Returning To The Gym: How To Regain Lost Muscle

12 min read

This Article Will Address

  1. How much muscle can you lose while detraining?
  2. How long will it take to regain that lost muscle?
  3. The benefits of taking time off
  4. The best programme for maximising muscle gain while retraining

The Guide To Recovering Lost Gains

It may seem like you’ve got to do it all over again. But a regaining programme is actually a tremendous opportunity to dial everything in and hit the perfect stride.

There is obviously some context to my writing. The lockdown’s drawing to an end, and there’s every chance that there’s a hot gym in your area. The shackles are off, and now may be the time to start dusting off the training manual. Unfortunately, strength doesn’t come with an option to unfreeze. 

Some of you might be fretting about the disaster that awaits when you try to load up for a max effort in the squat rack. And those fears are warranted. The fact is, you won’t be the same lifter that you were several months ago. Regardless of whether you were at the apex of your training career, or even a raw recruit.

Power, speed, stamina, strength, and size. There’s going to be sweeping downgrades across your athletic capacity. This isn’t even factoring the mental drawbacks of significant time-off. The presence of intensive exercise is an incredibly powerful tool. It’s the type of stress that moves you forward, while also acting as a release mechanism for chronic stress. 

It’s often the thing holding everything together and keeping the ship afloat. But that’s a whole different can of worms, so we’ll stick to simple physiology on this one. The time will soon come for a series of maxing out the mindset.

The Damage Done To Your Physique

So it’s time to brace for disappointment and assess the damage from all this forced rest and recuperation. If you weren’t able to put together a power-rack in the spare room, then you will have lost muscle and strength over the lockdown.

But just how bad is it?

A day off the gym often results in a vicious dose of anxiety, and in reality we can survive unscathed for much longer. It can take as much as four weeks without training before the muscle starts to atrophy. In another study, lifters taking 3 weeks off for every 6 weeks of training, ended up the same strength increase as the group who trained across the whole block. This is going to play a key part in my argument for the merits of skipping the gym every now and then.

Unfortunately, we’re well past these scenarios. Instead of weeks, it’s a matter of months. At some point, there’s going to be a drop-off. The myonuclei are satellite cells in the muscle that through training, increase both in size and sphere of influence. Think of them like cell towers. This mechanism allows the muscle to increase its size and force output. 

When you take significant time off training, the size and spheres of the myonuclei begin to shrink. And there’s the setup for muscle loss.

So let’s look at the long-term cases. There is a relevant one from way back in 1991, where lifters who took 30 weeks off training, and were assessed on their return. They showed a 13% decrease in strength. That might not sound drastic, but it is a significant amount, especially for lifters who’ve already put a few years of work in. 

To put it into context, a 13% change is what you’d expect from 3-5 months of training. As a percentage, it might sound like a paltry amount, but in reality that’s a significant amount of grinding. At some point in your training career, you start having to fight for every extra pound on the bar. In the context of an advanced lifter, the margin of 13% is depressingly daunting.

Keep in mind, that’s the strength decrease. Losses in muscle size were deemed as non-significant, at around 5-8%. Strength and size is obviously related, but there are a few extra factors beyond the muscle fiber that determine force output. 

This 13% decline in strength is by no means definitive. Depending on your case, you could absolutely scrape through with a lighter sentence.

How To Minimise Muscle Loss During Time Off

Case One – You’re A Beginner (1 year or less) – Being straightforward, being new to the lifting scene means that a few months of detraining will barely make a difference on your physique. There’s less to lose, and you’ll also be more sensitive to adaptation. Any strength loss can be fixed within a few weeks.

Case TwoYou Trained, As Much As You Could – There is life beyond weights. Resistance bands would go a long way towards minimising muscle loss, and can absolutely result in some strength gains with beginners and intermediate lifters (1-3 years). Bodyweight exercises likewise work somewhat with beginners. 

Case Three – Strength Isn’t A Priority – Perhaps you’ve been much more focused towards hypertrophy. In which case, the losses will be relatively smaller. Your strength is heavily reliant on neural adaptations such as power, not just muscle fibers. These adaptations will suffer more with detraining. Size itself doesn’t go so quickly.

All this is assuming that you’ve ticked off the following boxes.

You Stayed Active – Committing to the couch is a great way of signalling to the body that it’s time to atrophy. In an extreme case, subjects undergoing bedrest showed losses of 1.4kg of lean tissue over a mere week. Maintaining a solid step count, finding ways to replace resistance training, are essential. This is very much the rule for any deload period. Stay moving.

The Diet Held Up – That’s not to say it needed to be perfect. A drop in dietary adherence is almost inevitable when you take out resistance training. Exercise is a spectacular lifestyle enforcer. By convincing yourself to go through a workout, it sets the stage for the day. Healthy habits are then easier to follow. Sticking to the right foods isn’t such a struggle.

So without training, the diet can end up being a bit wayward. Some fat gain creeps in, along with muscle loss caused by not hitting the protein count. But this isn’t a disaster, just as long as you didn’t throw in the towel and decided to wait for the lockdown to end. 

Summing this up, here’s what you’ll be faced with at the end of the time off. With the caveats taken into consideration. I’ve ranked them from the biggest losses, down to the slightest, and across to the perks. There’s a silver lining in every tragedy.

