and the second you stop lifting weights, your muscles enter a slow, steady state of decay. The longer you spend out of the gym, the smaller, weaker, and softer you’ll be at the end of your hiatus.
How true is that idea, though?
After months or years of lifting weights, do your muscles really shrink that quickly?
Well, the long story short is that yes, if you take a long enough break from lifting weights, you will lose muscle and strength. The good news, though, is that it takes much longer than most people realize, and you’ll rebuild muscle much faster than it took to gain it in the first place.
In this podcast, you’ll learn how long it really takes to lose muscle and strength when you stop lifting weights, what you can do to maintain your progress when you take time off, and what to expect when you get back in the swing of things.
Let’s jump right in.
Mentioned on the show:
Muscle Memory Is Real and Here’s How It Helps You Build Muscle Fast
Mike: [00:00:02] If you are a fit person or on your way to becoming one, you know that consistency and hard work are everything. You know, there are no shortcuts, there are no magic bullets, you have to keep showing up every day or at least three to five days, maybe even six days per week, putting in the time, lifting heavy weights, pushing yourself to get stronger and stronger, following your meal plan, making sure that your calories and macros are right, and so on and so forth.
[00:00:33] Now, what happens to your physique, though, if you can’t be as consistent for whatever reason, if you are going to miss some training sessions or maybe even many training sessions due to vacation injury or just life circumstances?
[00:00:52] Now, you’ve probably heard that if you don’t use it, you lose it. And as far as muscles go, if you stop training for even a short period of time, you start to lose muscle mass and you can lose it very quickly. I remember many years ago when I had read in some random magazine that your body views muscle as a liability because it costs many calories to maintain. And therefore, if you don’t continually train your muscles and continually feed them with not only calories but protein, you will quickly lose your gains.
[00:01:30] Now, fortunately, that’s not true. It is not as easy to lose muscle and strength as many people think and as I once thought. And that’s what we’re here to talk about. I’m Mike Matthews with Legion Athletics and today I’m going to answer the question: How quickly do you lose muscle and strength when you stop working out?
[00:03:39] So first, let’s address this idea that muscle is a liability because it costs a lot of energy to maintain, and therefore your body wants to shed as much excess muscle as possible. Well, I think this idea originally came from the fact that building muscle is an energy-intensive and complex process, which is one of the reasons why it’s slow.
And I think that was then extrapolated to this conclusion that “oh, because it costs a lot of energy and it requires quite a bit of physiology to build muscle, that it also must cost a lot of energy and a lot of physiological processes to maintain muscle.” Now, there’s some truth there because muscle is metabolically active, whereas body fat is not.
And it does require ongoing maintenance, so to speak. That’s one of the reasons why, for example, you need to eat a higher protein diet to not only gain muscle but maintain the muscle that you have. But it is not true that your body views muscle is a liability and wants to just shed it or excess amounts of it as quickly as possible.
Now, obviously, if you work out for a long time and you get very muscular and then you completely stop working out, you are going to lose muscle. But that just makes sense. That is almost just commonsensical, right? So your muscles have had to deal with a certain type of stimulus for a long time, and that was sending a signal to the body, “we better make these muscles bigger and stronger. We need them.”
Obviously, the body doesn’t understand that it is just a contrived situation where it really just needs the muscle to pick things up and put them down. But the body looks at it more from a perspective of just brute survival. Now, if you remove that signal, that stimulus entirely, if you remove training from the picture, obviously, then the body is getting a different message. It’s not getting challenged in the way that it was. And so it simply doesn’t need to spend the energy on maintaining this higher than normal amount of lean mass and adding to it.
[00:05:55] Another thing to consider with muscle mass in general is: research shows that the total amount of lean mass that we have is correlated with all-cause mortality or death from all causes. And the key takeaway there is basically: the more muscle that you have, the more likely you are to survive trauma, disease, and so forth. Or you can look at a different way the less likely you are to die from trauma and disease.
[00:06:22] And so anyway, while building muscle and gaining strength is a slow and costly process. Most studies show that muscle loss doesn’t occur until at least two to three weeks of no training. That doesn’t give you the whole picture, though, because those studies looked at reductions in lean body mass, which consists of everything that isn’t fat.
