How fast will you lose muscle and gain body fat if you take a break from the gym? How long will it take to get back to where you were before you stopped exercising? Will you be able to regain lost muscle easily due to muscle memory? If you’re thinking about any of these questions then watch this video to get a clear idea of exactly what to expect week by week and month by month if you stop working out.
So let’s start with the most obvious, you will lose muscle. This is because your muscles will decrease in size if you don’t regularly expose them to the amount of stimulation that they require for maintenance. Muscle costs your body a fair amount of energy to maintain so if you stop lifting weights or using your muscles for calisthenics your body will in a sense become very tempted to save that energy by getting rid of some of that muscle. Unfortunately, the research on exactly how quick you’ll lose muscle mass is a little mixed. Some studies suggest muscle atrophy occurs within just two weeks of detraining.(1) Others suggest that atrophy is more likely to occur within three to six weeks.(2) And the main reason why the results are so mixed is that there are a number of factors that influence how fast you’ll lose muscle. Examples include your protein intake, the number of calories you eat on a daily basis, and your general activity levels throughout the day aside from exercise. Another thing that further complicates the situation is the fact that muscle glycogen stores are lost very quickly when you stop exercising.(3) In case you don’t know, After you eat carbohydrates they’re broken down and stored in your muscles as glycogen and they’re stored along with a fair amount of water. so when you stop working out and your muscle glycogen stores go down, your muscles will visibly shrink since there will be less water retention inside of them. This is important to take note of because when scientists measure muscle loss, they look at things like fat-free mass, lean body mass, and fiber cross-sectional area. They do that with medical tools and tests like muscle biopsies, DEXA scans, or MRI’s. But the problem is, even though these methods are useful, they are affected by the number of glycogen stores within a muscle. In other words, when you have less glycogen in your muscles, the measuring methods that we use will interpret that as lost muscle mass. When in reality, what happened was that you simply stored less glycogen and water within your muscles. And that’s why we have to take studies that measure muscle loss with a grain of salt. On top of that like I mentioned if you maintain a sufficient protein and calorie intake, it’ll take longer to lose muscle than if you deprive yourself of both. Low calorie and low protein diets will definitely accelerate muscle loss. However, as a rule of thumb, you can safely assume that true muscle loss will start to happen after about three to four weeks of not working out.
Now The second thing that’ll happen is you’ll lose strength. Since detraining causes muscle loss, it’s not surprising that it also decreases your strength. After all, there’s a strong link between muscle mass and strength. For example, one study found a strong relationship between chest size and bench press strength.(4) And in powerlifters, there’s a 86 to 95% correlation between fat-free mass or in other words muscle mass and performance with the major lifts like squats, deadlifts, and bench press. (5) So muscle mass and strength are very closely connected, and luckily we have a systematic review involving over 27 studies that can help us understand how fast you’ll lose strength after detraining.(6) This review found that maximum strength levels can be maintained for up to 3 weeks after stopping resistance training. After that, you’ll start experiencing a gradual decline in your strength and the rate of strength losses will accelerate even more between 5 to 16 weeks after stopping exercise. (7) So, it’s not that big of a deal in terms of strength if you’re forced to take just a few weeks off due to something like an injury or you being busy with work or exams. And it’s also true that taking a few weeks off doesn’t impair long-term strength gains. This can be seen clearly in a study where participants either trained for 24 consecutive weeks or alternated between six week periods of training and three-week periods of no training.(8) And as you can see in the graph from the study, there was very little difference in strength gains over the long run between the two groups.(9) So bottom line taking a few weeks off won’t hurt strength too much but when those few weeks turn into a month or longer that’s when you have to start worrying.
Luckily one beneficial side effect of stopping your workouts is that you’ll be able to take advantage of Muscle Memory.
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