The Physiological Effects Of Detraining

  • Greater Fatigue – Your stamina is going to be shot, and you’ll be tapping out much quicker than usual. As it happens though, the biggest drop-offs will often be the quickest to recover. 
  • Loss Of Neural Adaptations – Explosive exercises will take a big dent, and this is going to a big reason why your first week back ends up feeling humiliating. 
  • Loss Of Strength – Partly due to the neural network, but also losses in myonuclei and muscle fiber. 
  • Loss Of Size – Less significant than strength.
  • Better Joints – Before lockdown struck, years of awkward technique were likely taking a toll, and showing up in joints that seemed permanently sore. That at least will be much less of an issue.
  • No Repeated Bout Effect – RBE is how the body prevents you from gaining more muscle than you can handle. The more you train at a given intensity, the more resistant the body becomes to that level of stress. Eventually it stops working altogether, or you go heavier. High-frequency training can often lead to plateaus for this reason.
  • Lower Stimulus To Adaptation – The volume threshold for muscle gain is now much easier to reach.
  • High Sensitivity To Muscle Damage – Here’s why you’ll be crippled by DOMS as soon as you touch a weight. Muscle damage is now greater, and that’s a key driver of strength and hypertrophy.

What This Means For Training

Coming back in, lifting is going to suck if you don’t leave your ego at the door. You’ll probably end up stripping plates off your warm-up sets.

Unless you’re a beginner, 4-5 months of detraining will need around 2-4 months to fix. The process will be sped up significantly compared to the training that got you to that pedestal. 

The reasons for the fast-tracking aren’t just down to the lowered Repeated Bout Effect. This is also linked back to the myonuclei, those satellite cells that enable the muscle to expand in strength and size. They’re still there, they’ve just shrunk a little. This means that much of the adaptation is still there, and will respond aggressively to any stimulus.

Where you end up across that 2-4 month range is going to depend on the programme, and your intensity levels. This is where things get interesting. High intensity is only going to hold progress back and stretch out the regaining phase. 

Head straight for max effort lifts, and you’re likely to need at least 4 months. Dialing it up too early is just going to fizzle out the fast-tracking you’ll be experiencing due to the lowered Repeated Bout Effect. 

The Perks Of Starting Low

  • Steady Gains Across Strength And Size – Lowered RBE won’t negate training adaptation
  • Improved Mind Muscle Connection – Less weight means you can divert that leftover focus somewhere else.
  • Chance To Improve Weak Body Parts – Starting back up will allow you to prioritise weaker muscle groups during the newbie phase.

You will have to begin with weights that are well below your maximum in order for that to happen. Not the pre-lockdown numbers, you can forget about them. You’re going to have to go even lower. 

Add in a ton of junk volume and the newbie phase won’t last long. RBE will start to spike, reducing muscle protein synthesis and protecting against muscle damage. Two things that aren’t ideal for continued strength and hypertrophy.

The Dangers Of Starting High

  • Increased RBE – Reduced muscle protein synthesis and less muscle damage
  • Lowered Training Frequency – Despite the fact that you’ll eventually be able to hurdle this problem due to RBE, the initial few weeks will be a mess. Excessive intensities will result in a state of constant muscle soreness that prevents you from training on a frequent basis. 
  • Less Muscle Fiber Recruitment – More intensity means less technique, as it’s incredibly unlikely that you can maintain control while going for weights that require you to burst blood vessels. Especially with stunted cardio.
  • Weaker Muscle Groups Remain Weak – Going heavy invariably means you’re pushing or pulling by any means necessary. Smaller muscles get sidelined in the confusion.

Just like the case is with the diet, there’s a serviceable way of progressing in the gym, then there’s the optimal route. The more advanced you are, the greater the rewards will be.

The Optimal Programme For Regaining Lost Muscle

At its most basic, it’s going to be a matter of tapering up the following metrics.

  • Weight – Around 70% of the current 1RM. This is about 12 reps when taken to failure.
  • Volume – Starts from the minimal amount needed to force an adaptation.
  • Intensity – Starts from 6 RPE, or effort out of 10.
  • Frequency – Beginning at high frequency in order to improve stamina and technique.

I will cover an example of such a programme in the next article. But first, a quick note on the diet. While I did say this won’t be another diet piece, there is a rule that needs to be said.

The Caloric Surplus For Muscle Gain

There is some variability with bodyweight, but generally I like to set a small 350 calorie surplus for a bulking phase. This is nothing like the traditional surpluses people roll with, where they feel the need to jump straight to 1000 in order to shift the scale. Technically this strategy works, by turning up fat storage. And as body fat increases, so does the ratio of fat to muscle in further weight gains.

Going above 350 accomplishes nothing for strength gain, and should be avoided unless you’re not planning on doing a fat-loss phase anytime soon. Much like the case with weight loss, smaller calorie swings are best for progressing without a bunch of side effects.

Muscle gain is much, much slower than fat loss. The rate is around 0.5% – 1.5% of your bodyweight per month. And that’s month, not by the week. The higher the surplus, the greater the percentage of fat gain. Even at a 500 calorie surplus, you’re going to see some fluff. Of course you could choose to ignore the unwanted gains, and then tack four extra months to the next summer shred.

Normally I’d push for even less, but we’re all pretty detrained at this point. So you can absolutely use the higher end of the range. Just reign it in when necessary.

The Takeaway

Don’t force the body to adapt too soon. Bulk slowly to limit fat gain, and start with light to moderate weights, before tapering up. The whole idea is to sustain that newbie phase of lowered RBE, for as long as possible. You won’t necessarily grow slower, but you’ll definitely end up progressing over a longer span of time.

If you’re interested in help with such a programme, you can check my coaching offers over here.

Coaching At Genesis Fitness