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How Long It Takes To Lose (And Build Back) Muscle

No matter where you live, it’s safe to say the coronavirus pandemic interrupted your usual routine for at least a few weeks—and I know many of you fitness fanatics are probably wondering if this time out of the gym has taken a toll on your precious muscle.

To put your bench-pressing minds at ease, here’s what you need to know about how long it takes to lose muscle—and what you can do to maintain it when your gym routine has gone out the window.

Does No Gym Mean No Muscle?

One thing to know right off the bat: We don’t have a ton of helpful research on how long it takes to lose muscle. The studies we often look to on the topic are done on people on bed-rest—and that’s a very specific scenario.

That said, we do have some insight into what happens to your muscles when you take a few weeks off of training. One study out of Baylor University, for example, found that trained individuals didn’t lose a significant amount of muscle after two weeks without training.

But what happens after a month without training?

Well, think of it like this: Maintaining muscle mass requires enough exercise (specifically resistance training) and protein consumption to trigger protein synthesis, the creation of new muscles in our body. Resistance training, like lifting weights, puts a mechanical stimulus on the muscle, signaling to the body that the muscle needs to be stronger in order to deal with that stress in the future. Without resistance training (and ample protein), you will lose muscle over time.

Read More: 9 Easy Ways To Up Your Protein Intake

Though we don’t have much specific data, it’s safe to assume that you will lose some muscle after a month without training.

How To Maintain Muscle Without The Gym

To hold onto as much muscle as possible while out of your usual gym routine, it’s crucial that you provide your muscles with whatever stimulus you can—and continue to eat plenty of protein.

Training For Muscle At Home

When we are attempting to maximize the mechanical stimulus on a muscle, we need two things to happen. First, we need to maximally activate the muscle. Second, the muscle must contract at a slow speed.

Research tells us that muscle activation in lightweight (or bodyweight) training is quite low. (Our bodies want to be efficient and recruit the fewest muscle fibers possible to complete a task or movement.)

Read More: How To Make 5 Basic Bodyweight Moves So Much Harder

However, as you perform enough repetitions and fatigue the muscle, we start to see more activation. Basically, this means that you can certainly achieve maximum muscle activation using bodyweight training; you’re just going to have to perform as many reps as possible.

Performing lightweight or bodyweight reps to fatigue also ensures that our muscles contract at a slow speed. This means they ultimately produce the force needed to stimulate adaptation.

I get it, though: High-rep bodyweight training can get super boring pretty fast. Two strategies that make it more interesting:

  • Isometric-to-dynamic training: When you perform a bodyweight exercise, hold the position of peak stretch or tension (I usually start with 30 seconds). Then, perform your full range-of-motion reps to failure. For example, hold the bottom of a pushup position for 30 seconds before cranking out the reps. That hold will carry some fatigue into your reps and you’ll be burning in no time.
  • Inter-set stretching: This method (which is a go-to of mine) involves stretching your working muscles between sets of an exercise. I especially like to use it with chest workouts. For example, start with a set of 15 to 20 pushups (wear a backpack or use resistance bands, if you need the extra oomph), then immediately stretch your chest by resting your arms on a doorframe and leaning forward. After holding the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, jump back into your next set of pushups. You’ll feel the difference after just a couple of sets.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, going a month without the gym will likely result in a small amount of muscle loss. If you stay active with bodyweight training and eat plenty of protein, though, you can definitely minimize it.

To maintain as much a stimulus as possible on your muscles, incorporate the following into your workouts:

  • resistance bands
  • gallon water jugs
  • backpack filled with books or rocks 

Once you get back in the gym, don’t try to race back to your previous gains. I promise you’ll bounce back quickly (typically in about four to six weeks). 

Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.

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