How Long Does It Take To Lose Muscle When You Can’t Go To The Gym

Skinny guy losing muscle

So your taking a break from lifting. This could be a planned holiday, a busy time in your life, or even just a time when you can’t go to the gym. So I bet your thinking will I lose muscle if I don’t train?

The answer depends on your circumstances. For example if you were to completely not train at all for a month or two and eat an horrendous diet with very little protein then you would be more likely to lose muscle and strength.

But if you can’t train for two months but you can still manage to challenge your main muscles like your pectorals, lats and back, Quads, hamstrings and calves to close to failure you’ll keep virtually all the muscle you have.

And if you eat protein from as little as 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight to 1.2 grams per pound of body weight there’s a higher chance that you will keep your muscle mass. Protein is an important component of every cell in your body. Your body uses protein to build and repair tissue. You also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other bodily chemicals. Protein plays a vital role in building and maintaining muscle mass.

So if you don’t give your body the materials it needs to at least maintain your muscle mass and you don’t give your body a stimulus to maintain your muscle and strength then there’s a higher chance you will lose muscle and strength.

1-2 Weeks Of No Training, Don’t Sweat It You Won’t Lose Any Muscle

If you don’t train for 1-2 weeks then you have no reason to believe that you’ve lost strength and muscle. Most of the time 1-2 weeks of not training can be sufficient for allowing your body to recover and super compensate. This means that your body is recovering from the previous training stimulus. And by the end of the 1-2 weeks your body has recovered adequately and has resulted in you being bigger and stronger.

At the end of a training block/ mesocycle (which can last from 8-12 weeks and in some cases longer) you’d do well to have 1/ 2 weeks off to let your body rest and recover. So in other words sometimes 1-2 weeks off can be beneficial to your long term progress. And you will not lose strength and size after 1-2 weeks at all. And like I said atrophy (which is the loss of muscle mass) only starts to occur after 3-4 weeks and that’s only if you do nothing at all (detrain). Anecdotally I have experienced actually being stronger in the gym after 1-2 weeks off.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28328712

Don’t Give Your Body A Reason To Lose Muscle

But if you don’t train for 3-4 weeks and eat enough protein, eat at your maintenance calories and stay active then this short time frame will give your body no reason at all to breakdown your muscle for energy. But for example if you were in an agressive calorie deficit, you were not eating enough protein and you didn’t train (provide a stimulus) then this would result in you losing weight potentially a lot of that weight would be muscle.

So based on the literature 3-4 weeks of detraining (no training at all) loss of muscle mass seems to start to occur and for the most part you’re just losing water and glycogen from your muscles. But weeks 5-6 of detraining and your body starts to breakdown muscle. And you start to lose strength and size but 1- 2 weeks is off is perfectly fine. But you can maintain your muscle and strength after week 4 onwards if you just provide your body with some stimulus. Bodyweight is enough.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23529287

How Much You Lose Depends On How Much Muscle And Strength You Already Have

If you’re an elite natural bodybuilder with a few solid years to decades of weight training under your belt then you’ve got more muscle to lose. But if you are brand new to training. Heck, maybe you are just about to start exercising. Studies show that you can gain muscle in your quads just riding a bike.https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/42947568.pdf

If you’re just doing a bodyweight training routine and you’re brand new to weightlifting you’ll gain muscle and strength too. But for an advanced lifter it will be harder to maintain enough of a stimulus through bodyweight training only. But you can do it if you’re creative. And don’t mind challenging yourself by doing higher reps close too failure. And progressively harder training variations.

Different Strategies To Keep Your Muscle When You Can’t Go To The Gym

Here are some strategies you can use from best to worst to maintain your muscle. From best, better, to good. Generally speaking I’d only encourage you to use the good category if you physically can’t do bodyweight training. A good time to use this category would be if you’re injured.

This strategy above is the best case scenario. If you don’t have dumbbells/bands you can use a weighted back pack. Or be creative and use for example milk bottles with water in to act as weights. Even though I do say that you should eat at your maintenance calories, you can potentially go on a cut if your wanting to lose some body fat. So long as your protein is within that range and you’re giving your body enough of a stimulus to maintain your muscle.

