You work hard for your muscle, so the last thing you ever want to do is put yourself in a position where you could potentially lose it. This fear of losing muscle is exactly why it’s difficult for so many of us hardcore weight lifters to take a break from lifting. Besides the fact that we love lifting and don’t want to take a break, we especially don’t want to lose any of our hard-earned gains. Unfortunately life happens and we can’t always control getting to the gym and lifting all the time. Things such as injuries, vacations, and family matters can all force us to take time off from our lifting routine. With that in mind, today I want to take a look at just how long we can take a break from lifting before we have to worry about losing that precious muscle.
First, I’m not talking about atrophy from an injury in which a muscle or certain muscles need to be kept completely immobilized to recover. Although in case you are wondering, one study found that muscle wasting was detected in as little as three days following immobilization. How quickly a muscle atrophies depends on how the muscle is used. For example, it’s been shown that disuse atrophy occurs much faster in antigravity muscles than in their antagonists (muscles that counteract, such as quadriceps and hamstrings.) I’m also not talking about muscle atrophy from things like diseases, malnutrition, or sleep deprivation. What I’m specifically looking at today is if we were to stop lifting but continue to carry on with our everyday lives, how long could we go before we start to lose muscle?
There are several factors that can impact how fast you lose muscle such as age, nutrition and fitness level. Gender, however, has not shown to be a factor when it comes to muscle atrophy from detraining. Competitive athletes and people with high levels of fitness are more likely to atrophy quicker than your casual athletes. An article published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2005 showed that recreational athletes experienced muscle atrophy and decreased strength after 12 weeks of inactivity, while competitive athletes could start to experience muscle atrophy in as little as 2-4 weeks of detraining. What that’s showing is the more advanced trainer you are, the sooner some form of atrophy is likely to take place.
There was a study done in 1999 at Flinders University of South Australia that showed it took about 3 weeks for signs of muscle atrophy to occur when subjects were detrained, and those changes were marginal. Strength losses can and most likely will occur sooner than that, but it’s almost all neural. Coincidentally falling in line with the 3 week detraining there was a different study done at the University of Tokyo in 2011 that compared 2 groups who did a 15 week training program. One group did a continuous training cycle while the other group trained for 6 weeks, detrained for 3 weeks, and trained again for 6 weeks. What they found was at the end of the 15 weeks muscle size and one rep max progressed equally between the two groups. In fact, the same group did a follow-up study this year utilizing the same approach only for a longer period, this time going 6 months. The results of that study was exactly the same, both groups progressed the same.
While the timeframe can vary quite a bit in how long it takes for muscle to atrophy, the point is you don’t have to worry about missing a week of training here and there. In fact taking a week off or working light for a week, otherwise known as “deloading” has shown to help the more serious trainee continue to make progress by allowing the body to fully recover from strenuous training. After all, as you know muscles get bigger and stronger from resting and recovering from the training you put it through, not the training itself.
So next time you suffer some type of minor injury, feel free to take the time to let it recover. This way you don’t have to worry about the injury turning into something more serious, and now you know you don’t have to worry about losing any muscle in the process either. If you are going on vacation, go ahead and relax, take some time off from the gym and get back after it when you return. No matter what the reason you may have to take some time off from your training, rest assured as you can see from the studies above, even if you miss a couple of weeks time you are still likely to progress just like you would have if you hadn’t missed any time at all. How sweet is that?