So you’re at the peak of your bodybuilding game. Chest day. Leg day. Arms. Back. High intensity. It’s all looking pretty damn good in the aesthetics department…but then tragedy. You’re struck with an injury or illness that’s about to take you out of the game for the next three months. Oh, will someone think of the gains.
Today we’re talking about what happens to your muscles and your body when you take an unexpected break from training. Whilst the general perception is that you’ll lose your hard-earned muscle mass and simply get fat, there’s actually more to the story than that.
To help us answer some of the gym’s most burning questions, we went straight to the source at Precision Athletica – the team who are responsible for honing some of the Australia’s best professional and Olympic athletes.
If you’re afraid of losing your muscles after taking a break then listen up.
Does Muscle Turn Into Fat When You Stop Working Out?
Nils Hestermann who is the head of strength and conditioning at Precision Athletica says that the first thing is to know exactly how long the break is. Anything over 3-4 weeks break from your usual workout routine is considered long, but he also notes that a two week break could be beneficial for increasing your muscle mass afterwards.
“Let’s assume it’s a 3-4 week plus break due to injury or other reasons. Obviously a decrease in muscle mass and muscle size is happening which in many cases people think you lose muscle and it turns into fat, but it’s actually not the case,” he says.
“What happens is you lose muscle mass which results in losing muscle size. This decreases your metabolism which then increases body fat if you keep the same eating habits as when you were training.”
Hestermann explains that the key here is to adjust your nutrition intake if you are training less or not training at all. This will essentially allow you to delay the muscle loss process in the short term. Over the long term, losing muscle mass as well as the neural aspect of activating these muscles may be gone.
What If You Eat Super Clean On Your Break?
“When you still keep healthy eating habits, you can delay that process,” says Hestermann.
“Muscles don’t disappear straight away and it depends on the training you do. Experienced or semi-experienced trainers and bodybuilders will be able to keep muscle mass quite well over these 3-4 weeks and longer.”
There is a silver lining when it comes to eating clean on your break though. Assuming that your nutritional intake is high in order to support your training, eating vast amounts of healthy food whilst you’re on break still won’t help you retain the gains. At this break stage your body’s muscles don’t require as much energy as they’re not being used.
“This means that even if you have healthy eating habits but you eat too much, it won’t have a beneficial effect in terms of body composition,” explains Hestermann.
Will Your Strength Also Disappear?
It maybe common sense that a loss of muscle means a loss of strength, but Hestermann says that the type of training you do also plays a big part.
“If you take the body builder approach, you’ll see a decrease in strength quite quickly,” he says.
And then there’s eccentric training – a technique that allows you to push your muscles past their normal point of failure.
“If you incorporate a lot of eccentric training in your workout – a back squat for example – the lowering phase when you actually go down into that squat is called an eccentric phase, you will be able to keep your strength and muscle memory up for a lot longer,” explains Hestermann.
The same advantages of strength retention also occurs in high intensity training. The strength will drop a bit if you’re a bodybuilder, but it’s definitely beneficial for those looking to retain most of their inherent strength.
So don’t neglect your high intensity or eccentric training in the gym.
Will You Need To Start From Zero Once You Come Back?
This purely depends on the training. Hestermann says that muscle memory is quite amazing in that you’ll be getting back to your proper strength numbers or old numbers quickly if you have a good routine going.
“In terms of long term breaks you wont start from the bottom, but you won’t be going back to your usual numbers straight away. Muscle memory will play a big part.”
Does Age Affect How Quickly You Lose & Regain Muscle?
When it comes to working out vs. age, testosterone is the driving force. This is because a man’s testosterone levels decrease as he gets older and this means it’s harder to increase your muscle mass or strength levels.
“If you are younger and start lifting early, it will give you a good base based on muscle memory and the neural aspects that allow you to keep your strength levels and muscle mass over a longer time,” says Hestermann.
Lifting weights in your middle age or older age doesn’t mean it’s pointless. It just means you’ll have to do it longer and harder to see results when compared to a younger bodybuilder.
Advice On Retaining Your Strength & Muscle Mass
Hestermann says that having a structured routine and overload is the best way to train in order to keep your muscles.
“Having something your muscle can adapt to is really important. If you do have to stop because of certain reasons, you can definitely create an ability to get into things quicker and easier again.”
In short, incorporate eccentric and high intensity training. Hestermann says the latter doesn’t have to be a full on session. It can be a 4-10 minute finisher. But stimulating the neuro system and getting some adaptation is the key. In the worst case scenario when you’re on a break and not training, change your diet accordingly. Reduce your caloric intake as the muscles you had in the past aren’t being used.