In the better scenario above you can also potentially cut as long as you’re challenging your muscles with bodyweight exercises and giving them enough of a stimulus to maintain. And again make sure you’re getting enough protein.

The good strategy above is still better than nothing. But after the first 1-2 months walking or cardio won’t be enough of a stimulus to maintain your muscle.

So Worst-Case Scenario

So you don’t train for 1-2 months or more. You will lose some muscle size and strength. But this isn’t as bad as you think. Think of it like this. Although your muscle size is shrinking you’ve developed new nuclei in your muscle cells from all the times you’ve used progressive overload at the gym and thus got bigger and stronger. Studies show that that new nuclei will always be there. Meaning that once you’ve built muscle and strength it’s going to come back much easier the second time round.

So what this means is that you will get smaller but because your muscles have already once developed to that size they will get back up to the previous size within a shorter duration of weightlifting. And you’ll shortly be at your best again. This is called muscle memory. memory.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18171494

Glycogen

Glycogen is a stored form of carbohydrate that resides within your muscles and is an energy source in which you use to get stronger. When you stop resistance training your body has no need to keep this glycogen (or the same amount as before). Because glycogen resides inside the muscles it makes them look bigger.

When you’re not lifting weights. You will lose a certain amount of that glycogen so your muscles will look less full and thus smaller. But this won’t Be muscle. Generally speaking glycogen contributes 16% to the size of your muscles. So when you’re not lifting weight this amount of glycogen and water (because glycogen is a form of carbohydrate and also stores 2-3 grams of water for every gram of glycogen) decreases to increasingly lower levels of glycogen and water. Resulting in smaller muscle appearance.

To give you you some insight into what glycogen is. Remember that time after a hard workout you had a ton of carbs in your post workout meal. And shortly after you felt bigger and more full. This is your body replenishing it’s glycogen stores.

Will I Lose Muscle After 6 Weeks Of No Training?

To build muscle your body needs to lift weights (Put stress on your muscles) then have enough time to rest and recover (adapt) and then you can go to the gym the next session and lift more weight ( response).

To maintain your muscle mass and strength you need to maintain your strength and make sure you’re giving your muscles at least some sort of a stimulus to adapt/maintain current levels of strength and fitness.

After 6 weeks of no training your body will not have the stimulus and it will have no reason to keep the muscle. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18171494 This will result in muscle and strength loss.

But after a short to moderate time back in the gym you will get right back up to previous strength and size levels. But this can be completely negated if you do bodyweight training. To maintain muscle you only need to do 1/3 as much volume. Which you can easily do with bodyweight training check out my article. https://henrypaget.com/2020/03/27/a-bodyweight-routine-to-maintain-or-even-improve-your-physique/

Muscle Memory Is Real

Remember muscle memory. And just like its no easy task to build muscle it’s not an easy task to lose it. That study above is only when you don’t do any sort of exercise at all. The strategies I’ve already mentioned in this article will help you to minimise muscle loss as much as possible.

Remember if you don’t use it you lose it. But even if you do lose it. After 6 weeks it won’t be dramatic. it will be mainly glycogen loss. And a bit of muscle. But all you need to start doing is apply a stimulus which can be as little as bodyweight exercise. And you’ll get back to similar levels of size and strength.

Strength Is A Skill

Compound exercises such as the barbell squat, barbell deadlift, and barbell bench press require a certain degree of skill. When you first learn this skill at the gym it may take you a while to learn the proper form at first.

When you don’t do any of these lifts for a certain period of time your neural pathways become rusty and can’t function as effectively as when you were in a routine doing the lifts on a consistent basis. Not to worry though. Because when you get back to performing them again you will get used to them quickly. And soon after that you will be smashing pr’s again

Conclusion

  1. Muscle and strength won’t be lost if you take 1-2 weeks off.
  2. You only start to lose muscle and strength after weeks 3-4 onwards if you completely detrain.
  3. You will lose strength and muscle if you take up to a few months off. But because of the phenomenon muscle memory you can gain it back quickly.

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