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How Quickly Can You Lose Your Gains If You Stop Working Out?

Worried that you're going to lose your muscle mass if you stop training?


Man lying down on the beach after a tiring workout

If, for one reason or another, you're anticipating that you may need to take a bit of time off from training, and you're worried that you're going to lose your hard earned gains, you've come to the right place.


It can be a scary thought to lose your muscle mass that you've spent the past months or even years building up, and it's certainly not an attractive idea that anybody wants to be a part of.


However, it might not actually be as bad as you think...


In this post, we'll go over how quickly you can start to lose your muscle mass if you stop working out, and help you determine what this means for you.


Ready?


Let's dive into it.


Why Might People Need to Take Time Off From Their Training?


Firstly, let's look at some reasons as to why someone might need to take time off of their training.


Because for one reason or another, we'll all most likely find ourselves needing to take time off from training for a while at least once in our lives.


Getting Sick/Injured


Health conditions, or injuries are probably the most common reasons for people needing to take time off from their physical training.


A modern example of this could be the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw heaps of people getting sick and needing to isolate at home, maybe looking to train without access to a gym or any workout equipment.


Plus, many of us would've been feeling too ill to work out and continue training anyways, even if we were wanting to just do bodyweight workouts at home or do some quick cardio.


For some people, this period of time lasted only a week.


For others, it might've been closer to a month.


But the point is, health conditions and sickness are common causes for people needing to take time off.


Obviously, we won't need to explain injuries, but anything like a bad shoulder impingement or a broken arm/leg is more than enough of a reason for people to take time off from their training.


Girl wearing a knee brace after suffering a leg injury

Now, the effects of larger injuries like these can certainly keep you out of the gym for weeks or months at a time, and in those situations, the tips in this article will be massively helpful to you.


Going on Holiday/Vacation


Another common reason for people needing to put their training on pause would be them going away on holiday or a trip somewhere, and no longer having access to their local gyms.


For many, purchasing day passes at the gyms overseas is too expensive of an option and not worth it, and they would rather simply put their training on hold for a week or two while they enjoy their well earned holidays.


Perfectly good reasons to stay out of the gym if you ask us.


There are definitely going to be other reasons why people need to take time off from the gym, but we'd say these are the most common reasons for doing so.


Next, let's take a look at how quickly we can start to lose our muscle mass when we stop training.


Did you know: the loss in size of your muscle tissue, or loss in muscle mass, is referred to by the term 'muscular atrophy'?

How Quickly Can You Lose Muscle Mass If You Stop Working Out?


To help you understand the issue a little bit more, we'll start by looking at some of the science and research around the idea of muscle loss when you stop working out for a while.


Because at face value, the research looks pretty grim.


A study conducted by Marlou L. Dirk found that you can start to lose your muscle mass in a timespan as short as one week if you completely stop working out.


In their conclusion they noted: "1 week of bed rest substantially reduces skeletal muscle mass".


In a week of bed rest, the subjects had lost approximately 1.4kg of lean tissue mass, and roughly a 3.2% loss in quadricep size.


However, this study looked into the effects of being completely inactive for an entire week straight, not even going through your everyday normal activities such as walking around the house, brushing your teeth, etc.


This likely means that the findings from this study shouldn't scare you, because there's a pretty low chance that this kind of situation would apply to any of you reading this.


Needing to completely stay in bed, or basically be completely inactive without any real movement for an entire week straight is a result of pretty serious health conditions that not many people would find themselves needing to go through.


On top of this, the subjects analyzed in the study hadn't been regularly weight training prior to the study, so that may offset some of the accuracy as well.


So to get things straight, muscle loss can start to occur quite quickly if you're completely inactive, but that probably won't apply to you any time soo (we hope!).


What If I'm Still Active Every Day?


Now, the research findings are a lot more comfortable to read once we look at studies that actually have their subjects still performing regular everyday activities, such as your cooking, driving, walking, you name it.