And yes, that means muscle tissue, but it also means glycogen, which is a form of carbohydrate, and water that is stored in muscle tissue in which research shows can account for up to 15 to 16 percent of muscle size. And the key point here is research shows that intramuscular, so inside the muscle, glycogen and water levels can drop precipitously in those first couple weeks of no training. In one study, glycogen levels dropped by about 20 percent within the first two weeks. And in other research, intramuscular glycogen levels had dropped by about 40 percent by the fourth week of no training.
[00:07:31] And so when you look at those studies, when you look at the data, I think that it is very reasonable to say that within your first three to four weeks of no training, you can expect about a 10 percent reduction in muscle size simply from the reduction in intramuscular glycogen and water levels. And so what that would mean then is while you have technically lost lean body mass, that’s how it would register on a test like DEXA, for example, and your muscles look smaller, you have not necessarily lost muscle tissue, just intramuscular fluids.
[00:08:10] And I also think it is reasonable to say, at least based on my understanding of the detraining research that we have available, that actual muscle loss doesn’t occur until probably the fourth or fifth week of no training. And that is assuming that your diet is at least halfway reasonable. Of course, if you were to stop working out and start eating 500 calories per day and very little protein, you are going to lose muscle sooner and faster than if your calories were around maintenance and you still are eating a fair amount of protein.
[00:08:47] And something else to consider is: let’s assume that I’m right, and actual muscle loss doesn’t start occurring until the fourth or fifth week of no training and that maybe makes you feel a little bit better, but you are going to be taking two months or three months or more off of training. Don’t forget that muscle memory is real. And what I mean by that is it is much easier to regain muscle than it is to gain it the first time around.
This has been proven scientifically. We understand the physiological mechanisms behind it. There’s no question. And I won’t go into all the details here because I have already recorded a podcast. I believe I recorded a podcast. I’ve definitely written an article on it. So if you Google “Legion Athletics muscle memory” you’ll find the article that I wrote and I believe there’s a podcast, so you can probably search my podcast feed, just search “muscle memory” and you’ll find it there as well.
[00:09:41] And my point for bringing that up, though, is, okay, so let’s say you are going to lose some muscle, that is what it is, you can take solace in the fact that when you do get back to training, you are going to regain whatever you lost very, very quickly. It’s going to be like newbie gains all over again.
[00:09:58] I have experienced this, I’d say probably my best personal example of that is many years ago I fractured my wrist playing football and I was in a full arm cast on my left arm for like, six weeks. And for the first couple of weeks, I did do some workouts, but they were mostly lower body, obviously, because I couldn’t – I didn’t want to, like, train my right arm and not my left arm, and I couldn’t do chest-anything.
And I stopped the lower body workouts after a few weeks, though, no more than two or three weeks because my cast started to reek and I was just like, “whatever.” I’m just going to wait this thing out. And I definitely lost muscle, especially in my left arm. It actually was pretty funny. I wish I would have taken a picture because despite not having trained my right arm, my left arm was just emaciated.
It looked like the Internet meme of the dude with the super jacked right arm from jerking off furiously for many years. That’s how I looked. And so despite that, it only took maybe two months max, three months to gain back all the muscle I had lost, which was a fair amount. It wasn’t a huge difference, but of course, I noticed it. And also in that time, my left arm, which was – that was bad. That was extreme. My left arm, though, was more or less equal to my right arm.
[00:11:21] And so to summarize here, you can take a week or two off of training and lose absolutely no muscle. You’re not going to lose muscle. You might lose a little bit of muscle size because your muscles are going to shed a little bit of glycogen and water, but that will come back more or less immediately. And if you’re taking a few weeks off, let’s say it’s around three weeks, you probably are not going to lose any muscle tissue.
But you will notice a reduction in muscle size again, mostly due to reductions in intramuscular glycogen and water. And if you’re taking a month or more off of training, you may lose a little bit of muscle. Obviously, the longer you take off, the more you’re going to lose. But no matter how much you lose, you will be able to regain it all very quickly once you get back into the gym.
[00:13:41] And before we wrap up here, let’s just quickly touch on strength. Losing strength when you are out of the gym. Now, if you have taken even a week off and then come back to it, you have probably experienced what felt like a reduction in strength. What I mean by that is you load the bar up with your previous weights and you just – it just doesn’t feel right. It feels awkward. You can’t get as many reps and you conclude that you have gotten weaker.
