If you were working out regularly and doing a strength training program at the gym before COVID-19 hit, good for you! Increasing your lean muscle mass
not only helps you to look more toned, but also helps to reduce body fat and boost your energy levels. But when gyms around the country shut down earlier this spring, many of us were left without access to weights and equipment to continue on our programs.
While it’s entirely possible to stay in shape while stuck at home
, you may be wondering how much muscle you’ve lost during quarantine (the bad news: at least some). Here’s what the experts say.
How muscle is built
Understanding the process of how to build muscle is important to realizing how it is lost. You build muscle strength and endurance by repeatedly stressing that muscle through higher loads and longer use, respectively, says William O. Roberts, M.D., M.S., FACSM
, a family medicine physician at M Health in St. Paul, Minnesota, and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine
. That boils down to a simple concept: to achieve hypertrophy (or make your muscles bigger), you either have to lift heavier weights or increase your repetitions of those lifts.
When you’re first starting a resistance training program, most of your strength gains are related to improved muscle recruitment and neural control, says Evan Jay, PA-C, ATC,
a certified physician assistant and athletic trainer with Redefine Healthcare in New Jersey. After that initial phase, your muscles will grow regardless of your training technique and continue to improve overall strength, though at a much slower rate, he adds.
There are other factors that go into building muscle too, says Dr. Roberts, such as adequate nutrition, sleep and recovery (i.e., rest days). Those all can vary person to person, but if you don’t continuously challenge your muscles, you’ll start to see your strength decrease. Muscle growth is a slow process that requires dedication; while conversely, the opposite can happen much more quickly. “I like to say muscle is a lot like money; it’s hard to get and easy to lose,” says Dr. Roberts.
What happens when you stop lifting heavy weights
While there’s been a lot of research on the area of muscular strength, there’s also a lot we don’t know about mechanisms responsible for loss of strength, says Nicole Mendola, M.S., ACSM-CEP, ACSM-GEI, a registered clinical exercise physiologist and instructor of exercise science and wellness at Norwalk Community College
in Connecticut. The bottom line is that periods of “detraining”—meaning no activity, or a large reduction in intensity of activity—generally affect each person differently, depending on your current training status, how long you’ve been training and your age, says Mendola. (The older you are, the faster you lose strength; it’s a natural response to aging, even if you’ve worked hard to build muscle mass, she adds.)
Generally speaking, however, the average person is going to start experiencing incremental decreases in muscle
starting at around four weeks of detraining, says Mendola; Jay predicts it may begin slightly earlier, in as little as two or three weeks. For an athlete who’s gone through years of intense training, the loss will be more pronounced. “In longer periods of detraining, we start to see more of that muscle atrophy,” explains Mendola.
But it may not be as much, or happen as quickly, as you might think. A study
published in the peer-reviewed journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise
examining two groups of older (ages 65-75) and younger (ages 20-30) individuals, both men and women, looked at the results of a 9-week training program measuring knee extensor strength, followed by a 31-week detraining period. Both older and younger groups experienced a decline in strength, but it didn’t occur until the 12th
week of detraining.
Why it's hard to build muscle strength at home
We’ve all seen videos on social media of trainers using household items such as bottles of laundry detergent or backpacks filled with canned goods as makeshift weights. While those types of objects are a good substitute for strength training when you don’t have access to a gym regularly, your body is going to adapt to them, says Mendola—meaning you won’t see muscle gains after a certain point.
If you weren’t training before and start lifting using household objects, you will see improvement, but only until your body adapts to that load. Then, you’re not going to adapt further unless you lift heavier objects, Mendola adds. Simply put, you need access to heavier equipment if you’re looking to greatly improve your strength.
How to avoid losing muscle strength
Though the reality of losing muscle while staying at home isn’t easy to hear, there are some things you can do to prevent major muscle atrophy. First, remember that even if you’re going from heavy-weight resistance training to bodyweight training (i.e., swapping bench press for push-ups), it’s better than doing nothing, says Mendola.
“You will be able to maintain your strength to a certain extent, but if that continues for a prolonged period of time, that intensity will not be the same as training in the gym,” she explains. “Expect you’re going to have some decrease in your strength, but that it won’t be totally back to square one.”
There are also moves you can do at home to help maintain your muscle mass without going to the gym. One example is doing closed kinetic chain exercises to complete failure, says CJ Hammond, a Los Angeles-based NASM certified trainer who works with RSP Nutrition
. These are movements where your hands and feet are fixed to a stationary object and don’t move throughout the exercise—such as a squat.
The key here is focusing on reps till failure. When performing repetitions until you can’t do even one more, it triggers a process in the body that helps to build muscle. “The complete failure of slow twitch muscle fibers
will force the fast muscle fibers to take over,” explains Hammond.
“This will trick your neural receptors to be as responsive to your 120th rep as if you’re maxing out [with a heavy weight], which will give the body the ability to achieve hypertrophy.” (FYI: hypertrophy is another word for increasing muscle size.)
You can also use resistance bands to help build strength. “If you have an imagination and the ability to plug in drop sets
, this will give you the ability to fatigue large muscle fibers and fast twitch muscle fibers,” says Hammond. You’ll need to follow a consistent program of higher sets and higher reps to increase the volume if your bands can’t give you the high resistance you’re used to at the gym, Hammond adds.
Easing back into a gym routine
When the time comes and gyms in your area reopen—and you feel comfortable and safe returning to those spaces—you’ll need to do an assessment of where your strength currently lies, rather than picking back up using the same weights as you were previously. You should be conservative in starting your resistance training
again, says Mendola, and see how one set feels at a slightly lower weight before jumping in with a heavy load.
It’s also important to consider that your everyday movement may have changed your body’s range of motion, too. If you’ve been working from home the past few months, there’s a good chance you’ve been sitting more and moving less, which may have impacted your fluidity of movement. Ideally, Mendola recommends connecting with a personal trainer or exercise physiologist (if you can) to help you gauge where your strength is currently at and develop a strength-training plan for you moving forward.