Nothing is more frustrating than losing muscle mass after you’ve worked so hard to build it. Months of heavy lifting, endless hours of training week after week. But life happens, and if you’re an avid gym goer, you already know unforeseen events that disrupt your training are inevitable and an accepted consequence of the training cycle. Whether you’re coming off an injury, or just a long hiatus from training, you’re probably wondering how long does it take to lose muscle mass, and how quickly can you regain it.
How Long Does It Take To Lose Muscle Mass
Your body prefers and relies upon body fat and carbohydrates for energy. Therefore, when you take a break from training, your body does not use your protein aka muscle mass for energy, however muscle tissue will still decline over time.
Losing muscle mass depends on what your current fitness level is and how long you’re inactive. The more muscle mass you have, the more you have to lose and the harder it is to maintain that muscle mass.
Studies show that you can lose muscle mass as quick as in just ten days of inactivity with a decrease in muscle size of nearly 11% without exercise. Prolonged disuse or inactivity leads to a decline in the rate of muscle protein synthesis which contributes to muscle atrophy. With a decrease in training, comes an equal decrease in appetite due to your body’s reduced energy requirements. When food intake declines, it also results in an inadequate intake of dietary protein, which allows proper muscle mass maintenance. Supplementing with protein or amino acids, is crucial to maintain and further aid muscle mass preservation when you’re not training [R].
A systematic review published in the Journal Sports Medicine examined the development, retention, and loss of strength in elite rugby and American football players. The review found that strength and power decreased 14.5% during periods of detraining yet strength was maintained for up to three weeks [R].
Muscle mass also naturally declines as you age. Adults lose five to seven pounds of muscle tissue each decade without exercise or training. Participating in resistance training programs and weightlifting is crucial to maintain and build muscle mass. In addition to rebuilding muscle, weightlifting increases bone density which is key for mobility and strength. Another important factor to consider as you get older.
However, it is important to understand that true muscle hypertrophy takes place during times of injury, or when you’ve complete stopped exercising, also known as “detraining” for an extended period of time.
What Is Muscle Memory
Taking a break from lifting isn’t a bad thing, especially since you can regain the muscle mass through a process called “muscle memory.” Muscle memory refers to the skeletal muscle possessing a type of memory from the anabolic growth, or loading phase, followed by later reloading the muscles when training is resumed, after a period of long-term unloading or detraining. When cells encounter the same anabolic stress and trauma they encountered before, they recuperate and rebuild faster as compared to muscle cells which have never encountered trauma or stress. Through epigenetic changes, this suggests muscle has an enhanced response to load induced muscle hypertrophy when earlier growth had been encountered.
Muscle memory helps you regain your strength and size when the many factors of life create disruption. Consistency is key if you want to obtain a certain physique, yet missing a few days every now and again isn’t going to completely derail your progress.
How To Regain And Maintain Muscle Mass
If you’re worried about losing muscle mass from taking a training hiatus, there are a few proven ways to maintain your muscle so you can get back to grind when you’re ready.
1. Maintain Your Calories
As you decrease your activity, your loss of appetite will closely follow. Eating fewer calories, will most likely create a caloric deficit, resulting in weight loss. Eating too many calories while being sedentary, will create weight gain. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain the correct amount of calories to maintain your muscle mass and body composition, accounting for your decrease in activity and change in basal metabolic rate. This is where a nutrition coach comes in very useful. Without knowing your macros, or appropriate caloric intake, it can be exponentially more difficult to determine how much and what you should be eating to retain your muscle mass. We recommend The Swole Kitchen for 1:1 personal nutrition coaching.
2. Any Exercise Is Better Than None
Just because you’re taking a break or can’t get to the gym doesn’t mean you can’t get some exercise. Heavy lifting isn’t required to build muscle, including any type of strength training movement with body weight or resistance bands, will help maintain muscle mass and strength [R].
3. Keep Your Protein Intake High
What you eat is equally as important as eating enough to maintain your body composition and retaining muscle. Your body needs protein to regain and rebuild muscle mass. Therefore, eating food high in protein, protein rich snacks, and supplementing with a protein shake will enhance your strength and help you maintain your muscle you’ve worked relentlessly to build.
How Long Does It Take To Lose Muscle Mass: Takeaway
It’s true that if you don’t use it, you lose it. The research is clear, that in a relatively short period time, being sedentary after being active and lifting weights, can result in a loss of muscle mass and strength as quick as just ten days. If you find that you are unable to work out consistently, then try and maintain your caloric intake and eat foods rich in protein to maintain and build more muscle mass. If you’re not sure how to maintain the gains, then hire a nutrition coach. Expert advice is always better than losing the hard earned gains you’ve worked so hard for.
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Wall BT, van Loon LJ. Nutritional strategies to attenuate muscle disuse atrophy. Nutr Rev. 2013 Apr;71(4):195-208. doi: 10.1111/nure.12019. Epub 2013 Feb 28. PMID: 23550781.
McMaster, .T., Gill, N., Cronin, J. et al. The Development, Retention and Decay Rates of Strength and Power in Elite Rugby Union, Rugby League and American Football. Sports Med 43, 367–384 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-013-0031-3
Jespersen JG, Nedergaard A, Andersen LL, Schjerling P, Andersen JL. Myostatin expression during human muscle hypertrophy and subsequent atrophy: increased myostatin with detraining. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2011 Apr;21(2):215-23. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.01044.x. PMID: 19903317.
Seaborne, R.A., Strauss, J., Cocks, M. et al. Human Skeletal Muscle Possesses an Epigenetic Memory of Hypertrophy. Sci Rep 8, 1898 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-20287-3
Ogasawara R, Yasuda T, Ishii N, Abe T. Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Apr;113(4):975-85. doi: 10.1007/s00421-012-2511-9. Epub 2012 Oct 6. PMID: 23053130.