Muscle loss: How fast do you lose muscle when you take a break from exercise?Those who train regularly quickly become restless when illness, injury or other extreme situations take them out of their usual training routine. But to all those who are plagued by the fear of muscle loss during an enforced break, we can at least give some all-clear.
Whether in quarantine due to illness or injury, or on vacation, we don't always manage to do the amount of sports we had planned – and suddenly there are several days or weeks between two training sessions.
At the latest now questions from the department bad conscience torment us: At what point does my body actually start to break down muscle? Can even a few days off training 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 deterioration occur so quickly?
You can think of the body as a lazy teenager. With the goal of minimizing energy, the teenager has to decide over and over again for which action it is actually worth spending energy – for example, to break away from the Playstation and get up from the sofa to get a snack from the kitchen.
If he sees no need for a movement, it is simply skipped to save energy. The muscles also experience a similar effect. 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 being broken down, and the energy stores of the muscles are being plundered. In the long run, the body shuts down the smaller nerve and blood pathways that lead to the muscles.
The muscle memory effect saves the muscles
However, this fact is by no means a reason to panic! A look at several studies shows that even after a month without a training session, there is no major change in overall muscle strength.
Only some special muscle fiber types lose their maximum performance already after two weeks. For example, athletes should first work on their high-speed muscles.
But even here the cell is never completely degraded. Among other things, the muscle cell nucleus remains intact -. With him also the important information on the previous performance capacity. This phenomenon is known among experts as the "muscle memory effect".
"If the muscle is now demanded again after a training break, the performance capacity as well as the former volume of the cell is stored in the core. Cell doubling takes place much faster than a complete rebuild," 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 training breaks
Depending on the type of training, the return to sports 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. I would start with a mix of cardio, mobility and strength training at 50 percent of the load after a long break," says the expert. "My tip: Listen to your body's own signals! You can quickly feel what the body is conceding."
Plan for recovery
This applies not only during training, but also on the first and second day afterwards, when sore muscles greet you. It is important, especially in 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 certainly beneficial in the context of recovery.
In the first two weeks, sports beginners should plan two to three days between training sessions for recovery after a break. You will feel how your 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 are lacking – 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 or she gains only one to two kilograms of muscle mass in the entire year.
Different values apply to women due to their genetics: US fitness expert Lyle McDonald ames up to six kilograms of muscle mass here in the first year.
Muscle degeneration already begins at 25
Even if we quickly return to our starting 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 this is a kind of muscle atrophy – but by no means irreversible: training helps!
Although life is just beginning for most people in their mid-twenties, sports scientists consider this age group to be almost old-fashioned. Because while the gray cells are 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 per 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.
"Although the strength level of men is about 50 percent higher than that of women – the rate of decline is nevertheless identical in both sexes," says the expert.
How does the muscle atrophy come about?
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.
The focus, however, is on "untrained" – because many people think muscle atrophy is related to age. A fallacy that often leads to doing nothing. "A lot of what we perceive as age changes has nothing whatsoever 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 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 elders is small and by no means has to be related to biological aging," says Ruther.