Can't Work Out? Prevent Muscle Loss
We feel miserable when we can't go to the gym for whatever reason. Aside from losing our stress-relief valve, we worry about losing the progress we've made. So how can we prevent muscle loss and fat gain?
You can adopt several smart nutritional strategies to help preserve muscle and simultaneously keep you from turning into a fatty. But first, how worried should you be anyway?
We know that "mechanical unloading," a fancy term for sitting around on your butt, reduces the number of satellite cells. Muscle size is determined by the number and size of these satellite cells.
But there isn't much known about how quickly gym rats lose muscle when they're not exposed to regular resistance training. The only directly relatable research measured the effects of a paltry two-week layoff.
The lifters in this study that continued to ingest their usual amount of protein didn't lose a damn thing as far as strength and size (not so for the guys who didn't maintain their protein habits). That's great, but not much is known about layoff periods longer than two weeks.
There is, however, plenty of research on strength and muscle loss that occurs with complete muscle disuse, like when you go skiing in Aspen and fall off a mountain.
In cases like that, there appears to be an initial 14-day "cushion" where laid-up patients can keep most of their muscle mass and strength, but after that, it diminishes rapidly.
On average, patients lose about 0.5% of their lean body mass and about 1.5% of their strength per day (after that 14-day cushion), obviously topping out at some point. But again, that's in bedridden patients, not healthy lifters who just didn't have access to a gym.
Luckily, we do have plenty of anecdotal and experiential evidence that tells us the loss of muscle and strength from a lay-off isn't nearly that bad.
The average lifter will probably lose between 6 and 10 pounds of muscle mass during a three-month period. Remember, though, that we're talking about a three-month period of living like a normal non-lifter who doesn't do any real physical work outside of taking out the trash.
Losing any amount of muscle mass can be emotionally deflating, though, but here's where some of those studies on muscle loss in bedridden people come in handy. They provide us with some nutritional strategies that should mitigate muscle and strength loss in the healthy-but-gymless.
One of the problems with muscle disuse is that it induces anabolic resistance, which blunts the protein synthesis response to protein ingestion. That makes it paramount that you keep protein levels adequate, if not high.
If you were taking 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram a day before your lay-off, keep taking at least 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram a day during your lay-off. You can get that amount of protein through whole food, but in doing so, there's the possibility that you exceed your daily energy intake requirements.
A good option, of course, is to use a micellar casein product like Metabolic Drive® that allows you to easily take in precise amounts of high-quality protein without any extra calories.
Yeah, this is a no-brainer, but probably not for the reason you think.
You know that not going to the gym and working out makes you susceptible to weight gain, but excess calorie intake does something else during periods of inactivity. It's associated with higher levels of a marker of systemic inflammation known as c-reactive protein, which affects whole-body protein turnover.
Having a positive energy balance during periods of inactivity is actually associated with higher levels of muscle atrophy. What you need to do, for the sake of your waistline and your muscles, is to optimize your energy intake.
Eating enough calories maintains muscles. Eating too many calories helps break them down, in addition to pudging you out. You're obviously taking in too many calories if you're gaining weight, and your muscles will suffer for it.
Stress reduces testosterone levels, as does inactivity. As testosterone levels decline, so do levels of muscle protein synthesis.
If that happens, it may be time to bring in the heavy guns. Maybe you're in a position where you've managed to stockpile some of your testosterone replacement meds. Maybe you've got an extra box of packets, an extra multi-dose pump, or an extra vial of injectable T in your medicine cabinet.
You might even have a stash of anabolic steroids hidden in your underwear drawer, waiting for the time you decide to do a cycle. It might be counter-intuitive, but now may be the time for that cycle; now may be the time to slather on a little more testosterone gel or suck a bit more injectable T up into your syringe.
It's one of the surest ways to maintain your muscle mass, and there are dozens of research papers to back up that strategy (not many in recent times, though). However, most of those studies focused on people suffering from some horrible medical condition where atrophy was a side effect.
If none of those approaches are feasible, at least make sure your testosterone levels are up to normal or, if possible, slightly elevated. If you suspect your crankcase is low, consider using the testosterone-booster Alpha Male®.
When we're working out, most of us know to evenly distribute our protein intake across our three main daily meals (and however many additional meals or snacks we may have).
However, when not going to the gym, we may tend to slip back into our old "civilian" habits, like skewing the majority of our protein intake towards the evening meal. This is a mistake.
