The real question we should all be asking is, “How long can I take off from the gym before I begin to lose muscle mass?” Is it 24 hours? Is it 24 days? Let’s take a more in-depth look into this topic and also provide some strategies you can utilize to help prevent your physique from dwindling away.
Your Age Can Play a Major Factor
First and foremost, we need to understand that as we age, our testosterone levels naturally decline. In your teens and 20’s, it may have seemed like you could simply look at a weight and you could add some quality lean muscle mass. Soak it all in when you can and take advantage of those times because once you reach 30, things start going downhill.
As testosterone levels decrease, your ability to build and even preserve lean muscle tissue can become difficult. Unfortunately, another side effect of lowered testosterone levels can also become storing body fat more easily.
The rate at which you lose muscle mass drastically increases the older you get, which makes it even more important to focus on your fitness and workouts to help maintain your lean mass.
Research Shows You Can Lose Muscle Mass Fairly Quickly
If you want to keep tabs on your lean body mass during a hiatus from the gym, you’ll want to get your body composition tested. This can be done using calipers, bioimpedance, or even a bathroom scale that tests body fat levels. While the bathroom version is not very accurate, if you consistently use it, you’ll at least be able to tell if your lean mass results are declining.
There are many factors that go into figuring out how long it takes before you lose muscle mass, and the research seems to be all over the place. That said, here’s what the research is showing us.
One study found that you could start losing lean muscle mass in as little as one week of inactivity. Should you find yourself needing to have surgery and will be immobilized, you could lose as much as two pounds.
Another study looked at the rate at which you lose muscle mass when you take time off from the gym (and are not immobilized like in the study above) and found that you can lose as much as 11% of your lean muscle tissue in as little as 10 days being away from the gym.
One thing we also need to take into the equation with how quickly you lose muscle mass when you take time off from the gym is how much water and glycogen is stored in the muscle. While, clearly, within a week, you can start losing muscle mass, the real visual changes can be due to decreased fluid in the muscle itself.
You can think of it as having a pump. When you achieve a pump in the gym, your muscles look full, but once the pump wears off, your muscles shrink (merely back down to their normal size).
Another study looked at how quickly you lose muscle mass when skipping the gym, and it showed that muscle atrophy happens around the three-week mark.
How Can You Maintain Your Muscle When Not Working Out?
First off, if you happen to miss the gym for quite some time due to immobilization and you DO lose muscle mass during that period, research has found that it can take three times your layoff to put the muscle you lost back on. Therefore, if you have surgery and can’t move your arm for four weeks (for example), expect it to take you 12 weeks to put the muscle back on.
If you need to take some time off due to life getting in the way or due to sickness or surgery, here are some key tips to help preserve your lean muscle mass while you sit on the sidelines.
1. Keep Your Protein Intake High
It should go without saying, but if you are planning to take some time off or need to due to unforeseen circumstances, you are going to want to keep your protein intake high. Protein is incredibly important to not only building lean muscle tissue but also preserving it and minimizing muscle loss. If you don’t want to lose muscle mass, strive for around 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Some great sources include steak, chicken, turkey, Greek yogurt, protein powder, protein bars, nuts, seeds, beef jerky, fish, pork, eggs, and tofu, just to name a few. Include protein in all of your meals as well as in snacks throughout the day if you have any.
2. Make Sure You Are NOT in A Caloric Deficit
Taking time off from the gym, as mentioned, can cause you to lose muscle mass. If you want to kiss all of your lean mass goodbye, put yourself in a caloric deficit. This will almost certainly cause you to lose muscle mass – and quickly.
If you want to maintain your muscle, keep your calories up at the maintenance level. If your maintenance is 2,000 calories, DO NOT dip below that number while also trying your hardest not to good above. This can be easier said than done, but with a little effort, you should be able to track your calories with something like MyFitnessPal and get yourself pretty darn close to your maintenance.
3. Stay Active If You Can
While taking some time off may not be the end of the world, if you don’t want to lose muscle mass, it would be advantageous to try to stay somewhat active. If you were hitting the gym 5-7 days a week, backing things down to 2-3 days a week can help you preserve your lean muscle and physique.
Those few workouts you fit it can be things like bodyweight exercises and even resistance bands. You don’t need to hit the gym and load up the bar to preserve and even build lean muscle tissue. Get it in when and where you are able.
A different study looked at where your training volume would need to be in order to maintain lean muscle mass, and it showed that you only need 1/3rd of your original training volume to do so, which shows using bodyweight exercises or resistance bands can be the perfect way to maintain and not lose muscle mass.