Consistency is arguably the most important principle for strength and hypertrophy gains. Provided you train consistently, even poorly planned workouts will produce results. Of course, your gains will be better if you follow a well-designed program. However, missing more than a few workouts will impede your progress.
As a veteran personal trainer with over 30+ years of experience, part of my job is helping clients stick to their training plans. In most cases, simply knowing they have an appointment with me to train means they skip fewer workouts. Unfortunately, regardless of how dedicated you are, there will be times when it’s impossible for you to train, and a layoff is unavoidable.
Reasons for this include:
– Low energy
– Feeling overtrained or under-recovered
– Vacations or business trips
– Family or work commitments
– Moving to a new house
While the occasional missed workout won’t cause any harm, a couple of weeks or more away from the gym will start to eat away at your gains. In this article, I reveal the strategies I use to maintain muscle and strength during planned and unplanned layoffs.
How Quickly Will You Lose Muscle and Strength?
Your muscles grow (hypertrophy) and get stronger in response to training. Lifting weights stresses your muscles, and they respond by adapting to your workouts so they’re better able to cope next time. Of course, provided you employ the progressive resistance method, your next workout will be slightly more challenging, and your progress should continue. However, remove that stimulus by missing workouts, and your muscles will return to their pre-trained state. In other words, your muscles will start to get weaker and smaller. This is called muscle atrophy.
But how quickly will you lose strength and muscle mass? Unfortunately, this is a hard question to answer because many variables are at play. For example, older lifters tend to lose muscle faster than younger lifters (1). Similarly, people with a long history of consistent training usually lose their gains more slowly than novices. In addition, someone who is entirely sedentary, e.g., immobilized in hospital, will lose muscle faster than someone who remains moderately active.
All that said, research suggests that most people start losing their gains after two to three weeks of not training (2). While you may feel weaker or less muscular before this, your muscle mass isn’t affected. Instead, you look smaller because of muscle glycogen (stored glucose) depletion. In contrast, strength decreases are due to reduced neural efficiency. In short, your muscles “forget” how to generate maximal force. The good news is that regaining muscle and strength takes less time than building them in the first place. We often call this phenomenon “muscle memory.” You can also take steps to minimize muscle loss during a layoff.
7 Ways to Maintain Muscle During a Layoff
Building muscle and strength is hard work, and it would be a shame to lose your gains just because you are forced into a layoff. In this section, I reveal the strategies I use with my clients to help preserve their gains or minimize atrophy during planned and unplanned breaks from training. Please note: If you are injured, you’ll probably need to stop training the affected area to allow it to heal. Don’t work out if doing so will worsen the injury or delay your recovery.
1. Stay Active
Sedentary people lose muscle faster than those who remain relatively active. A few years ago, I had to have one leg immobilized in a plaster cast. While the cast was only on for a week, I lost an appreciable amount of muscle. In contrast, during another enforced layoff, several weeks this time, I made sure that I walked every day and looked for other ways to remain active. I lost no muscle during this time. So, don’t become lazy during a layoff. Just because you can’t go to the gym doesn’t mean you have to sit on your couch and wallow in self-pity! Get up and move to preserve fitness, strength, and mental health.
2. Do Calisthenics or Isometric Training
While the gym is arguably the best place to build muscle and strength, getting to one is not always possible. For example, you may have to travel for work, so access to a gym is limited. Or, you may be on vacation, and there is no gym where you are staying. The good news is that you don’t need state-of-the-art training equipment to maintain muscle and strength. In fact, all you need is your body, some space, and maybe a towel or yoga strap.
Research suggests that bodyweight exercises like push-ups can be as effective as bench presses for working the pecs (3). So, it stands to reason that you can do pull-ups instead of pulldowns or air squats instead of leg presses to preserve muscle and strength. A simple workout of push-ups, pull-ups, and bodyweight squats works all your major muscles and will act as an effective hold-over until you can get back in the gym. Alternatively, you can use isometric or static training to maintain or even increase muscle size and strength (4). Isometrics involve pushing or pulling against an immovable object, e.g., a yoga strap, iso-trainer, towel, or an opposing limb.
3. Break Out the Resistance Bands
No time to go to the gym? No problem! Studies indicate that you can maintain or even build muscle and strength with a set of resistance bands (5). You can use resistance bands to replicate all the freeweights and machines you use at the gym. Keep a set in your luggage when traveling so you never need to miss a workout. As an added benefit, resistance bands are often easier on your joints than conventional weights, so they’re an excellent option when returning from injury. Even a few minutes of resistance band training per day will help reduce muscle loss during a gym layoff.
4. Maintain Your Protein Intake
Most people know that protein is essential for muscle growth and recovery. But did you know that protein is also important for muscle preservation? When you don’t train, your muscles don’t need as much protein as they do when you’re working out. However, if you don’t consume enough protein, your body will break down muscle tissue to meet its needs. To reduce muscle loss during a layoff, make sure you eat enough protein. Aim for 0.7-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. If you weigh 150 pounds, for example, you should eat between 105 and 150 grams of protein per day. High-quality protein sources include lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, and tofu.
5. Prioritize Sleep
Sleep is when your body does most of its repair and recovery work. It’s also when your body produces most of its growth hormone, a hormone that’s essential for muscle growth and repair. Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night. If you struggle to sleep during a layoff, try the following:
– Establish a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
– Create a sleep-friendly environment by keeping your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.
– Avoid caffeine and other stimulants in the evening.
– Limit exposure to electronic devices before bed.
– Establish a relaxing bedtime routine, such as reading or taking a warm bath.
6. Manage Stress
Stress can have a significant impact on your muscle mass and strength. When you’re stressed, your body produces cortisol, a hormone that can increase muscle breakdown and reduce muscle growth. Unfortunately, a layoff can be stressful, especially if you’re forced to take time off due to an injury or illness. While you can’t always control the stressors in your life, you can control how you respond to them. Try the following stress management techniques:
– Practice deep breathing exercises.
– Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing, such as reading, listening to music, or spending time in nature.
– Practice mindfulness or meditation.
– Seek support from friends, family, or a mental health professional if needed.
7. Stay Positive
Finally, try to stay positive during a layoff. It’s easy to get discouraged when you can’t train, especially if you’re worried about losing your hard-earned gains. However, negative thinking can increase stress levels and make it harder to stick to your recovery plan. Instead, focus on the things you can control, such as staying active, eating well, and getting enough rest. Remember that setbacks are temporary, and you’ll soon be back in the gym making progress again.
Layoffs from training are inevitable, but they don’t have to mean losing your hard-earned muscle and strength gains. By staying active, doing calisthenics or isometric training, using resistance bands, maintaining your protein intake, prioritizing sleep, managing stress, and staying positive, you can minimize muscle loss and keep your gains intact. Remember, consistency is key, and even during a layoff, you can still take steps to maintain your progress. So, don’t let a break from the gym derail your fitness journey.