When you’re used to hitting the gym consistently and have the gains to show for it, getting yanked out of your routine by a life curveball (whether it’s sickness, injury, or extra-long hours at work) is stressful. In addition to missing out on your favorite part of the day, you might start to worry about losing the precious muscle mass you’ve worked so hard to build.
First, know that taking a few weeks off of the gym won’t affect the average fitness enthusiast too much, says personal trainer Cara D’Orazio, C.P.T., owner of virtual training studio CGM Fitness. Typically, it takes more like four to six weeks for muscle mass to start taking a hit—and regular exercisers won’t lose strength or size as quickly as newbies or those who are less consistent with training.
Still, if hanging onto muscle is a top concern, use these tips from fitness and nutrition pros to preserve your gains when your workout routine gets thrown off.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Cara D’Orazio, C.P.T., is a certified personal trainer and the owner of virtual training studio CGM Fitness. Mike Hamlin, C.S.C.S., is a strength and conditioning coach and the founder of Everflex Fitness. Mike Julom, C.P.T., is a certified personal trainer and the founder of This is Why I’m Fit.
1. Keep Your Protein Intake Up
Though ample protein is particularly important for repairing and building muscle tissue after strenuous workouts, you still need to prioritize this macronutrient when taking some time off from your gym routine, points out strength and conditioning coach Mike Hamlin, C.S.C.S., founder of Everflex Fitness. After all, research suggests we can better preserve muscle mass when eating a high-protein diet versus a low-protein diet. (FYI: Consuming 25 to 30 percent of your calories from protein, or about 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight or more, is generally considered to be high-protein.)
Yes, going way overboard on overall calories by consuming loads of protein can cause you to put on body fat, yet science also shows that protein takes significantly more energy than the other two macronutrients (carbs and fat) to digest, absorb, and metabolize, meaning it’s the least likely to be the culprit behind weight gain.
Need more convincing that it’s worth keeping your protein intake up? Note one study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, which found that inactive, hospitalized older adults benefited from supplementing with 30 grams of protein because it helped them maintain muscle.
2. When You Can Train, Be Strategic
If you’re still able to work out here and there, focus those efforts on resistance training, suggests Hamlin. Specifically, he recommends going heavy (like the six- to 10-rep range) and sticking to compound movements (like squats and deadlifts). Together, these tactics up the intensity of your training sessions and allow you to get in and out of the gym in less time, maximizing your ability to hang onto muscle mass when you can’t work out as often as you’d like.
“Just make sure that you get in a really high-quality warm-up,” Hamlin notes. The higher the intensity of your workouts, the higher your risk of injury.
3. Move In Other Ways
When you’re out of your lifting routine, it’s important to still incorporate active recovery and mobility work, says personal trainer Mike Julom, C.P.T., founder of This is Why I’m Fit.
First of all, these activities—which include yoga, walking, and dynamic stretches—can help maintain muscle tissue by increasing blood flow to the muscles and delivering essential nutrients that aid in muscle maintenance, he explains. Plus, active recovery can keep your joints healthy, which will reduce your risk of injury when you return to your regularly scheduled workout programming.
4. Keep stress low and sleep Ample
Since muscles repair and grow during rest, it’s important to get enough Zzz’s while you’re on a gym hiatus, says Hamlin, who recommends aiming for the usual seven to nine hours per night. Time and time again, research has linked lack of sleep with loss of muscle mass (and function), so don’t take any chances there!
Keeping stress at a somewhat reasonable level will also serve you well here, as research has also identified a connection between chronically elevated markers of stress and muscle atrophy. Hamlin recommends incorporating relaxation techniques like meditation. Other options for supporting calm include adding an adaptogen (like ashwagandha) to your supplement routine and focusing your diet on healthy fats, nuts, seeds, and fresh produce.
5. Turn To Resistance Bands
If you don’t have access to weights but have enough space (and a few minutes) to break a sweat in order to preserve your sanity, resistance bands will be your best friends, suggests Julom. Don’t underestimate them; these portable, easy-to-use tools can also be tremendously effective, he says.
With the right bands and a little creativity, you can crank out everything from bicep curls and squats to lateral raises and chest presses—all of which go a long way in helping you keep muscle on your body, says Julom.
6. In Desperate Times, Daydream About Working Out
Talk about mind over matter: Research suggests that simply imagining using your muscles can help you maintain strength when you’re stuck without your routine. In one study, people who imagined contracting their forearm muscles on five days of the week lost just 24 percent of their muscular strength after a month. Those who didn’t go to the mental gym, though? They lost almost twice as much strength. So, if you’re really dedicated to maintaining those gains, a little mental flexing can really make a difference.