So, you’ve spent months, years, maybe even decades busting your butt in the weight room and piling on muscle.
Inevitably, you are going to have a point in your life where going to the gym just doesn’t work out: maybe you go on a vacation, get injured, or have a personal emergency that forces you to take time off of training.
Whatever the situation, you may be wondering:
How long before I start to lose this muscle I’ve worked so hard for?
The Basics of Making Gains
First, let’s understand what is happening that makes you get stronger in the first place.
Whenever you train, your body produces enzymes that activate the process of muscular growth. Once you stop training, your body ceases to produce these enzymes and your muscles begin to atrophy.
Muscle tissue can begin to breakdown after one and half weeks of not training, while some individuals can lose up to 80% of their gains in just two weeks.
There’s More To The Picture
Of course, this is a rough estimate and there are a number of factors which influence this loss. The main factor is how long you have been training; the longer you’ve been putting in work, the longer it takes you to lose what you’ve gained.
Studies conducted showed that those who had been working out consistently for one year and then stopped exercising for three months lost around half of their aerobic fitness. But those who had just begun a fitness program two months earlier, lost all the cardiovascular benefits they gained.
That’s good news for those of us who have been training for an extended period of time:
Our gains last longer.
A Muscle Never Forgets
There is also something called muscle memory, where your muscles and nervous system actually “remember” the movements and training you have performed in the past. This means that if you take a break, when you return you will pile on the muscle and improve your fitness level much faster than someone who has just started training.
Just remember, you need to start slow when you return to the gym after a long break. Once you ease yourself back into the training regimen, you should find that your strength returns relatively quickly.
Many athletes actually take advantage of this, by taking two to four weeks off of training and then beginning their regimens again and are able to obtain a higher level of fitness than before.
Muscle Types and Their Role in Detraining
Also interestingly, the type of exercise you perform has a large impact on how fast you will lose strength. Endurance athletes lose muscle slower than others because they have leaner muscles, and their training has focused mostly on the slow twitch muscles.
Athletes who have more fast twitch muscle fibers will lose strength much faster. Endurance athletes such as rowers and marathon runners can keep their fitness level for up to 12 weeks after ceasing training, while weight lifters, sprinters and football players can begin losing muscle strength as early as 2 weeks after stopping training.
- After you cease training, you can lose a large percentage of your muscle mass within two weeks
- The longer you have been training, the longer it takes to lose what you have gained
- You can maintain what you have gained by working out only a few times per week
There’s Always Hope!
Don’t worry! It is relatively easy to stem the tide of fitness loss. Experts suggest just doing something; if you are a runner you can walk or cycle if your knees need a break, swimmers can hit up the stair stepper and weight lifters can perform maintenance lifts with lower weight and higher reps than normal. You can also do some cross training – try your hand at a new sport or activity, maybe you can take a few yoga classes or go for a hike at a local state or national park.