On holiday, and are you afraid of losing your muscle mass? In this article, you can read the latest scientific insights into the speed of loss of muscle mass and muscle strength.
What happens to your muscle fibers when you stop strength training?
The decrease in muscle strength and muscle mass is mainly related to the reduction in volume and composition of the muscles. Muscle fibers relax or strengthen depending on the amount and intensity of stimuli they receive from an external load.
For example, do you stay in bed for two weeks? Then, your muscle mass decreases quite quickly. We know from research on patients in intensive care that, on average, they report a decrease of 2% per day in their lower body. Your leg muscle mass becomes redundant since you don’t get up, walk, or squat. The body is very (read too, in this case) adaptive to the external stimuli you give it. Please note: this study in an intensive care unit may not be entirely representative of a healthy athlete who lies in bed all day and eats a protein-rich diet. Still, the numbers make me think.
The key is to use it or lose it.
Finally, you will notice that your exercise pattern becomes less efficient. This is especially true for more complex exercises such as the squat (and variations), bench press, clean & jerk, and snatch. To give you an idea, during COVID, I could only squat with a maximum of 120 kilograms due to the limited availability of weights. After a few months, I came back to the gym, and it wasn’t easy to train with heavier weights again. I wasn’t used to this. You have to train your muscles specifically if you want to become strong. Unfortunately, you can’t do that with a kettlebell and some elastic bands.
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How quickly do you lose muscle strength?
My experience is that your muscle strength only partially faded away after a few months. I traveled for a year and, therefore, trained irregularly. Then, I noticed that my muscle mass and strength remained relatively intact. I saw about a 10-20% drop in my muscle mass and strength during that period.
It is interesting to know that muscle strength is partly related to the amount of muscle mass, although reasonably limited. In beginners, muscle mass only has a limited explanation for strength development. In advanced athletes with a lot of muscle mass, this connection is much stronger.
Muscle mass, therefore, has a limited explanation for extra strength. The exercise pattern and your predisposition also play a role. Learning an efficient movement pattern for the bench, deadlift, or squat can take several months. This can make a big difference in strength. You don’t lose this completely, just like cycling.
This theory is confirmed by several studies that indicate that loss of strength and muscle mass is limited if you do not train or train little for a while. Even with a limited training volume of six sets per week, you can reasonably maintain your strength and mass as a beginner and advanced.
With a lack of training stimuli, it appears that muscle endurance and muscle strength hardly deteriorate in the first three weeks. You may even be stronger after one week of inactivity because your muscles, attachments, and nervous system get the necessary rest for maximum load. Reducing the training volume, also known as tapering, is often used by top athletes to peak before a competition.
After 3 to 4 weeks of inactivity, there is a good chance that muscle strength will deteriorate slightly. This goes step by step. After 16 weeks, you really see an apparent decrease in maximum strength. This decreases further over time.
How quickly do you lose muscle mass?
Research indicates that muscle mass slowly decreases after two weeks. The decrease in muscle mass starts to increase after four weeks. This is confirmed by a study among bodybuilders, where their muscle mass decreased by 9.3 percent after 15 months without training. The decrease in muscle mass is slow at first and increases faster after three months without training.
In addition, the amount of type 2 muscle tissue decreases proportionately compared to type 1 muscle tissue. Furthermore, your tendons and attachments may be less resilient after a long time without training because they are no longer used to that heavy load.
To put it into perspective, if you have built up ten kilos of extra muscle mass and then do little for fifteen months, losing one kilo of your mass is actually not that bad. It must be said that in sports research, top athletes or very experienced bodybuilders are almost never asked since fanatical athletes do not just voluntarily stop for fifteen months. I expect that this target group has more muscle mass to lose because the advanced strength athlete has a larger physique, and this will lead to more breakdown. However, future research should provide more clarity. Fortunately, there is hope for experienced strength athletes—the concept of muscle memory.
Muscle memory: does it exist?
Your body indeed has something called ‘muscle memory.’ If you have previously trained fanatically for a more extended period (estimated to be 1 year or more), you have built up a head start in your muscle cells. It is easier to regain lost muscle mass and strength. Three main reasons:
- an increased number of cell nuclei
- more confidence
- and a more efficient exercise pattern
This phenomenon is also seen in athletes who use anabolic steroids. Even after a number of years, it appears that the muscles recover faster through a form of muscle memory.
What about the loss of fitness?
If you train for a few weeks, your fitness will stay the same. If you want to maintain your fitness, it is essential to do cardio or endurance training at least once a week. You will continue to maintain your essential fitness if you take a rest period, but you will lose some of the extra endurance resulting from training after three weeks. This is mainly due to the reduced VO2max. Your body is less able to absorb oxygen and transport it to the muscle cells.
Training on holiday
Are you going on holiday for more than three weeks and do you want to stay fit? Then, try to do a full-body workout at least once a week. By doing intensive strength training at least once a week, you can maintain most of your muscle strength and muscle mass. Read here some essential tips to stay fit during your holiday.
Training at home when your gyms are closed
Of course, you can continue training when your gym is closed. This can quickly be done at home. If you want to know everything about practical training at home, be sure to read this article with 10 tips for training at home – with videos and schedules. We also give you dozens of exercises to do at home. This way, you really don’t have to worry about losing strength or muscle mass!
Diet, alcohol, and loss of muscle mass
Of course, it’s more than just a lack of training that compromises your muscle strength and mass. For example, during a holiday (or lockdown), your rhythm is very different than you are used to; consider different nutritional choices, sleep, work rhythm, and alcohol consumption. Or you suddenly eat a lot more carbohydrates or salt, which makes you retain more fluid and appear fuller. Check with yourself:
- Are you taking enough proteins during this period?
- Do you eat healthy? Do you eat enough fruit and vegetables? And do you eat enough of the macronutrients proteins, carbohydrates, and fats?
- Don’t drink too much alcohol. Consider for yourself what your priorities are. What do you think is essential? And can you enjoy it in moderation?
Conclusion: how quickly do you really lose muscle mass?
If you stop training (strength training) and already have some training experience, you will lose your muscle strength and muscle mass a little after about 3 to 4 weeks. You lose muscle mass slightly faster than muscle strength. After about 2 to 3 months, the loss increases. Don’t worry about a short break. A short rest period can even be good for your body and mind. So don’t worry too much if you go on a short holiday or if the gym is not an option: you will be back to your old level in no time.