Isolation fears: How long before i'm back to square one?!
As many of us are taking the longest break from training we’ve ever had, lots of people are worrying all their hard work will be lost in terms of strength and endurance, but is this true?
Muscle atrophy is the term that describes the loss of muscular tissue. Our muscular system is responsible for our strength, stability, endurance and protection from injury, so losing this has a negative impact. Muscular atrophy results in a higher risk of injury as neural control of muscles is reduced which stabilises and co-ordinates movement. There is a subsequent loss in strength and endurance.
How long before muscular atrophy takes hold?
I’m going to start with the bad news.
Studies have shown that within a week there are molecular signs of atrophy, however, to notice a loss in strength often takes around 3 weeks. There are a lot of variables which affect the process, including the muscle group, the type of training, training age and the size of the muscle. Typically, lower body muscles show signs of atrophy quicker than upper body muscle groups.
Here is what we think happens week by week:
Week One - No change in muscle mass, strength or endurance.
Week Two- 7% reduction in V02 max, muscle mass and strength still not effected.
Week Three- 9% reduction in V02 max, muscle mass and strength slightly decreased. Interestingly, there is often a growth hormone and testosterone increase around this time, resulting in extra gains if you now began training again.
Week Four to Eight- Decrease in strength, muscle mass and significant loss of endurance capabilities. More experienced lifters are likely to see greater reductions than beginners, due to increased strength threshold.
Week Eight to Twelve - Almost complete loss of increased V02 max from previous training.
A silver lining
This rapid loss in atrophy is based on people who train regularly (5x per week), stopping entirely. There is a strong body of research to suggest that if we are nourishing our bodies properly, handling stress well and keeping in a healthy homeostasis, the average person may be able to maintain their body’s strength and size with only 2 resistance sessions per week.
How about endurance, how long until I’m back to square one?
Unfortunately, endurance losses happen fairly quickly and always faster than losses in strength or muscle mass. Endurance losses are again dependant on your level of training. For example, if you’ve only been training a few months, you will lose this progress significantly faster than someone who’s been training their aerobic system for years. In terms of fitness, one of the first things to decrease is your cardiovascular maximums like V02 max. These decrease rapidly, so much so that you will notice a significant difference in aerobic function within 3 weeks.
This happens quickly, as a major factor in aerobic fitness is red blood cell count. When consistently training aerobically, your body creates more red blood cells which enable oxygen to be delivered throughout the body more effectively, therefore increasing aerobic capabilities. Without an aerobic stimulus the body quickly stops producing these cells, as they are deemed unnecessary. Additionally, within around a week you can expect a decrease in mitochondrial content in your muscle mass (by around 50%) and within 4 weeks your capillary density also shows significant reductions.
How to combat training losses.
So, now we have an idea of time frames, how do we delay the reduction in fitness?
There is little reason to stop doing endurance or aerobic activity. You need no equipment; you could jog or complete in-house sessions that can maintain and improve your aerobic function.
Strength training is the more difficult problem, however, its definitely possible to limit the damage. Completing high reps of bodyweight versions of exercise, such as press-ups, can help maintain strength levels. Yes, if you regularly squat 100kg this is going to be hard to mimic at home. But, try some harder variations of body weight exercises, sissy squats, pistol squats and Bulgarian split squats are great alternatives. It’s also a good time to work on those weaknesses. Mobility, mobility and one more time mobility.
Finally, when you lose the ability to train with as much resistance as you’re used to, it becomes really important to maintain homeostasis as best as possible. So, controlling stress, nutrition, sleep and recovery also become vital to preventing muscle atrophy.
To finish off...
Just do your best.
These are unprecedented times so just be nice to yourself. Working out and having targets is a really good way to lift your mood and stay focused, but we are in the middle of a global pandemic, so if you’re struggling to stay motivated don’t beat yourself up. Take each day as it comes.
We have loads of content on the members only area and all the coaches are happy to answer any home training questions.