Building any appreciative amount of muscle mass takes a lot of dedication.
You not only have to work hard and put in some pain-staking workouts, you have to do so on a consistent basis for a long period of time.
The thought of losing any of the muscle mass you worked so hard for can be a very depressing one. Nobody likes to take a backwards step, especially when you know how hard had to work to gain the muscle you have now.
Unfortunately, life happens and you may sometimes be forced to take time away from the gym or adjust your training for different circumstances.
Of course, being away from the gym too long will cause you to lose some of your muscle. In fact, given a long enough hiatus, most of the muscle you have earned through lifting weights can be lost.
The question then is, how long can you be away from the gym before you begin to lose your muscle?
Why We Lose Muscle
The human body is an extremely intricate and clever mechanism; it has the ability to adapt very well to a variety of different demands. Your adaptability is actually the reason you end up building muscle in the first place.
Your body’s primary goal is survival and it will do whatever is necessary to make survival easy by adapting to the demands that are placed upon it. Lifting weights constantly forces your body to get stronger if it wants the task to be easier. Therefore, you build muscle and strength to help you lift those weights.
If you stop lifting those weights for a long enough period of time, your body “realizes” that it no longer needs to be prepared for such tasks. As a result, you will begin to lose the muscle or “atrophy”, as it is known.
As the saying goes: “use it or lose it” and it could not be truer than when it comes to muscle loss.
Although it is probably the primary concern for many of you reading this article, time away from the gym isn’t the only cause of muscle loss. Your diet and training type can also impact your gains.
Not eating enough calories will eventually lead to a decrease in muscle tissue since your body isn’t getting adequate fuel to support it. Muscle is metabolically active tissue so it requires a certain amount of extra energy in order to maintain it from day to day.
Switching your training to more endurance based endeavours can also cause muscle loss. The reason for this is that good old adaptability of your body again. Having a large amount of muscle mass makes endurance activities more difficult so your body adapts by eventually burning some of it.
How Long Can You Be Away From The Gym Before You Lose Muscle?
Now comes the big question: how long does it actually take before inactivity begins to reverse your progress? As is the case with so many fitness topics, the answer depends on a few different factors.
Generally, those who are more experienced in terms of how long they have been training will lose muscle mass more slowly. Somebody that is very new to lifting weights will lose their gains more quickly than someone who has spent a number of years in the gym.
It is important to note that this is likely to only hold true for a certain period of time. Once you are out the “beginner phase” and have been lifting for a while, you will probably hold on to your muscle mass at a similar rate to more experienced trainees. For example, there isn’t likely to be much difference between muscle loss rate for someone who has trained for 2 years versus someone who has trained for 5 years.
Current Fitness Level
This one may seem to contradict the above point. However, training age is not equal to fitness level and it was mentioned that training age related muscle loss is probably only relevant to newer lifters.
In any case, there have been observations to suggest that more highly trained individuals will experience a faster rate of muscle loss than those of a lower level. In other words, the more you have to lose, the more quickly you will lose it.
This study observed a loss of muscle mass in as little 2 weeks of inactivity. That particular study compared young people to older people and the younger group, who had more muscle mass, experienced an average loss of 30 percent of their strength. The older group, who had less muscle to lose, lost around 20 percent.
Other texts, such as a 2005 article from the journal of applied physiology, echo the results from above by stating that competitive athletes see a drop in muscle mass within 2-4 weeks of stopping training. Whereas, recreational gym-goers took up to 12 weeks before a decrease was seen.
Using this information, we can estimate that you will begin to see muscle loss in 2-12 weeks of inactivity depending on your current level of fitness, strength and muscle.
It was mentioned earlier that training for endurance type events may lead to more muscle being sacrificed as your body adapts to the training. However, individuals who have already been training for endurance are likely to experience a slower rate of muscle atrophy than those who train for more explosive endeavors like weight lifting.
This is due to the higher number of slow-twitch muscle fibers found in endurance athletes and the fact that they atrophy slower than the fast-twitch fibers, which are dominant in athletes who compete in sports like weightlifting or sprinting.
The time period for muscle atrophy still ranges from 2-12 weeks but endurance based athletes are more likely to be in the latter part of that spectrum. However, this could be down to the fact that they are also more likely to have less muscle mass to begin with but it is still worth knowing.
How Can You Minimize Muscle Loss?
There is a very high chance that you will be forced to take some time out of the gym at some point in your life. Since you are reading this article, the chances are that you have reached one of those points recently.
Depending on how long you are going to be away from the gym, you may have to come to terms with the fact that some muscle atrophy is inevitable. On the bright side, there are a few steps you can take to minimize the impact of inactivity.
Stay As Active As Possible
Of course, this will depend largely on your individual circumstances but you should aim to do anything you can in order to keep yourself active. You might not be able to work at the level needed to keep all of your muscle but doing anything will help you to keep hold of more mass than doing nothing at all would.
A good compromise is to simply wear a weighted vest as you do your household chores or other daily activities. This is obviously not as effective as a full workout, but it does ensure your muscles do some extra work.
Adjust Your Diet
If you are doing less activity, your diet needs to be adjusted to account for it. Quite often, people carry on eating the same way and end up gaining a lot of fat as well as losing muscle mass. If you focus on at least maintaining your body fat levels, you can put all of your energy into gaining muscle when you get back into the gym, instead of having to worry about fat loss as well.
Finally, do not rush to get back in the gym if you are out for medical reasons. Sure, you may lose some of your progress, but it is much more important for you to get healthy.
Whatever muscle mass you lose can be regained and the good news is that it can be regained in a shorter time period than it took you to build it the first time around. So, don’t rush back unnecessarily if you are taking a long hiatus and don’t sweat it at all if you only need to take a few weeks off.
If you do only need a few weeks away from the gym, you will get back to where you left off very quickly. In some cases, the time off can be a good thing as you allow your body to fully recover and come back refreshed, ready to get after it again!