[00:14:09] Not necessarily because a number of studies, including a very extensive review on the subject, shows that most weightlifters will maintain most of their strength for up to three or even four weeks without lifting.
[00:14:24] But technique can be trickier, especially on more technical lifts like squats or overhead press or even a deadlift. What can happen is you take a couple weeks off, you haven’t done any reps, obviously, you have muscle memory and you’re not going to completely forget how to do a squat, but the squats, especially under a lot of weight, to get it right means that your body has to engage in fire many muscles in the right order and those calibrations can get a little bit rusty in short periods of time.
And so then when you get back to it, you feel weaker because you simply can’t move the weight for as many reps at the same RPE as you could a week or two ago. But it’s not that you’ve lost pure strength, it’s just that your technique is a little bit off and it usually takes a number of reps, especially under that heavyweight, again, to get things to where they were previously.
[00:15:27] And so you can expect to maintain your strength without lifting for a couple of weeks. When you do get back to it, you probably are going to notice a slight decline in performance, even if it has only been a week or two, but that’s probably mostly due to technique.
And again, if you’re taking a longer period off of training and you do lose strength, again, there is the silver lining of muscle memory. It, of course, does work for strength as well because the amount of muscle that you have is the primary determinant of your strength. And so when you get back in the gym and you’re rapidly regaining muscle, you are also going to rapidly regain strength.
[00:16:07] Oh, and one other thing that I should mention is it is very, very easy to maintain muscle and strength. You can maintain muscle and strength on just one workout per week. Research has shown that. And that’s with trained individuals too. Elite athletes, actually, rowers, if I remember the research correctly.
And two workouts a week, absolutely. You can maybe even make progress on two workouts a week. Up to a point, obviously. There is a point wherein your intermediate phase, where two workouts a week is just not going to cut it, you will not be able to do enough volume into workouts a week.
But for the purposes of maintaining muscle and strength, one whole body workout per week, that is just your standard heavier weight lifting compound exercises, higher RPE type of training, just one full-body session, maybe it’s an hour and a half and it’s tiring, but you get it done, you can maintain all of your muscle and strength with just that.
If you have two days that you can train to an upper or lower split, for example, is an easy way to do it, and then you can have a little bit shorter workouts, a little bit less exhausting workouts, but that you can absolutely maintain muscle and strength.
[00:17:19] And so the reason I mentioned that is if you are traveling, let’s say, whether it’s for work or vacation, that is something that most people can plan with. And the workouts don’t even have to be your normal high-intensity training workouts. Let’s say, you know, I was just on vacation, I was in Italy for two weeks, and I only had access to hotel gyms, which were very inadequate. One gym had dumbbells up to maybe 50 pounds, maybe.
A Smith machine with maybe 275 pounds in plates and a cable setup. And so I wasn’t able to do any type of workout that is like what I normally do. But I was able to just piece together some upper and lower body workouts, lighter weights, higher reps, obviously pushing closer to failure because I couldn’t deadlift, even if I wanted to.
I don’t like squatting on a Smith machine, so instead, I was doing split squats with, you know, 50-pound dumbbells, which is not tremendously heavy. But my point is: I was able to do enough to maintain all muscle. There’s definitely no noticeable muscle loss. In fact, I got leaner on this vacation, which is mostly because of all the walking.
I was walking probably 5 to 10 miles a day and there was a lot of uphill as well, at least in some of the places we are at. Pushing my daughter around, carrying her sometimes in the stroller, out of the stroller, so I was burning a lot of energy. And eating big dinners, but small breakfasts, sometimes nothing, sometimes just some coffee, and smaller lunches.
[00:19:00] And so, anyway, my point is, is I was only gone for a couple weeks, so I didn’t have to do anything, obviously, for the purpose of not losing muscle or strength. But I like working out. And I wanted to do a few workouts, so I did it. Now, if I were gonna be on the road for an extended period of time, a month plus.
I could have continued with just a couple workouts per week, if that was going to be necessary, if I didn’t have more time or didn’t have the facilities to do more workouts, just one to two workouts per week, as long as they’re challenging, is enough to maintain muscle and most of your strength.
It’s not going to be quite the same if you can’t continue lifting heavy weights, even if you can get your workouts in, if it is lighter weights, higher reps, when you do get back to the lower reps, you are going to see a decline in performance, but it won’t take long for your body to get reacclimated to the heavyweights and for your previous strength to return.
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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