During the coronavirus lockdown period, the gyms are closed and so most of us will have stopped weight-training completely. The two questions I’ve been asked many times recently are "How quickly will I lose muscle?" and "How hard will it be to get it back?"
Let’s start with muscle loss. Your rate of muscle loss will depend on:
1. How much muscle you had gained above your natural set point (the amount you have without weight training)
2. How much weight training you did to build that amount of muscle
The more muscle mass you’ve gained above your natural set point, the more you are likely to lose when you stop training. If you’ve only gained 2-3kg of muscle mass over the course of six months of training, you’ll likely maintain most of this. If you’ve been training for many years and have gained 12-15kg of muscle, you’re going to see a much bigger proportion (and therefore a bigger absolute amount) disappear.
Also, the more frequently and intensively you were weight training before lockdown, the faster you will lose the muscle mass you gained. For example, if your level of muscle is where it is because you normally train six times per week, expect a faster rate of muscle loss than if you were only training twice a week.
In other words, the more dramatic the reduction in your training regime, the faster your muscle mass will decrease.
When it comes to gaining back any lost muscle mass post lockdown, you’ll be pleased to know that "muscle memory" is real.
The nucleus of muscle cells is responsible for rebuilding new proteins. Over time, with effective resistance training, muscle cells adapt to gain more nuclei. This allows them to produce more proteins, making the muscles bigger and stronger.
If you stop training, your muscle mass can shrink slowly but the number of nuclei won’t change. This means the ‘machinery’ needed to build the higher amount of muscle mass you had will still be there. That’s the essence of ‘muscle memory’ and why those who have lost muscle mass find it fairly easy to regain their losses.
If you’re unable to do any resistance training at all during lockdown, when you get back to the gym make sure you resume the same routine you were before (or, more precisely, a high-quality, optimised regimen as detailed in our free e-book Twelve Reasons Why you're Not Gaining Muscle).
If lockdown prevents you training for 12 weeks, I’d expect it to take five to six weeks of solid training to regain your losses of size and strength.
Although lost muscle mass can be regained, I’d advise you to do as much resistance training as you can while the gyms are closed. This will slow the rate of muscle loss whether your long-term goal is muscle gain OR fat loss. All exercise is good for our physical and mental health during these extraordinary times and, if you weren't aware, strength training helps to maintain and increase bone density.
My blog about training at home would be a good place to start and has many exercises listed to help you. Stay healthy!
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