The following article was recently published with The Protein Works...
It’s a scary thought; losing each and every pound of the hard-earned muscle mass you’ve gained. After all, it’s taken years of dedicated training to build. The amount of blood, sweat and (hopefully minimal) tears shed are only a portion of what you’ve given to achieve your goals. Then, all of a sudden, in waltzes “quarantine life” to snatch it all away, right?
Well, not so fast.
No doubt, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in your typical exercise regimen, but hopefully you have allowed your exercise creativity to flourish even through these trying times. However, let’s not be unrealistic. It’s unlikely your body has received the same breadth of carefully crafted punishment if your gym-going routine has changed over the past 10 years….err months.
The question then creeps into your mind, “Have I lost muscle mass?”
Given any lengthy break from the gym, it’s likely a person will lose both size and strength to some degree, but exactly how much? Of course, this is largely up to the individual. If you’ve been performing some version of progressive resistance training and eating a diet high in protein, you’ve probably lost a miniscule amount of muscle tissue (even if the mirror is telling your brain differently).
In a study performed by Kraemer (1), sixteen resistance-trained men were recruited to examine the effects of detraining. About half of the men were instructed to continue a traditional resistance training program, while the other group was taken out of the weight room, effectively detraining for six consecutive weeks. The results of the study included no significant alterations in either total body mass or percent body fat for the detrained group, indicating that even after 6 weeks, muscle mass was largely preserved.
Though this is only one clinical trial, it provides insight that muscle mass isn’t exactly easy to lose, at least not so quickly.
What about strength?
Given the increased neurological component associated with strength training, it’s probable the ability to lift heavy weight (1-5RM) decreases at a quicker pace than would muscle mass, especially in well-trained individuals. In a review by McMaster (2), this very notion was purported.
The aim of this review (2) focused on the development, retention and decay rates of strength and power in elite rugby and American football players. The most significant concept as it relates to this article was the speculation that strength performance will begin to decay after about five weeks of detraining.
Important to note is that the studies cited in this review likely included male participants with inordinately high strength levels given their status as athletes. More impressive levels of strength seem to be more difficult to maintain than commonplace performance.
But if I did lose muscle mass, how long will it take to regain?
Again, if you’ve been staying generally active and eating a diet high in protein, you likely haven’t lost any significant amount of muscle. However, even if you did lose some precious pounds, there is good news. That is, muscle mass is far easier to maintain and regain than it is to initially pack on. The science on this phenomenon is complex, so personally, I find it easiest to think in very broad terms.
Though losses in muscle mass do occur, it’s the size of muscle cells experiencing the reduction, not the total number. These cells are called myonuclei, and additional myonuclei become active during the initial training process. Upon reintroducing resistance training after a lengthy break, those myonuclei do not have to “generate” but instead be “reminded” they exist. This process is a lot less pain staking and extended.
The Bottom Line on Regaining Muscle Mass
In any capacity, the thought of losing something you’ve poured countless hours into is scary. It’s magnified when we’re constantly reminded of these losses via the mirror or scale. However, rest assured that muscle mass, and even strength, are slow to go and quick to return.