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Bert Bauzon is a licensed physiotherapist specializing in spinal care and sports rehabilitation. He writes articles and books about exercise science and health care.

Detraining: How Fast Do You Lose Your Hard-earned Muscle Gains?

The time and effort you need to gain muscles is no joke. It takes months and years to achieve a strong and good-looking physique that you can always be proud of.

The more you stay consistent with your training, the more you'll see satisfying results. Likewise, the more you continuously challenge your body, the more you see growth and progress.

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But what happens if you do the complete opposite? What happens if you stay out of the gym for quite a long time? They say, "what you don't use, you lose" does it mean all the time you spend working out is all for nothing?

This article will discuss the concept of muscle loss due to detraining and how you can prevent it.

What is detraining?

Whether you are a high-performance athlete or a fitness enthusiast, you will face unavoidable interruptions in your training that could mess up your goals. For example, you may encounter injuries or medical conditions that require you to stay in bed for a long time. Sometimes, it could be complete demotivation or simply a long extended vacation.

Enter detraining. Detraining is the partial or complete loss of physiologic and performance adaptation due to training reduction or cessation.

During the state of detraining, you begin to lose muscle strength and muscle mass you gained from working out as a consequence of stopping your training.

Detraining affects not only your muscles but also the other systems in your body, resulting in a decrease in overall cardiovascular endurance and increase in body weight and fat mass.

Muscle Loss and Muscle Gain

Your skeletal muscles undergo a constant process of muscle protein synthesis (building) and protein breakdown to maintain your body's normal function.

These two opposing processes determine whether you gain, lose or maintain muscle mass. When muscle protein breakdown is greater than protein synthesis for a prolonged time, you'll start to lose muscle mass. Conversely, if muscle protein synthesis is greater than muscle protein breakdown, you'll see muscle gain.

In the case of detraining, prolonged muscle disuse decreases protein synthesis resulting in greater protein breakdown leading to muscle loss.

This is why a limb becomes smaller compared to the other side when immobilized for a long time.

How fast do you lose muscle gains?

Assuming that you maintain your diet after stopping your training, the rate of muscle loss will mainly depend on the amount of physical activity you do every day.

In 2 weeks: Unless you are bedridden and able to do basic everyday tasks like hygiene, standing and walking, you won't experience noticeable muscle loss within two weeks of detraining.

Simple everyday activities are enough to prevent muscle loss even if you are not lifting weights because these movements will still mechanically activate the majority of your muscles.

In 2-3 weeks: You'll probably start to notice a considerable decrease in your muscle mass due to atrophy or muscle wasting.

But before you regret the time you spend outside the gym, it is essential to understand that these losses are mainly due to a decrease in water and glycogen inside the muscles. You can quickly restore glycogen in your muscles once you return to your training routine.

Most of the literature tells us that 3 weeks of detraining could be the ceiling before we see drastic muscle loss and change in our physique.

In 2 months: A study published in the Journal of Physiology states that 2 months of detraining for novice individuals could cut their gains by roughly 50%. However, it is unclear whether the same reduction rate also occurs for advanced lifters.

This could be a huge loss and demotivating for some, especially if it takes years to gain those muscles, only to be reduced by half due to injury or busy schedules. Luckily, science tells us that you don't actually need to train for another year to get all those gains back.

A workout you should try:

Muscle memory

Muscle memory exists. It is the fact that it's much quicker to regain lost muscle and strength compared to starting to build muscle mass and strength from scratch.

Learned motor skills such as deadlifts and squats are stored in the cerebellum forever.

The more you practice, the more you become efficient at doing an activity. Through repetition, the task eventually becomes subconscious and effortless.

Even after a long break, the neuromuscular system is already programmed to complete the exercise more efficiently. This is also why you cannot unlearn how to ride a bike or swim even if you are not doing them for a long time.

Your muscles also adapt to become bigger and stronger the first time you begin training by increasing the muscle fiber nucleus (myonuclei) within the muscles.

Studies show that most myonuclei remain even after long periods of not training. This means that if you go back to the gym and start lifting again, your muscles skip the process of creating new myonuclei resulting in a faster rate of strength gain and hypertrophy.

How can you prevent muscle loss?

If you are planning on taking an extended time away from the gym or simply becoming inconsistent with your training routine, there are some ways you can do to keep your muscle gains.

1. Stay in maintenance calories

It is normal to assume that eating more calories (caloric surplus) will help you maintain muscle mass compared to eating less (caloric deficit). However, a literature review found out that you are gaining more fat and losing more muscle mass being in a caloric surplus without training.

Sticking to maintenance calories is the best way to keep your muscle mass without the risk of gaining fat. Maintenance calories are the precise number of calories your body requires to support your energy expenditure. This simply means eating enough to neither gain nor lose weight.

To calculate maintenance calories, multiply your body weight in pounds by 15.

2. Eat more protein

It is a known fact that a high protein diet will promote muscle growth if combined with exercise. But, more importantly, maintaining a high protein intake during periods of inactivity helps reduce the rate of muscle loss.

You need at least 0.7lbs to 1.0lbs per pound (1.6 to 2.2g per kilogram) of your total body weight to facilitate muscle growth. The leaner you are, the more likely you will benefit from protein intake.

3. Use your muscles

Even if you take your time off from the gym, it is vital to stay active. A simple activity such as daily walking for 30 minutes is enough to slow down the rate of muscle loss.

It is even better to continue to have some exercise routine even when you are on vacation. Multiple studies suggest that you don't need much activity to maintain muscle mass. Researchers suggest that you only need at least 1/3rd of your original training volume to maintain muscle mass.

While the concept "what you don't use, you lose" is real, it is also true that "less is better than nothing". So keep your body moving even if you are not training.

Bonus Tip

If you are suffering from an injury, don't force yourself to train through it, as this tends to worsen it and lead to prolonged recovery.

Instead, train other muscle groups or engage in safe and enjoyable physical activity that won't stress your injured body part. Remember that muscle memory is a powerful tool, and you don't need to rush to regain muscle strength and size.

Conclusion

You will encounter interruptions in your training routine that could mess up your progress and even result in the loss of muscle mass that you work hard to gain.

More than 3 weeks of detraining will result in significant muscle loss and cut your gains to half.

The good news is you can quickly bounce back and regain your muscles if you start training again, thanks to muscle memory.

If you need to take time off from the gym, it is vital to stay in maintenance calories, eat more protein and stay active to reduce the rate of muscle loss.

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