Even if you’re happy with your workout-free break, you might still be curious about how long it will be before you start losing the muscle you’ve accumulated over the years and how long it will take you to build it all back if you decide to do so. Because of this, Shape asked a seasoned exercise physiologist “how long does it take to lose muscle?” and for advice on how to halt the process. You can still make use of your ripped biceps and strong legs, believe me.
WHAT IT MEANS TO “LOSE MUSCLE” It’s crucial to clarify what “losing muscle” actually entails before we can respond to the question “how long does it take to lose muscle?” According to Alyssa Olenick, Ph.D., C.I.S.S.N, C.F.L.1. , an exercise physiologist and sports dietitian, when individuals use the word “muscle,” they typically mean either muscular size or muscle strength, which aren’t always associated. In general, she says, “as people grow more muscle, they’re going to get bigger, be able to move more weight, and get stronger.”
However, your neuromuscular system also contributes to the strength of your muscles: The motor neurons that connect with muscle tissue become more adept at contracting the muscles as it adjusts to training, which generates a force that moves the weight you’re lifting, according to her. Therefore, becoming stronger involves both the development and regeneration of muscle tissue, as well as the capacity to recruit that muscular tissue in order to generate more force, according to Olenick.
HOW LONG DOES MUSCLE LOSS LAST? Don’t worry if you skip the gym while on vacation for a week. According to Olenick, it typically takes two to three weeks to notice a noticeable decline in muscular strength. “If you were to go away for a week and a half and not lift at all, you might see a little bit of a decline when you get back, but not a lot,” she continues. “I doubt that your one-rep maximum will decrease that much.”
Similar to this, Olenick believes you can start to lose muscle mass after skipping a week or two of your regular workouts. According to her, it won’t happen right away because of a loss of true muscle mass but rather because of a loss of hydration and carbs. ICYDK, she says, your body stores carbohydrates in your liver and muscles, where they can later be broken down for energy during activity. These carbohydrates also carry water into the muscles. In contrast to genuine muscle loss, which can begin within a few days and is slower, most of the “size” you may see you lose when you first quit lifting is caused by the decreased amount of carbohydrates and water in your muscles, according to Olenick. Your body will use the carbohydrates and fluids for energy and metabolism, so the store “shrinks,” which is why you lose them first.
To retain muscle bulk and strength, however, the adage “use it or lose it” holds true. According to Olenick, if you’re completely inactive during this time (for example, if you’re in bed rest or have an injury that prevents you from moving), your strength and muscle size may deteriorate more quickly than if you’re maintaining some level of activity, such as walking or dancing around the house. According to research from the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, this muscle loss may be caused by a decrease in muscle protein synthesis, the process through which your body uses amino acids to repair exercise-induced muscle damage. According to an article from the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, muscle loss can happen if the breakdown of muscle protein outpaces its synthesis (which again happens after an exercise). According to Olenick, if you’re still usually active and moving, “there won’t be as great of a reduction,” and the muscle will regrow more quickly than it did when it was first added.
However, Olenick cautions that you can still see some muscle loss if you used to regularly lift weights but have lately shifted to only doing aerobic exercises. Cardio is a sort of exercise that is catabolic, or “breaks down,” tissue to help create energy for fuel, she notes, “even though any activity can assist sustain muscle. The procedure would nonetheless proceed more slowly than if a person were completely inert. She gave advice to runners. Be sure to eat enough protein and carbohydrates to sustain the activity, and aim to perform one to three full-body strength workouts each week. She continues, “Those items will also boost their running performance.”
WAYS TO ESTIMATE MUSCLE LOSS The simplest way to determine how much strength you may have lost after a well-earned rest is to use your rating of perceived exertion (RPE), according to Olenick. Based on how hard you believe your body is working, this tool calculates the intensity of your workout or physical activity. Therefore, if doing 15 push-ups or squatting with 20-pound dumbbells feels more difficult than it did before your hiatus, that’s a clue you might have lost some strength, she says.
Olenick explains that measuring physical muscle loss requires a body composition analysis, which may be done using an InBody equipment that measures muscle mass, body fat, and total body water content. While you can use a measuring tape to see if, for instance, your biceps or thighs have lost muscle mass, that approach doesn’t provide the full picture. She notes that measuring the size of that area may not give you an accurate picture of how much muscle you lost because fat increase and muscle loss could occur in the same place of the body. However, these kinds of recomposition are taken into consideration in body composition measurements.
HOW TO DECELERATE MUSCLE DEFOREST There are things you may do to slow down the process even though muscle loss in terms of strength and size is likely to occur if you take a vacation from your regular exercise regimen. Olenick advises keeping your body active even if it’s not a formal workout like you’re used to. You may maintain muscle by doing something as simple as going on a hike or getting in a brief bodyweight circuit with air squats, push-ups, lunges, and burpees, she continues. Simply utilizing your muscles will keep them healthy and provide a signal that lets them know they are still needed, according to Olenick. “Anything you can do to retain muscle or strength, even if it only seems like a small bit or is just your bodyweight, is so much better than doing nothing at all.”
Additionally, Olenick advises that you watch your protein and calorie consumption since if you don’t receive enough of either, your body will find it difficult to maintain the muscle mass that you do have. She says that while your body doesn’t necessarily desire to lose muscle, it needs a lot of energy (i.e. calories) to do so. Your body will break down that tissue for energy if you don’t consume enough, she explains. So eating enough, and particularly consuming enough protein, is important for maintaining muscle mass. In fact, she continues, persons who maintain higher protein consumption will retain more muscle mass than those who are low in the macronutrient, even if they aren’t exercising.
The good news is that you’ll probably restore that strength and muscle mass more rapidly when you go back to the gym than it took you to initially build it. When you exercise, satellite cells are produced in your muscles; these cells will eventually develop into skeletal muscle cells and help in hypertrophy, according to Olenick. People who have previously trained will have more of these satellite cells than individuals who have never trained. So, compared to previously, you have more “stuff” to build muscle. You’ll be able to readapt more quickly than if you were riding a bike for the first time after a five-year break because your body is already accustomed to the movements you’re about to undertake and your brain has the necessary established the neural pathways , according to Olenick.
Take it easy for the first week or two, advises Olenick, as you probably won’t be able to lift the same weight or complete the same number of sets as you did before your break. Try performing fewer sets or smaller weights for each exercise during that time to give your body time to adjust and gradually regain that strength, she advises. Most importantly, Olenick advises not to criticize yourself for any strength or muscle loss you may experience. She continues, “Give yourself grace for whatever reason you were taking off training. “Now that you’re back, what can your body do? Avoid attempting to force it to behave as it did previously.