How Long Does it Really Take to Lose Muscle?

October 09, 2015

How Long Does it Really Take to Lose Muscle?

Myth: The day you stop training is the day you lose all your gains.

Reality: Muscle loss occurs at a much slower rate than we think it does.

You might feel like a weakling but a little rest period is good! With today being #FlexFriday, the day you shamelessly and publicly pay homage to your muscle gains, it’s hard to believe there was a time you had to drag yourself to the gym. Now, you have to be dragged out, dreading rest days, or—gym gods forbid—long breaks away from the iron playground. If you’ve wondered how long it takes to build muscle, naturally you’d want to know how long does it really take to lose muscle or, rather, lose muscle strength. (It’s a good thing to know so you can finally go on that cruise your girl has been hounding you about.) 

Time Off vs. Time Out

There is a difference between muscle loss due to long periods of inactivity versus stress, injury or sickness. Studies have shown a 28% decrease in the strength of subjects injected with hormones to simulate the conditions of stress, trauma or injury after 28 days. Under these circumstances, take as long as your body needs to heal. If ultimate fitness is your goal, you can press “pause” on beast mode while your body is recovering.


How Long You’ve Been Training

When it comes to inactivity, we have to look at two factors: the length of time and intensity of exercise and the length of time taken off, according to exercise physiology expert Pete McCall of The American Council on Exercise.

“If you’re somebody who exercises five, six days a week, taking a little break is not going to make a big difference …whereas if it’s an individual who only exercises sporadically a few times a week or month, then it can have a greater effect and make it more difficult to restart.”

Most people can take 2-3 weeks off without losing much strength. For the true beast consistently putting in several days at the gym, it would take 3-5 weeks to notice a visible decrease in muscle, says Molly Galbraith, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-founder of Girls Gone Strong. Other factors to consider are the type workouts being done and the muscle fibers involved. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise published findings that showed during a month of inactivity changes in strength were minimal in a two-week time period but changes in muscle fibers were evident. For example, endurance athletes lost more slow-twitch muscle fibers whereas power athletes lost more fast-twitch muscle fibers. 

Benefits of Long Rest Periods

When adopting a “use it or lose it” attitude, keep in mind this comes with a lot of wear and tear on your body. Muscle building generally consists of both protein synthesis and muscle breakdown. If you are working out several days a week, long periods of rest serve as much needed recovery resulting in greater gains rather than loss, says McCall. The extra food and rest from a vacation help boost energy and rejuvenate the body and mind. However, he suggests taking 1-2 week long breaks no more than twice a year.


It’s More Mental than Physical

Periods of rest are essential for sustained improvement and growth. After a break, the decrease in muscle loss is minimal but it plays on our fears that we will lose momentum and motivation. Don’t buy into the “no days off” school of thought. Work hard and play hard, but be smart about how you do it. Be strategic in your rest and recovery periods and use them for even greater gains in the long run.

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