Any good trainer or coach should have a working understanding of health markers. Near the top of the pecking order when looking at optimal body composition, mood and generally wellness are hormones. Of course there are all manner of hormones relevant to this but I am going to focus on one of the most appropriate to my main client base. That is the highly successful male, 50+, time poor, usually in an office or a relatively sedentary style job.
Reading Time: 8 mins
Word Count: 1300-1400 words
Will I Lose My Muscle If I Go On A Two-Week Holiday?
This blog has been inspired by a hard training client of mine. He is going away for a couple of weeks and is worried about losing his ‘gains’. I felt this would make a good topic as if it worries him, it also probably worries a lot of you.
If you were to look through my previous posts you would see I am very keen on CONSISTENCY. Without it, you will not get anywhere with weight training. This is obviously in conflict with anybody, for whatever reason, who finds themselves unable to train for a period of time. Before we discuss losing muscle in detail, let us recap the step before…
How do we GAIN muscle?
- Provide a stimulus (weight training)
- Remove the stimulus (rest, sleep, eat)
- Adapt to the stimulus (gain muscle and strength through super-compensation)
- Provide a stimulus slightly greater than before (during the super-compensation phase)
- Rest and adapt as before
This is essentially the cycle that we follow when we gain muscle and strength. We follow this model when applying PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD and the more regularly you do this, the better your results will be (within reason). This in a nutshell explains the importance of both CONSISTENCY and PROGRESSION.
It is important to realise that this is not a never-ending cycle. At some point, you will have become sufficiently strong/advanced that the difficulty of the workout may exceed the body’s ability to recover, within the given time-frame. This is where I would use a DE-LOAD session (or week if necessary). After some rest, you would hopefully start progressing again. I mention this because I want to draw attention to the idea of a structured rest (as above) vs. a non-structured lay-off, which the rest of the article will discuss.
What happens when we stop training?
Firstly, let us consider the psychological aspects which is one of the biggest issues in my opinion. Many of you who pride yourself on your physical capability may feel small, weak and fat. It is important to recognise that this is probably not a true reflection of reality, and most others will not notice any physical change in you at all.
In the physiological sense, building muscle is a slow costly process. Once the body has produced new muscle tissue it does not like to give it up that easily (unless you are in an aggressive calorie deficit which should be avoided if you are unable to train).
Most studies on this subject have shown muscle loss does not really start to occur before about 3-4 weeks away from the gym. This is also assuming no formal exercise is performed within this time-frame.
Do not get fooled by counting the loss of muscle glycogen
Many of these studies may also over-estimate muscle loss. This is because measurement is often made by a bod-pod or bioelectrical-impedance. These measure muscle tissue as lean body mass (LBM). They are not sophisticated enough to only measure muscle so it includes everything that is not fat. Therefore, bone, ligament, tendons, glycogen and water all get included in this LBM total.
After a training lay off, these studies may find that the LBM has dropped. Loss of muscle glycogen (carbohydrate stored in the muscle) could well be a contributing factor to this. Each gram of muscle glycogen stores about 4 grams of water and starts to drop in only a matter of days after cessation of training. (Muscle glycogen can fall by 20% in a week and up to 50% in a month). This can contribute to the perceived shrinkage of muscle and show as a substantial reduction of LBM during the follow up measurements.
To begin losing substantial muscle tissue (and not just glycogen), it would take at least 4 weeks and increase as time goes by. The good news is that muscle memory means strength, muscle tissue and muscle glycogen stores will recover much quicker than they were first gained, once training resumes.
The science of muscle tissue recovery
To explain why muscle tissue recovers so well, we need to look at the components of a muscle cell and specifically, their nuclei. Essentially, these govern the running of the cell and help thicken/develop muscle fibres. Weight training is a stimulus which helps the muscle cell produce more nuclei. These nuclei, from muscle satellite cells, are ‘donated’ to the muscle fibre during re-modelling and contribute to the efficiency of the muscle building (hypertrophy) process. It has been proven that even during periods of inactivity these additional nuclei remain. This is considered one of the reasons why ‘gains’ return so quickly after a period of detraining.
I am not training for 6 weeks though, what practical tips can minimise my muscle loss?
The good news is that in the short to medium term, protection of muscle mass is pretty easy:
1. Eat enough calories to maintain your weight
To explain in a little more detail, when your body is in a calorie deficit (diet) it does not have the required intake of energy to maintain all of its current tissue. Moreover, a calorie deficit will lower anabolic hormones (testosterone and growth hormone) and raise catabolic hormones (cortisol). This makes it more difficult for your body to retain lean tissue as it will start to consume itself for repair, recovery and survival. Being in a calorie deficit is a necessary evil to lose body fat, but this would usually be done alongside weight training, as the training acts as a stimulus to help protect the muscle. Without any weight training, a calorie deficit is a sure-fire way to rapidly reduce muscle mass.
2. Eat enough protein
An adequate protein intake is required for the same reason. Protein is made up of ‘building-blocks’ known as amino acids. These are broken down by digestion and used for repair, recovery and growth of lean tissue. A lack of these ‘building-blocks’ make muscle repair and maintenance impossible.
3. Stay active (sport, walking, body weight training etc.)
Finally, it is important to stay active. The more you do, the more you will encourage your body to hold onto valuable muscle mass, as it responds to this daily stimulus. Even without the gym, any movement and sport will help to minimise the loss. Anecdotally, consider a broken arm in a cast. Only after a few weeks of immobilisation, the arm will look withered due to muscle loss. Keep active at all costs.
As a practical suggestion, if you know you will have over a month away from formalised training, then just one brief weight training/body weight session a week could be worth its weight in gold with an ability to protect your hard-earned muscle. Combine this with points 1 & 2 and you will be in a good place to re-start training just as soon as you are ready.
Try not to worry if you cannot train for a few weeks. Actual muscle and strength loss will be minimal. Whilst you may appear a little smaller, this is mainly due to decreased muscle glycogen stores. It will take 4+ weeks for noticeable muscle tissue loss to start occurring. Even so, there are strategies to protect muscle mass such as eating sufficient calories, protein and staying active. Once you restart training, muscle memory will enable lost muscle to be rebuilt quickly. Muscle glycogen stores also rapidly return.
Of course, just because you do not suffer any long-term reduction in muscle or strength, this does not mean that unintentional layoffs will not harm further progress. Clearly, the more breaks you take, the slower the process to reach your goals.
Please do not hesitate in asking any questions you may have about these and be sure to tune into my live Q&A where I will be discussing these points in more detail.