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No Gym, Will I Lose My Gains?

Chill Out

Firstly, to write an article of this nature without this caveat would be disrespectful to our incredible and highly spoiled life that we live in Canada each and every day; for those that live outside of Canada but in a First World nation your typical living situation is, I assume, filled with luxury and opulence much like we are blessed with in Canada.


The fact that we have the opportunity to concern ourselves with maintaining muscle mass, eating optimal amounts of high quality protein and debate which home workout program to buy via our 1,200 dollar iPhone is beyond a blessing. Because I assure you, many people of the globe would do anything to trade places with you or I. According to the World Bank, over 700 million people on the planet live in poverty, that is, less than $1.90 a day(1). This to say, don’t sweat the small stuff. You have clean air to breath, a guarantee of a next meal and a warm place to sleep, this alone makes you a social elite.



Will You Lose Muscle?

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled entitled programming. Throughout this awful Coronavirus pandemic I have been inundated with a plethora of questions regarding the preservation of muscle during a prolonged absence from the gym. It usually goes something like this “If I stop working out, will I lose all my muscle?”. Lets extrapolate and infer what I deem to be the common question within the question. It would sound something like this “If I reduced my total volume(hard sets) and intensity(load) because the gym is closed, will I lose muscle?”)


It’s been perpetuated, largely by bodybuilding dogma, that if you aren’t consuming 100 grams of ultra hydrolyzed whey isolate while performing heavy barbell back squats to failure every hour on the hour your muscle will deflate faster than the footballs Tom Brady altered in 2015. This simply isn’t true, I mean the Brady thing is 100% proven, he cheated, the losing muscle aspect isn’t as black and white.


As anyone who’s been in a gym for an extended period understands, building muscle is exceedingly difficult, it’s essentially a second job, maintaining it is a much easier and less strenuous process. You just need a novel stimulus relative to your previous training stimulus in order to maintain your current muscle mass, this doesn’t come without its nuance, like all things in health and fitness, it’s context dependant. I don’t want to get buried in the weeds with muscle physiology as it pertains to muscle retention and hypertrophic pathways; I assume most reading this article just want the answer to the question I’ve stated above.


It’s been shown in many studies that it can take two to four weeks of essentially complete immobilization (think bed ridden) to see decreases in muscle tissue; further, studies looking at limb or total body immobilization with relation to muscle tissue degradation don’t always have data on dietary intake for the subjects, specifically protein intake which has a huge impact for the retention of muscle tissue.


In a study, they showed that performing one structured workout per week was good enough to retain your gains with 1/3 of the volume of typical maintenance(2). This study demonstrated sustainability or a sort of maintenance with regards to muscle retention with young adults; the elderly seemed to also have sustainment, though they required more frequent dosing (more exercise stimulus).


Let me bottom line this, unless you’re planning on laying dormant in bed for multiple weeks while under consuming calories and protein you will not lose any significant or noticeable amount of muscle tissue. Even the most modest doses of stimuli such as a brisk walk, bodyweight exercises, and daily house chores are enough to maintain your current level of muscle mass. Now if you’re fairly muscular you will likely require a higher dose and higher magnitude of stimuli to maintain your level of muscle tissue but for the average gym goer a modest stimulus is more than enough.

Takeaways

1.) Performing a minimum 1 structured workout per week is adequate for most people to maintain muscle tissue

2.) Unless you plan on purposefully being immobile for a consistent amount of time, you will not lose a significant or noticeable amount of muscle tissue

3.) If you’re planning on performing multiple workout sessions per week, you will not lose muscle tissue



Will You Lose Strength?

Strength is an adaption to an imposed demand, the SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demands) principle. In layman’s terms, becoming efficient and strong at a particular skill or lift one has to practice the specific skill/lift. This is not to say that there is no transfer from skill to skill but to get strong at a barbell deadlift for example, you have to barbell deadlift. Becoming strong goes way beyond muscle size and muscle hypertrophy, generally speaking

there are three major factors that impact ones strength.


