How long do you maintain your strength for?
Today we dive into how long it actually takes for us to lose strength and muscle. This post is particularly relevant after Brisbane's recent short lockdown and other lockdowns around the world that have taken place this last year. However, this obviously applies to those who may have a lack of gym accessibility or time off with an injury.
To preface this blog, it must be said that how fast we lose strength and muscle can depend on a number of different things. Current strength/fitness levels, how long you were inactive, whether it was 'true' inactivity (eg immobilised in a cast) or still being somewhat active without resistance training, age, nutrition - all these things play a role in the rate at which our strength maintains or declines.
The more muscle you have, the harder it is to maintain without resistance training. Holding and building lean tissue is an energy dense process, if you aren't stressing the muscles and don't require the mass, your body is good at trying to get rid of it. You might've heard the old saying 'use it or lose it', well that applies here.
A 2015 study found that active young adults lost one-third of their leg strength after just two weeks of inactivity. However, before you panic, keep in mind that being inactive or immobilised (particularly with injury) is different to still being somewhat active, despite not resistance training. Atrophy (muscle degradation) does not occur as quickly unless you completely stop using your muscles. Another study by Hwang et al (2017), showed that two weeks of no resistance training, but moderate levels of activity, resulted in no significant loss of strength gains in trained individuals. Although as you start to approach three to four weeks without resistance training, it could be a different story. A 2013 study showed that athletes will start to lose muscle strength after three weeks without a workout, also called 'detraining.' If you are able to move around, true muscle loss can occur after about three weeks of no resistance training.
If you were in lockdown and did not have access to a gym, you may have only been able to do bodyweight exercises. The good news is that heavy lifting isn't necessarily required to maintain your strength, all you need to do is consistently perform at least one session per week of any type of resistance training. A 2013 study showed that strength was maintained with just body weight exercises alone for three week periods.
If you find you have indeed lost strength through periods of inactivity, research suggests that it is easier for trained individuals to regain their strength and muscle compared to how long it initially took to gain. The term 'muscle memory' is probably familiar to most, which was formerly thought of as being based entirely on neural adaptations to exercise. However, more recently, it has been shown that resistance training increases the number of nuclei in the muscle cells - which stay permanently. This increases the capacity for the proteins in the muscle to synthesise, making it easier to grow the muscle again without having to create more nuclei because they're already there (Bruusgaard et al, 2010).
Another incredibly important piece of the puzzle is your nutrition. In particular, how much protein you are consuming will be a huge factor in terms of strength and muscle retention. If you're not supporting your protein needs, your body will 'steal' proteins from your muscles and this is where atrophy occurs. A 2010 study suggests that higher protein intake can help maintain muscle, even in a calorie deficit, losing fat instead.
So if you find yourself in another lockdown, or you can't get to the gym for a little while - stay active. Even if it's just one or two body weight sessions per week. Be sure to complement this by eating plenty of protein. This will be your best bet to avoid losing the strength that you've worked so hard for!