Even distribution of protein throughout the day has been shown to promote a 25% greater muscle protein synthesis response than a skewed pattern. So if you take in 30 grams at dinner, try to take in 30 grams at breakfast and lunch, too.
If you're not working out, you're likely stressed out. Combine that with any nasty eating habits you might have picked up during your period of inactivity and it's highly likely your body is en fuego – inflamed.
Persistent systemic inflammation is bad news in general, but it's been well demonstrated that in conditions of muscle loss, inflammation is the main negative regulator of skeletal muscle protein synthesis.
To keep inflammation in check, eat anti-inflammatory foods like fatty fish, olive oil, green leafy vegetables, or nuts like almonds and walnuts. If you can afford the supplement route, take Flameout® and/or Micellar Curcumin.
This branched-chain amino acid has been shown in multiple studies to preserve muscle mass, strength, and endurance in bed rest patients.
Leucine is known as a "nutrient signal" as it reduces muscle protein breakdown while stimulating muscle protein synthesis. It does this by signaling the mTOR pathway and other signaling pathways. Both are known to become resistant to leucine in cases of chronic inflammation or oxidative stress, conditions which are common with immobilization or disuse.
Just a couple of grams can provide an anabolic boost in-between meals where you might otherwise be shorting yourself on protein.
Oxidative stress is related to inflammation, but it's not the sole cause. Other things can also cause this kind of stress, like little to no physical activity, environmental crap, lack of sleep, and a less-than-perfect diet. Regardless of the cause, there's increasing evidence that oxidative stress is directly associated with skeletal muscle atrophy.
When the number of reactive oxygen species in muscle increases, it leads to DNA fragmentation and lipid and protein oxidation, all leading to apoptosis, which is the death of muscle cells. Under a microscope, it would look very much like a tiny starship Enterprise phasered a Klingon vessel into smithereens.
The recourse to high levels of oxidative stress is, naturally, antioxidant supplementation, which is thought to be a useful approach to reducing the muscle wasting associated with muscle disuse.
So eat your assorted fruits, berries, vegetables, and plant matter in general, and if you're not getting in a minimum of four servings a day, consider using Superfood. Each serving has the antioxidant capability of 9 to 11 average servings of fruits and vegetables.
We all know what creatine does for the person lifting weights, but there's evidence that creatine also helps maintain muscle during periods of disuse or inactivity.
Johnston, et al. found that when creatine was given to lifters who'd volunteered to have one arm immobilized for two weeks, the non-essential amino acid better maintained upper-arm muscle over placebo. Creatine also attenuated the reduction in elbow flexion strength and elbow extension strength.
Again, this research involved immobilized limbs, so we can only extrapolate from the findings. Still, if you were taking creatine before your lay-off, you should think about using it during your lay-off. It has plenty of healthful attributes, and, at the very least, it engorges your muscle cells with fluid, giving at least the cosmetic look of someone who hasn't missed any workouts.
You might have noticed that most of the nutritional strategies I listed for preventing muscle loss from not working out – or not working out as hard or as often as you normally do – are a lot like those you should use when you are working out hard and often.
That shouldn't be too much of a surprise; muscle is muscle. It just needs a little more of everything when you're working out.
But, even if you do lose a little size during your hiatus from the gym, recognize that when you do go back, you'll be healed up, fired up, and ready to go. You'll recoup your muscle losses quickly.
- Ferrando AA et al. EAA supplementation to increase nitrogen intake improves muscle function during bed rest in the elderly. Clin Nutr. 2010 Feb;29(1):18-23. PubMed.
- Galvan E et al. Protecting Skeletal Muscle with Protein and Amino Acid during Periods of Disuse. Nutrients. 2016 Jul 1;8(7):404. PubMed.
- Magne H et al. Nutritional strategies to counteract muscle atrophy caused by disuse and to improve recovery. Nutrition Research Reviews. 2013 Dec;26(2):149-165.
- Johnston APW et al. Effect of Creatine Supplementation During Cast-Induced Immobilization on the Preservation of Muscle Mass, Strength, and Endurance. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):116-20. PubMed.
- Mettler S et al. Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Feb;42(2):326-37. PubMed.
- Phillips SM et al. Alterations of protein turnover underlying disuse atrophy in human skeletal muscle. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2009 Sep;107(3):645-54. PubMed.