What You Need to Know About Muscle Loss

If you’ve ever taken a break from weightlifting, you may have noticed that you don’t feel as good as you did when working out. The first thought you might have is, “I must be losing muscle mass. It’s been DAYS since I’ve hit the gym.” While you lose muscle mass after you stop working out, it might not happen as quickly as you think (and that not-so-good feeling is probably from the lack of endorphins and the fact that your body likes to move!). Let’s take a look. 

First, if you skip a few days here and there, don’t fret. You won’t lose muscle in a few days away from the gym. Your well-earned progress won’t come to a complete halt if you take a day (or two or three) to rest. In fact, rest days are imperative to gaining muscle mass. Weightlifting breaks down muscle so that it regrows stronger, and if you don’t give it time to repair, you won’t make any gains. This is why we split up days into leg day, back day, chest day, etc., when there’s heavy lifting involved. You need to give your muscles a few days to complete the repair process before you intentionally break them down again. You don’t have to take a few days between weightlifting each time you go; just spread out what muscle groups you focus on throughout the week for the best results!

Now, as far as muscle loss is concerned, of course, everyone is slightly different, but on average, it takes a few weeks for you to lose muscle. Athletes (people who train at least 5-6 times a week, and usually with intensity) start losing muscle mass a bit slower than non-athletes (people who train less than 5-6 times a week, so, most of us). On average, athletes can skip 2-3 weeks without losing any strength. They also lose muscle mass more slowly once they do begin to see loss. Athletes regain strength faster than non-athletes, most likely because of muscle memory. 

Non-athletes can also skip about 2-3 weeks without seeing any significant decline in muscle mass, but unlike athletes, they may have a harder time making progress when they begin weight training again. Experts say that if you can help it, you should not go 3 or more weeks without consistent strength training if you do not want to lose muscle mass or have difficulty making progress when you return to the gym. If you are just beginning your fitness journey, you lose muscle faster, but again, a week or two won’t bring you back to square one.

How long does it take to lose all of your progress? That is largely dependent on age. The older you are, the faster you lose progress. In a study done in 2009, Lemmer et al. found that after six months of no strength training, men and women both lost a significant amount of muscle mass. Women aged 65-75 returned to their baseline, that is, their fitness level before they began strength training. Men between 65 and 75 lost a significant amount as well but did not return to their baseline fitness levels. Men and women between the ages 20 and 30 didn’t fare too well either, with six months of inactivity, but lost muscle mass at about half the speed as the older group. 

The good news is that regardless of whether you are an athlete or a non-athlete if you take more than three weeks away from the gym, you will have an easier time making progress than if you never began your fitness journey in the first place! Even if you can’t train like you are used to, going a little lighter or augmenting your routine to fit your current needs and ability level significantly reduces muscle loss. A personal trainer can help you decide what movements suit you at your current ability, so don’t be dismayed if you have taken a break or can’t keep up with your previous routine. There is no time like the present to get back to it!