It's common knowledge in the lifting world that with muscle mass, if you don't use it, you lose it. However, as true as this may be, muscle loss doesn't happen immediately. Taking a few days off to recover or go on vacation won't cause you to lose everything you've worked hard to build, but a longer break might make it harder to maintain everything.
Don't let this discourage you! Although muscle loss can happen after a period of time, there are still ways to approach a break without losing everything you've gained. In this article, we'll be detailing everything you need to know about muscle loss and how to maintain it when you can't workout for an unforeseen period of time.
How fast can you lose muscle?
How quickly muscle loss happens depends on your fitness level and the amount of time you're inactive. Typically, the more muscle mass one has the more you'll potentially lose. But, how fast does that happen?
Some research suggests that you can start to lose muscle in quickly as one week, while others show that muscle size can decrease by about 11% after 10 days without exercise. However, that is if you're completely inactive. Muscle atrophy (muscle loss) typically takes place when one is injured and/or completely stops using their muscles for an extender period of time. So, taking a week off to enjoy your vacation isn't going to make your muscle-building efforts go to waste!
It's also important to know that a decrease in muscle size doesn't always translate to muscle loss. It can be from a lossof fluids because taking a break from training can cause water loss and glycogen depletion in the muscles. So, it may look like your muscles shrunk a little during your break, but chances are it's just a loss of fluids!
To break it down, true muscle loss happens after about 3 weeks of skipping strength training. It can happen within a week if you're completely immobile. If you're concerned that you've lost a lot of muscle, test it! You can test your body composition, check your body weight, and pay attention to your strength.
How to maintain muscle mass when you need a break from the gym
Whether you're going on vacation or just need to take a few weeks away from the gym, there are ways you can retain muscle mass and ensure your hard work isn't going down the drain.
Set your calories at maintanence
To ensure you're not gaining body fat nor losing muscle, make sure you're eating enough. This means, set your calories at maintenance as opposed to a deficit. A caloric deficit will increase your chances of weight loss, which most likely will come from muscle loss due to inactivity. So, even if you were in a deficit before your break, set your calories at maintanence and then go back to a deficit (if you wish) once you're back at the gym.
What if you were in a surplus?
For those following a surplus in an effort to build muscle, but have suffered an injury that will take them out for 1-2 weeks (or are going on vacation) then a tiny surplus is okay to follow. A small surplus can improve muscle maintenance during your time recovering. However, if you have to be out of the gym for longer than 2 weeks then adjust your calories to maintenance.
Just remember to fill up on nutrient-dense foods opposed to junk food. You should enjoy yourself on vacation, but to avoid muscle loss (and gaining fat) be mindful of what you eat. Make sure you're eating enough macro and micro-nutrients to keep your body running at optimal levels – so find a good balance!
Eat enough protein
Aside from eating enough, you want to make sure you're getting enough protein. Protein is the most important macronutrient when it comes to building and maintaining muscle, and not getting enough of it (especially during a break from training) can result in muscle loss! That is because your muscles are made up of protein, and if your protein intake isn't high enough then your body will steal protein from your muscles to support your nutrition.
So, calculate your calorie and macronutrients at maintenance to see how much protein you need to eat a day to support muscle maintenance. Then make sure to fill up on rich protein sources like red meat, poultry, fish, legumes, and seeds! We also suggest having a protein supplement, like a whey protein powder or plant-based protein powder, to help ensure you're getting sufficient quality protein in your diet.
If you can, use your muscles
If you're taking a break due to a vacation or taking a rest week, incorporate some type of movement in your routine. You don't have to follow your usual high-intensity workout plan, you can add a few bodyweight movements (push-ups, lunges, tricep dips, etc.), incorporate resistance bands for light training, or do low-intensity cardio (walking, cycling, etc.). The point is, move your body so that your muscles are still working.
It may be a little tricky for those recovering from an injury, but it is possible. Let's say you have an injury on your upper body, there maybe some lower body workouts you can safely do. You might not be able to deadlift or squat heavy weights, but you might be able to incorporate lower body cable exercises, resistance band exercises, bodyweight exercises, or even light cardio (like walking or the StairMaster). The same goes for a lower body injury, find ways to work your upper body, like rowing! Find an activity that you can do that is pain-free, but allows you to at least be a little bit active. However, consult with your doctor first to see what's safe for you – because recovering from your injury is of utmost importance!
Don't let your hard work go to waste
Everyone needs a break from time to time, so don't be afraid to take one because of the possibility of muscle loss. Instead, incorporate our tips above to help you maintain muscle when you can't make it to the gym! Remember to eat at maintenance (or a small surplus), have a high protein intake, and move if you can.
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