The COVID-19 pandemic that has consumed the planet has left a lot of people worried that they’ll lose all the strength they’ve built in the gym.
Research supports this fear, showing that we can expect to lose up to 10% of our strength after a training break of just two to three weeks. But there’s an important thing to emphasise here. The strength you’re losing isn’t a 10% drop in your total strength, but rather, the strength you’ve gained as a result of training.
Let’s look at an example to understand this better.
Let’s say you have been training for a few years, and you can deadlift 100kg. And maybe when you started, this was 50kg. After two weeks off exercise, you won’t lose 10% of 100kg (reducing your deadlift to 90kg), but 10% of the strength you’ve gained as a result of training – taking you down to 95%. Not as bad, but still not ideal, especially considering you’ve only avoided strength training for a fortnight.
Now, some of this loss of strength isn’t related just to muscle size, but also coordination. Lifting weights is a skill, and our brain and nerves get better at this skill with practice. So it’s beneficial to note that by lifting light weights, and even by just visualising the lifting of weights, we can hold on to some of our strength numbers.
Let’s get sciencey for a moment. When we do resistance training (lifting weights), we actually increase how many nuclei are in a muscle cell. You might remember from high school biology that the nucleus of a cell is like its brain.
Normally cells just have one ‘brain’ each, but muscle cells are special – they have multiple brains, multiple nuclei. And the process of resistance training increases the number of nuclei in each muscle cell.
Here’s the interesting part. Once you increase the number of nuclei (through strength training), you will retain that number. They don’t disappear if you take a break from strength training. And this means that after a break, it is easier to rebuild the strength than it was to get it in the first place.
During your break from strength training, research has shown that we’ll hold on to muscle (and strength) for longer if we ensure we’re eating adequate protein. This helps to aid the process of protein synthesis – preventing the breakdown of muscle tissue.
It’s worth also exploring the effect of human psychology on ensuring you stay consistent. One of the strongest drives in the human mind is ‘loss avoidance’. In fact, in studies, humans have been shown to pay more money to retain something they’ve already got, than to buy something new. It’s the same with strength and fitness. The key lesson from this? Remind yourself of what you’ve built, and the hard work it took to get there. Protect and guard the fruits of your labour!
But how much should you be doing? It may not be realistic to stick to your normal routine, so what’s the smallest amount of exercise we can do to ensure all our previous hard work doesn’t go to waste?
We’ve got some good news for you. There’s plenty of research out there that shows that if you cut your strength training volume by two thirds (so you’re only doing a third of what you would normally), you will experience zero strength loss. Sure, you won’t increase strength, but you won’t go backwards. What does this look like? Do you currently lift weights three times a week? If you need to, you can drop to once and not lose strength. Of course, we don’t recommend this – because there are numerous benefits of resistance training beyond just strength, but it is reassuring to know.
The big take-away is that it doesn’t actually take a lot of work to maintain strength and fitness. Sure it took a lot of work to build it in the first place, but once you have it, a much smaller amount of exercise will successfully hold on to all your gains.
Before we go, just a word on what you might be going through when we come out the other side of this. If you have had a lot of time off, and you have lost a lot of fitness or strength, it can be quite demoralising. It can get you down. Especially when you know how hard you worked in the first place to build yourself up. So when you get back into it, don’t judge the success of your exercise session on how much weight you lifted, how many reps you got, or how far you ran. Instead, judge the success on the fact that you just turned up. If you showed up and ticked the box, that’s a win. Keep ticking boxes, and before you know it, you’ll be starting to see improvements – and these improvements will fuel your future commitment.