Life happens. We get busy with work, holidays, relationships, saving the world from monsters, that kinda stuff. We just can’t always get to the gym, but keeping our progress is important, so, do you lose muscle if you stop working out? What is the best plan of action if you’re taking an extended break from training?
While you do lose muscle if you stop lifting weights, thanks to muscle memory you do regain muscle mass fairly quickly once you start strength training again, and if you look after your nutrition and try to keep moving, you can limit how much muscle is lost.
How long does it take to start losing muscle?
Strength, muscle, and fitness are more or less ‘use it or lose it’, and you will eventually lose muscle mass if you stop working out, but don’t worry, you won’t go from hulk to Jack Skellington in the blink of an eye – that process doesn’t happen overnight.
Research suggests that you can go away for a good three weeks of vacation (or monster battling) before you start to lose strength or get any actual muscle atrophy. After a week or two, you might feel like you look smaller, but really you’ve just lost some water/glycogen from your muscle cells, and inflammation from working out has gone down.
You will feel weaker after about two weeks, but this is mostly because if you are not exercising regularly, your nervous system is no longer primed for lifting. After a couple of sessions back in the gym, you’ll be back to full strength.
So you have about 3-4 weeks before your muscle fibers start to atrophy, however, some factors will affect how well you maintain muscle mass.
Training experience and muscle loss
The longer you’ve been training, and the more strength and muscle mass you have, the slower you will lose muscle if you take a break from your fitness routine. Unfortunately for those of you who are new to resistance training, you will lose muscle a little faster.
Age and muscle loss
Age also plays a part in rate of muscle loss. After age 30 and more noticeably after age 60, we start to lose muscle. Resistance training can counter a lot of this. However, if you are over 60 and stop exercising you will notice a faster decline in lean mass than a younger athlete, so may want to consider trying to squeeze in a few workouts here and there.
So does muscle turn to fat if you don’t use it?
No, muscle and fat cells are different, and they cannot turn into each other. You may feel like your muscle has turned into fat if you stop training, as muscle cells will shrink, and fat cells may expand if you don’t adjust your diet to account for the drop in activity. Because muscle is calorically expensive, you may find that your daily caloric needs go down after an extended break from training, and if you don’t alter your nutrition accordingly then the result would be essentially replacing muscle with fat, but not turning muscle INTO fat.
What about aerobic fitness? How long before my fitness level starts to drop and I can hardly make it up a flight of stairs?
Bad news, endurance athletes. Studies suggest that fitness levels start to drop after around 12 days. Good news, however – the first two weeks the difference will be hardly noticeable, and you’ve probably got a good month or two before you’re being overtaken on a jog by granny on her electric scooter. Just like with muscle size, cardio endurance is regained very quickly once you start training again.
The best thing to do if you need to take a break from training
If you can, try and do just a little bit of exercise each week. It takes far less effort to maintain muscle and fitness than it takes to build it. Research indicates that it only takes around 10% of your usual training volume to maintain strength and muscle mass, even over several months. For most people, that means you could easily maintain muscular strength with just one 20-30 minute full body session per week, maybe even less. Definitely worth squeezing in if you’re too busy for your usual gym schedule!
If you won’t have access to a gym, 15-20 minutes per week of bodyweight exercises such as push-ups and squats will still go a long way to preserving those precious gains, and if you do lose any muscle size, it’ll be far less than if you were completely inactive.
In terms of maintaining cardiovascular fitness, if you can manage 2 x 13-26 minute sessions per week, you’ll be fine. Just try and get that heart rate up!
If you’re on vacation, all those fun outdoor adventures do count towards this. Climbing a mountain? Cardio and leg day! Swimming? That’s gonna count for cardio and some muscle maintenance too! Walking around a city sightseeing? That’ll do for cardio if you get a wiggle on!
Nutrition to prevent losing muscle mass
Muscle tissue is calorically expensive to have around, so if you’re planning to stop training for a while, now probably isn’t the time to go into a calorie deficit. Eating more calories and enough protein will help you maintain your body weight and prevent muscle loss for longer. Ideally, you would eat at least your maintenance calories, perhaps even a slight surplus depending if you’d rather deal with a bit of fat gain over the loss of muscle mass and strength.
Hitting your protein is also vital to maintain your body composition during periods of inactivity. Aim for 0.8-1g protein per lb of body weight, or 1.8-2kg per kg.
So how long will it take to gain muscle and fitness back after a long break?
This will largely depend on how much time you’ve had off. If it’s only been a couple of weeks, your first couple of workouts will feel tough but you’ll be back to full strength in a week or two, and the same for cardio. If it’s been longer, expect it to take 3-6 weeks to get back to where you were. All the more reason to stay active if you can, instead of stopping working out completely!
If health conditions are stopping you from training and you are unable to stay active, you will lose more muscle and fitness, and it will take a little longer to regain it, but don’t worry, the body’s ability to bounce back is great and you’ll be fighting fit in no time.
Ismana is a true clichéd ‘gym bunny’ and loves crossfit and powerlifting, which enable her to enjoy an active and adventurous lifestyle – the body will never be an obstacle before the mind is! Ismana loves to share her skills and knowledge with others, and is an experienced strength and performance coach, with a strong belief in keeping things simple when it comes to training.