People who work out regularly quickly become restless when illness, injury or other extreme situations tear them out of their usual workout routine. But to all those who are plagued by the fear of muscle loss during a forced break, we can at least give some all-clear.
Whether quarantined due to illness or injury, or on vacation, we don’t always manage to do the amount of exercise we had planned – and suddenly there are several days or weeks between two training sessions.
At the latest now questions from the department of bad conscience torment us: At what point does my body actually start to break down muscle?? A few days off from training can really get me out of breath? Or muscles turn into fat?
Fitness expert Marc Rohde from ‘Elbsprint’ has the short, and at first painful, answer to these questions: "As soon as we stop using the muscles, the body dissolves the muscles into metabolic processes again after eight to ten days."
Why does muscle loss occur so quickly?
You can imagine the body like a lazy teenager. With the goal of minimizing energy, the teenager has to keep deciding which action is worth actually expending energy on – such as getting off the Playstation and getting up from the sofa to grab a snack from the kitchen.
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If it sees no need for exercise, it is simply skipped to save energy. The same goes for your muscles. As soon as the body notices that they are not being used, the body tries to reduce them. –
So, sooner or later, our muscles are getting a raw deal: muscle proteins are broken down, the energy stores of the muscles are plundered. In the long run, the body shuts down smaller nerve and blood pathways that lead to the muscles.
The muscle memory effect saves the muscles
However, this fact is no reason to panic! A look at several studies shows that even after a month without a training session, there is no big change in overall muscle strength.
Only some special muscle fiber types lose their maximum performance already after two weeks. For example, athletes first lose their fast-twitch muscles.
But even here the cell is never completely degraded. Among other things, the muscle cell nucleus remains intact – and with it the important information about the previous performance capacity. This phenomenon is called the "muscle memory effect" among experts.
"If the muscle is now challenged again after a training break, the performance capacity as well as the former volume of the cell is stored in the nucleus. Cell doubling takes place much faster than with a completely new build," says fitness coach Marc Rohde.
"That’s why it’s easier for us to get back into shape after longer breaks from training, or to build on our successes – thanks to the muscle memory effect!"
Re-entry after breaks in training
Depending on the type of training, the sporty re-entry should be well planned. While it is no problem for professionals to start training again with the same intensity after a two-week break, other guidelines apply to (re-)beginners.
"For beginners, on the other hand, a two- to three-week break can already mean the old starting level. After a longer break, I would start with a mix of cardio, mobility and strength training at 50 percent of the load," says the expert. "My tip: Listen to your body’s own signals! You quickly feel what the body is conceding."
Plan for recovery
This is true not only during training, but also on the first and second day afterwards, when sore muscles greet you. It is important, especially at the beginning, to give the body enough time for regeneration and not to increase the training intensity and frequency too quickly. A relaxed endurance run or anything that is good for blood circulation and relaxation is definitely beneficial for recovery.
In the first two weeks after a break, beginners should allow two to three days between training sessions for recovery. You will feel yourself how the body reacts to the training stimuli and you will be able to increase the speed and the training frequency from unit to unit.
Sport beginners make immense progress
The good news is that, compared to experienced athletes, beginners quickly drop back to their original fitness level when new training stimuli fail to materialize – but beginners in particular make immense progress in the first year. For example, according to the highly regarded Lyle Mcdonald model of sports science, a strength athlete can gain up to one kilogram of muscle mass per month in the first year, while after five years of training he gains only one to two kilograms of muscle mass in the entire year.
For women, other values apply due to their genetics: The US-American fitness expert Lyle McDonald assumes up to six kilograms of muscle mass in the first year.
Muscle loss already starts at 25
Even if we quickly return to our original level after a break from sports: We have full muscle power mainly at the age of up to about 25 years. Because the body actually breaks down muscles already in the 20s. And that is a kind of muscle atrophy – but by no means irretrievable: training helps!
Although life is really just getting started for most people in their mid-twenties, sports scientists already consider this age group to be almost old hat. Because while the gray matter is running at full speed, physical performance steadily declines from the age of 25 onwards.
"Men and women lose five to ten percent of their muscle mass every ten years from their mid-20s onwards, provided they are not very physically active," knows Thomas Ruther, a research associate in the performance epidemiology research group at the German Sport University Cologne.
"While men’s strength levels are about 50 percent higher than women’s – the rate of decline is still identical for both sexes," says the expert.
How does it come to the muscle loss?
The reason for the gradual loss of muscle: with advancing age, both the number and the cross-section of muscle fibers decrease in the untrained.
But the focus is on "untrained" – because many people think muscle atrophy is related to age. A fallacy that often leads to inactivity. "A lot of what we perceive as age change has purely nothing to do with biological age, but with how we engage in sports and physical activity in everyday life," says Ruther.
Studies with marathon runners aged 20 to 80 years show that more than 25 percent of 60- to 70-year-old runners complete the marathon faster than half of the 20- to 50-year-olds. "These results exemplify that the age influence on muscular performance in trained elderly is small and by no means has to be related to biological aging," says Ruther.
Especially in extreme sports competitions, such as a marathon, the mind set plays a decisive role: here, athletes with more experience then again have clear advantages over the young jumpers.