1.) Muscle mass and structural adaptions

2.) Neuromuscular Adaptations

3.) Motor pattern/skill


As an example, if your 1RM (1 rep max) on a barbell deadlift is 315lbs and you don’t train fairly near that intensity (load) for a period of time, usually multiple weeks, you will likely “lose strength”. This doesn’t mean necessarily that you have lost muscle, it means you have lost the ability to generate output for the specific demand and intensity you have chosen. With relation to strength, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Moreover, major barbell movements like the deadlift or squat have a huge skill and neurological component, so it’s highly unlikely that a loss in muscle tissue is the driving force when it comes to a loss in strength.


A case study will really illustrate this further. I had a client who at the time had a barbell deadlift 1RM of 205lbs. She went on vacation and was unable to train for a period of three and half weeks. Upon her return it took us about two weeks (4 one hour sessions) to get her acclimated to her previous training stimulus and previous 1RM, remember this was over three weeks of zero training.


Obviously this is different from person to person; genetics, training age, biological age and programming are all factors that can impact your strength and strength retention. So if you don’t have a gym to exercise in and can’t perform the typical barbell movements you usually do, it is almost a certainty that you will lose the adaption, “lose strength”.


As my case study illustrated, it does not take long at all to recapture the previous adaption and if you can somehow find a way to mimic the barbell movements with similar intensity (load) using objects around the house (heavy stones, large lead pipes, etc) you can mitigate a lot of the potential loss in strength. Research has shown that even one training session a week using loads near your 1RM are enough to maintain your strength adaption.



Nutrition For Muscle Maintenance

This one is pretty simple, there are two things to prioritize with regards to nutrition when it comes to muscle retention


1.) Eat at maintenance

2.) Eat enough protein


If you’re a regular gym goer who stays active and you don’t have a lot of weight to lose, you should be eating at maintenance calories. If your goal is muscle retention, I wouldn’t recommend eating in a deficit as this places your body in a much easier position to reduce muscle tissue.


What is “enough protein”. I’m going to bang on bodybuilding dogma just one more time. There is this narrative that if you’re not eating 8oz of boneless skinless chicken breast exactly three hours a part 4-6 times per day, you’re not consuming enough protein. Thankfully this isn’t the case, I mean could you imagine consuming this much chicken breast all the time? Remember, when it comes to protein intake, more isn’t better, optimal is better.


In terms of how much protein you should be consuming, there are a few methods to determine the amount, if you accurately know your lean body mass (LBM) I recommend anywhere from 1.8-2.6g/KG of LBM. Another method is using a percentage of your total calories, anywhere from 20-30%, I find it much easier and far more practical. For example, if you’ve calculated your maintenance calories or TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) and determined that your total daily calories should be 2000. 25% of 2000 equals 500 calories. Now to calculate how many grams of protein fit within 500 calories you simply divide 500 by 4, as there are 4 calories per gram of protein, this equals 125g of protein a day. I recommend staying between 25-30% of daily calories coming from protein if your goal is muscle retention.


Moreover, you could use your bodyweight to calculate your daily protein intake, anywhere from 0.6-1.0g per pound of bodyweight, if your goal is muscle retention I would stay between 0.8-1.0g per pound of bodyweight. This last method works well if you’re an average bodyweight for your size and height, if someone for example is fifty pounds overweight, they would be consuming too much protein, not this this is dangerous, it’s just unnecessary and redundant.

Takeaways

1.) Consuming higher amounts of daily protein aids in muscle retention

2.) There are multiple ways of calculating the amount of protein you should eat, whichever method you choose, aim for the higher end of the calculation method

3.) Over consuming protein isn’t better, optimal is better



Ending Thought

Listen, in the grand scheme of life this is First World problems and to be honest I felt entitled just writing this article, I digress. I reiterate, the fact we have the opportunity to concern ourselves with optimal protein consumption, daily or weekly workouts and the intricacies of an intelligently structured at home workout program is beyond a blessing. I find it best not to overthink during these uncertain times, stay active, prioritize whole foods with a high amount (optimal) of protein and the rest will take care of itself.


By: Peter Baboulas


IG: babs302

Facebook: 302 Fitness




2https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2011/07000/Exercise_Dosing_to_Retain_Resistance_Training.7.aspx

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