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Holidays, family commitments, work trips, injuries: there are many reasons why our weight training schedule can be disrupted. If you’ve been training for a number of months or years and you have made real progress, this can be extremely frustrating.
Time away from the gym can increase our stress levels. We aren’t getting our usual endorphins hit and we are worried about how it will affect the way we look and how much we can lift once we return.
But does less time in the gym have as big an impact as we think it does?
Or is our body actually pretty good at maintaining muscle mass?
Let’s look at what we can do to prevent muscle loss when not working out.
How long before we start to lose muscle mass?
To ensure high levels of muscle protein synthesis, we need to follow a resistance training programme and eat plenty of protein.
But what happens when weight training isn’t on the cards?
There is no simple answer here - it depends on a number of factors including your age, your sex, your genetics and daily activity beyond your exercise regime.
If you are a young healthy adult who takes a couple of weeks away from lifting weights, the first day back might feel tough, but you are unlikely to have lost a huge amount of muscle mass.
One study found that if you train regularly, you won’t notice much difference even after a 3-week break.
What is muscle maintenance?
Muscle maintenance simply means that while we are not increasing our muscle strength, we aren’t losing it. If you are only able to work out a couple of times per week, you might think this is all you can hope for.
But this may not be the case.
Studies have actually shown that working out once or twice per week can not only ensure muscle maintenance, but it can actually continue to provide gains even if you were training three or four days per week previously.
How does muscle mass maintenance compare to muscle growth?
If you have worked hard over the past few months to get yourself into great shape, you will find that muscle maintenance is much easier than the growth period you have just put yourself through.
If you have previously enjoyed four strength training sessions per week, and you reduce this to one session per week where you workout at the same intensity as before, long-term progress is unlikely.
But if you are working out less, that means your rest time is increased. This in turn could make you feel more ready to increase your rep count and increase the weight on the bar. So make the most of the time you do have in the gym.
How to maintain muscle mass as we age
Resistance training is vital for reducing age related muscle loss, so does that mean we need to do more as we get older?
One study examined the progress of men in their 60s and 70s who trained their knee extensors with 3 sets of 10 repetitions, 3 days per week at 80% of their 1RM for 12 weeks, before switching to doing this just once per week for six months.
After 12 weeks of the 1 session per week program, the participants actually saw an increase in muscle tissue size and strength. Six months down the line, their muscle tissue size and strength remained the same.
The control group who stopped training their knee extensors after the initial 12 weeks lost significant muscle strength and muscle size.
Time for one workout per week?
If you think hitting the gym once per week isn’t worth the bother, think again!
Even without increasing the intensity of your workout, you may still squeeze in a few more gains, and it can certainly help maintain muscle mass.
Focus on resistance training, especially compound exercises such as squats and deadlifts which target the major muscle groups; these are the most effective for muscle protein synthesis.
What if you can’t work out at all?
Sometimes injury or time constraints mean that you cannot work out at all. It happens to all of us, but there are a few things you can do to minimise loss of muscle mass.
Focus On Your Diet
You may assume that you need to drastically reduce your calorie intake when you stop exercising to ensure you don’t gain fat. While you may have to adjust slightly, putting yourself into a calorie deficit will speed up muscle loss.
In fact, if you are only away from the gym for a couple of weeks, some experts recommend implementing a small calorie surplus to ensure that your body doesn’t use up any of your muscle mass for expending energy.
The most important thing is to make sure you continue to get enough protein. If your goal has been to get 35% of your calories from protein, then stick to this! Y
our muscles still need those chicken breasts and protein shakes to maintain their size.
If you are feeling less hungry due to a lack of exercise, whey protein powder is a great way to keep your protein intake high without making yourself feel overly full.
- Related content: What is the best way to get protein into your diet
Exercise can still play a part
Try and find any way you can to safely exercise - even a 30 minute walk will make a real difference. If it's work that is getting in the way - do ‘squeezing’ exercises at your desk i.e. tense your glutes and abs throughout the day.
Body weight workouts are also effective if you can manage these.
Childcare? Get as active as your kids and keep them entertained by playing high energy games with them.
If your lower body is injured, do armchair exercises to keep your upper body in shape (if given the go ahead by your doctor).
One of the hardest things about not exercising is the impact on your mental health. Many of us feel like we ‘need’ exercise to keep ourselves on an even keel.
So take some solace in the fact that even very minimal exercise, when combined with a healthy, high protein diet, can ensure we maintain the progress we have made.
Stress itself is pretty bad for our bodies, it releases the cortisol hormone which can lead to fat gain. so practise grounding techniques such as breathing exercises when you are feeling anxious. You might feel a bit stupid at first, but if you remind yourself that the goal is to keep your hard earned gains, suddenly 30 seconds of deep breathing feels like a smart thing to do!
Protein also helps with this as a high protein diet supports good hormone regulation.
How do I maintain muscle mass when I don’t have time to workout?
Whether you can fit in five workouts, one workout or none at all, consistently consuming enough calories and high levels of protein is necessary to maintain muscle mass. You also want to avoid a calorie deficit (unless you are overweight) as you will lose both fat and muscle if you aren’t able to exercise.
Drinking whey protein shakes is an easy way to ensure your protein intake remains consistently high. If time constraints are the reason you can’t make it to the gym, your diet may be suffering from lack of time too.
Whey protein shakes are a quick and easy way to keep on top of your macros. You can check out our Crazy Nutrition Tri-Protein shakes here.