Did you stop training and wonder how fast all that muscle you worked so hard for will say bye-bye? Here is how much muscle mass is really lost due to inactivity!
The Gains Lost
It’s the horror if you work out to build muscle: you are forced to take a break and fear that your muscle gains will be lost.
Will they really? And how fast does it happen?
The answer to the first question is “yes.” To the second it’s “it depends on your training level and experience”:
The Science Behind It
I said in the video I’d give you some scientific background on my reasoning.
Let’s start with a 2005 study by Lars Andersen et al., who analyzed the effect of training and detraining with the help of 14 sedentary men.
For three months he had them train their lower legs 3 to 4 times per week. Then he had them go back to sedentary for another three months, all the time recording their strength and explosive power. As expected, each participant made significant strength gains during the first three months.
Unfortunately, at the end of the three sedentary months, their ability to lift weights was back to starting position (PDF). Anderson and his co-researchers reason that the muscular adaptions necessary to move heavy weights were gone.
But one thing those men did get to keep: their movements were more powerful when measured without load. The muscles had lost their ability to move heavy stuff, but the brain remembered how the movements worked. “Muscle memory” at work.
And Highly Trained Athletes?
This was what happened to untrained people. For experienced athletes things are different.
A 1993 study at East Carolina University examined that by taking 12 highly trained powerlifters and football players and have them stop their strength training for two weeks. How would it influence their strength level?
They had significant decreases in the size of their fast-twitch muscle fibers (those responsible for the bulk), but any changes in actual strength doing bench presses and squats were very small. I reckon that the decrease in size was due to the effect of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy wearing off. That makes you look smaller, but not weaker.
But something else interesting happened: their hormone levels benefited. After those two weeks off, they had higher levels of growth hormone and testosterone (both very important when building muscle mass) and their levels of the stress hormone cortisol had decreased.
Lead researcher Hortobagyi draws the conclusion that carefully manipulating this effect could maximize muscle and strength gains.
What About You?
If you are a beginning trainee, your best bet to avoid losses is training continuously. If you are more experienced, the occasional break (maybe twice or three times a year) can give your body some respite and refill its hormonal reserves. But you shouldn’t overdo that either – too many breaks and strength losses will happen, just later than for beginners.
If you have practical experiences with this, please share!
Picture courtesy of Elvert Barnes.