Man using his phone and tracking his calories as he prepares his meal

This study conducted by Paul S. Hwang found that taking time off of working out alone, but still conducting your everyday movements leads to a very different set of results in terms of muscle mass lost over time.


This time, subjects analyzed in the study all had at least a year's worth of weight training experience, and were instructed to stop weight training for two weeks.


However they were allowed to go about their everyday activities such as brushing their teeth and cooking as usual.


In confluence with this, many other studies have also concluded that two weeks is an acceptable period of time for you to take off from the gym without seeing any noticeable losses in your muscle mass.


However, that's probably reaching the higher end of what is acceptable before you do start to lose some of your hard work.


A study by James Fisher also concluded that "evidence suggests that short (~3 weeks) periods of detraining in trained persons does not incur significant muscular atrophy and might stimulate greater hypertrophy upon return to training."


Why Does Basic Physical Movement Make Such a Massive Difference?


Well, it's most likely due to the fact that most basic movements such as walking and brushing your teeth are still going to mechanically simulate the vast majority of muscles in your body to some degree.


Keeping them moving and activated, to even a small extent like that, it enough to make a world of a difference when you look in the mirror three weeks later.


Now How About For Longer Breaks?


So, we know that short breaks away from weight training can last between 2 and 3 weeks before we start to notice some losses in our hard earned gains.


But what if we really DO need to take more time off than this?


What if you're needing to take several months off from the gym for whatever reason?


Well, let's take a look at that too.


Firstly, we'll preface this by saying, yes, you will lose some of your gains.


This study conducted by Bertrand Léger put subjects completely new to weight training on a resistance training program that spanned 8 weeks, before suddenly halting their weight training altogether, for another 8 weeks straight.



This time, the subjects saw their gains get cut in half, meaning they lost roughly 50% of the muscle mass they'd built over the previous 8 weeks.


So yes, unfortunately you may start to see some pretty serious losses in your gains if you take several months off from the gym at a time.


However, similar to the other case of a shorter (2-3 week) break where simply going around doing your everyday activities makes a big difference, a study conducted by C Scott Bickel has found that you can maintain your hard earned gains for as long as 32 weeks (roughly 7 months) if you keep training.


It found that if you reduce your training down to as little as one ninth of your regular training volume, you can still maintain your gains for that long of a time period.


Man doing barbell curls to build strength and muscle mass in his arms

Again, even a simple fraction of your regular weight training volume is going to allow you to stave off the effects of muscular atrophy for a much longer period of time!


Much more appealing and comforting to hear isn't it?


So yes, a great way for you to maintain your muscle mass and stave off your muscular atrophy for as long as possible is to remain physically active, even if it's at a fraction of your regular volume of activity.


Are There Any Other Factors That Determine How Quickly You Lose Your Gains?


Yes, there are.


These points aren't as important and can be discussed in detail in another article, but we'll briefly go over them here.


  • Calorie intake: eating in a caloric deficit is going to speed up muscle loss, while eating in a surplus can help slow it down.

  • Protein intake: just like when you're trying to make your gains appear quicker, the amount of protein you consume can affect how quickly your gains disappear.

  • Age: scientific literature has suggested that muscle loss can happen quicker as you grow older, but the evidence isn't all that clear yet. However it does make sense.


These factors certainly can make a difference when it comes to determining how quickly you can expect to see noticeable losses in your hard earned gains, and we'll cover these in more detail in another article.



To Conclude


And there you have it!


A breakdown of how quickly you might expect to lose your gains if you need to stop working out for a while, for whatever reason.


As long as you're making a conscious effort to remain as physically active as possible, you're going to be able to hold off your muscle loss for as long as possible.


We hope you've enjoyed reading through this post, and have been able to take something away from it.


Remember to share this with your friends so that we can spread the knowledge and keep the fitness community as educated as possible!


Have YOU ever noticed yourself losing your gains?