It often takes months of training to gain muscle, but how long does it take to lose strength?
According to experts, it varies depending on age and fitness levels, but it may be quicker than you think.
Pedemonte says that while muscle fibres will stay the same for weeks after stopping exercise (meaning your bicep won’t suddenly disappear), there will be a decrease in strength and power.
While this decrease may not be a lot at first, the longer you stay away from the gym, the more strength you can lose.
Research backs this up: a 2013 report on rugby and football players found that the athletes’ strength decreased just three weeks after they stopped training. The more time that went on, the more the players’ strength diminished.
Where did my muscles go?
Gabriel Lee, the co-founder of Toronto’s Fit Squad and a former strength coach, says that generally speaking, muscle mass — i.e. the size of your muscles — starts to dwindle after four to six weeks of inactivity.
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“The reason many people feel they lose muscle much sooner, that is due to a decrease in water retention and glycogen stores in your muscles, versus an actual loss of muscle tissue,” Lee told Global News.
That being said, Lee adds if you suddenly go on a calorie-deficient diet, you can lose muscle mass as quickly as one to two weeks. He does not recommend severely cutting back calories, as the body begins to use muscle as an energy source.
Factors that affect how quickly you lose strength
Everyone’s bodies work differently, and losing muscles and strength depends on factors like fitness level, lifestyle habits and overall health.
For athletes or folks who train four to five times a week, they may not lose strength as quickly as a new gym-goer or someone less active. Regular exercisers may also gain back muscle and strength more quickly, too, due to muscle memory.
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Aging also plays a role in how quickly you’ll lose strength.
“As we age, our hormone production also slows, which in turn can make the ability to gain and maintain muscle become increasingly more challenging,” Lee said.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, after age 30 you begin to lose as much as three to five per cent of muscle mass per decade. The insitute says that most men will lose around 30 per cent of their muscle mass in their lifetime.
What about cardio?
If you’ve ever noticed it’s harder to catch your breath on a jog after a running break, it’s not in your head.
Research shows that cardio or aerobic endurance is easy to lose, and dwindles faster than muscle strength. Both Lee and Pedemonte say you can expect to notice a decrease in your cardio abilities about a week or two after you stop doing things like running or biking.
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Pedemonte says that even marathon runners will notice a change in their performance if they take a break.
“For example, if a marathon runner is accustomed to running three to five times a week and can run five kilometres under a certain amount of time, if they take time off and pick it up again, that person will struggle a little bit,” Pedemonte said.
A 2014 study looked at folks who did aerobic interval training for fourth months, then stopped. Researchers found that after just one month, the associated health benefits from the exercise, like improved blood pressure, were reversed.
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In order to prevent any significant losses in strength or cardio endurance, Pedemonte says it’s a good idea to hit the gym as regularly as possible, and stay active even on rest days. “Active rest” can include light exercise like walking or yoga.
But sometimes life or injury gets in the way, and a fitness break is inevitable. Don’t fear; time in the gym can get you back to where you started, Lee said.
“Luckily, strength power and endurance are very malleable qualities and they come back very quickly.”