Without access to the gym, it’s easy to get into a panic when your progress is interrupted. Strong Women trainer Alice Miller explains why you shouldn’t be too concerned about losing muscle mass during lockdown.
As we endure a second lockdown and daydream about our beloved gym studios (we’ll never take that expansive weights section for granted again), it’s hard to stay motivated. Sure, there’s Instagram Lives and good ol’ YouTube… but it’s hard to stay motivated at the thought of your hard work on the chin-ups bar or the straight barbells going down the drain. But the reality is, you won’t lose muscle mass just because you take a month off lifting those heavy weights.
There’s plenty you can do to maintain muscle mass – and in fact, taking a good long rest could actually work in your favour. The experts explain why. But first, let’s get muscle mass straight.
What is muscle mass?
“The term ‘muscle mass’ refers to the amount of muscle that we have within the body and is usually about 40% of our total body mass,” says Tom Cowan, exercise physiologist. Aside from feeling (and looking) strong, building and maintaining muscle mass has a plethora of health benefits, including keeping your metabolism strong, even when you’re resting. So, thanks to all those gym sessions and gruelling spin classes pre-lockdown, your muscles are ticking along nicely – even on the odd sofa day.
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How long does it take to get stronger from strength training?
How do we lose muscle mass?
Now that we can’t hit the gym for the weight machines or our favourite strength-training classes, does that mean we’ll lose all that strength and mass that we’ve gained?
Although the phrase “use it or lose it” comes into play, there are far more complex factors that contribute to declining muscle mass. “Yes, when muscle isn’t used it does lead to a reduction in mass, but diet and age also play a role,” Tom says. “From our 30s onwards, we naturally lose muscle mass and strength gradually (known as sarcopenia) and by the time we reach our 70s, we may only have 50% of the muscle mass that we previously had. There are many physiological changes that occur in muscle as we age that are linked to their loss of mass and function, such as a loss of motor neurones (the nerves which stimulate muscle fibres), reduced circulating hormones and growth factors that are involved in protein synthesis, reduced numbers of muscle satellite cells and also a decline in mitochondrial function. But regular exercise can slow the loss of overall muscle mass and strength.”
How long does it take to lose muscle mass and why?
It’s difficult not to feel nervous when your progress is interrupted. The thought of having to start from scratch is enough to send anyone into a tailspin, but Strong Women trainer Alice Miller says that a little rest can help, rather than hinder, your results. “Taking time off training is vital for your progress,” she says. “These are called active recovery days. In a strength programme you will even see ‘de-load weeks’ which are used to help an athlete recover so they can come back stronger. But they are just that – a week.
Unfortunately, now that we are forced to the confines of our homes (and heavier dumbbells online are sold out yet again) some may choose not to exercise altogether. The time in which it takes to lose muscle mass depends on how often you were training pre-lockdown. If you were someone who trained around five times a week, you’ll feel a noticeable difference in strength after two to three weeks of not training at all – your muscle mass will also start to change after a few weeks too.
People who are newer to exercise and perhaps only trained one to three times a week previously, won’t lose as much as more experienced lifters or athletes. By taking two to three weeks off training completely you won’t see too much of a drop – although the weights could feel heavier once you jump back into it after lockdown. It has been reported that people can start losing muscle after just four weeks of no training, depending on exercise backgrounds, intensity to which we were training pre-lockdown, sex, age etc.
How can we maintain muscle mass effortlessly?
Taking every day as it comes with zero pressure placed on our expectations is an outlook to live by. Alice suggests maintaining an exercise regime to some extent to ensure that the gym isn’t such a hard slog when normality resumes. “My advice to my clients is to do some form of exercise if you are away from the gym for more than two weeks,” she says. “But we don’t have to use weights or hit the gym to keep our body moving. Movements such as press-ups, squats, lunges and all their variations are a great start. We can make these harder by adding in tempo work (increasing the speed at which you lift weights) and bands for added resistance.”
And it’s important to remember that this time will pass. Taking the odd day or week off isn’t the end of the world. If you decide to take it easy for the entire lockdown so be it. You can always pick up from where you left off.
So, if exercise isn’t the top of your priorities, Tom suggests making some lifestyle changes to counteract the loss of muscle mass. “If you don’t feel like a workout, stay active in other ways such as walking, going up your stairs and performing household chores (such as hoovering and gardening) which provide a certain level of stimulus for the muscles, even if you are not frequently strength training,” he says. “Make sure you aim to get plenty of good-quality sleep since growth hormones, which are important for muscle growth and repair, are secreted during deep sleep.”
And if your goal is to continue strength training, just know that you don’t have to put your goals on hold just because the gyms are closed.
Try this workout to maintain muscle
When you don’t have access to the gym or heavy weights, Alice suggests the below bodyweight exercises to maintain muscle strength.
Complete 4 sets with 60 seconds rest between sets:
12 bodyweight squats
12 Bulgarian split squats (12 reps per leg)
12 chair dips
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