How do you retain muscle when you can't train as hard as you typically do? How about losing body fat? Is that still feasible without your usual workouts?
Whether you've sustained an injury, your gym has closed, or you're trapped at home for whatever reason, we've got you covered. Here's what you can do with your training and diet to mitigate any potential losses.
First, taking a few weeks off of training will not negatively impact your gains. If you stop lifting entirely for a few weeks, yes, you may lose some size. But once you get back into your regular gym routine and stay consistent with it, you'll ultimately end up at net zero loss in gains. You may even see an increase in muscle growth beyond your pre-detraining levels.
One study concluded that a three-week detraining break followed by a six-week retraining cycle yielded similar muscle hypertrophy in young men compared to 24 weeks of continuous resistance training (1).
When taking time off from lifting for a short period of time, your muscle mass levels don't revert back to where they were pre-lifting (2, 3, 4). Moreover, if the retraining phase is longer than the detraining period (e.g. three weeks detraining followed by six weeks retraining), muscle mass may ultimately increase.
Another study tested the minimum dose required to maintain resistance training-induced adaptations (5). They found that training once per week was sufficient to maintain positive neuromuscular adaptations, though older men (aged 60-75) required higher training volume to maintain their gains compared to younger men (aged 20-35).
This is great news. It means that maintaining muscle mass is actually fairly easy as long as you're getting in a little bit of training.
What about when you don't have access to your regular gym equipment?
You may find yourself in a situation where you don't have access to barbells, heavy dumbbells, and your usual gym machines, but perhaps you do have some resistance bands and lighter dumbbells (and your own bodyweight, obviously).
Remember that your muscles don't know what exercise you're doing; they only know the mechanical stimuli placed on them. So, if you can make a workout sufficiently challenging, you can absolutely maintain your current level of muscle mass, at the very least.
Note that I'm not talking about simply adding reps on reps on reps or necessarily adding load. There are several ways to increase the difficulty of an exercise, including but not limited to:
- Increasing the range of motion
- Slowing down the eccentric or negative phase
- Adding at a pause
- Adding a pulse or partial
- Increasing the lever
It's entirely possible to make some more "basic" bodyweight movements incredibly challenging. Just adhere to a structured training program for several weeks at a time to allow yourself to implement progressive overload over time and reap the most benefit out of your workouts.
How should you eat when you can't train as hard as you typically do?
If you were previously pursuing fat loss and eating in a calorie deficit (depending on how much you're able to train) it may be a good idea to hit the pause button on dieting for the time being and switch over to maintenance.
Putting your body in a catabolic environment without the mechanical stimulus of training puts you at higher risk of losing lean body mass (6, 7). However, these losses can be mitigated during fat loss if you're consuming sufficient protein to the tune of a minimum of 1.4g protein per 1kg, or .64g protein per pound of total bodyweight per day (8, 9).
If you do have the means to keep up some form of resistance training, you're fine to continue as normal with your nutrition. Note that your new maintenance levels may drop a bit if your overall energy expenditure has gone down.
This may be the case if you're walking less throughout the day and generally moving less than before (non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT). It may be worth scaling back your daily intake by anywhere between 50-200 calories if you suspect that this may be you. Monitor changes to the scale and to your body composition and make adjustments from there.
For dieting purposes, there are many variables that go into determining your calorie needs. Some factors include:
- Activity level
- Dieting history
- Body composition
- Timeline (if any)
A good way of determining calorie requirements for fat loss involves subtracting anywhere between 200-500 calories from your current maintenance intake.
The problem with this approach is that many people don't know what this number is. If you'd like to go this route, track your usual intake for a week, taking into account not only what foods you're eating, but also using a food scale to weigh out your food amounts so you can be as accurate as possible.
Keep track of changes to your bodyweight throughout this time. Any changes by the end of the week might be indicative of where your calorie intake is relative to your maintenance levels:
- If you've gained weight, you're likely eating in a calorie surplus.
- If you've lost weight, you're eating in a deficit.
- If you've maintained, you're right around your maintenance levels.
However, this can be a true pain in the ass. The next strategy is arguably an oversimplified version, but it's a starting point.
Remember, any equation or formula that helps you determine your calorie needs is ultimately an educated guess at best. However, this is more or less the approach I've been using with my clients for the past several years with great success.
What you're going to do is take your current bodyweight and multiply it by 10 to 13. Don't immediately jump to the 10 times bodyweight multiplier! Most people want to do this in an effort to see the fastest progress, but that can be a recipe for disaster, especially when the diet starts out overly restrictive.
Err on the higher end of the range if you're younger in age, more physically active, and/or have a good amount of lean body mass on your frame already. If you're older, sedentary, and with higher levels of body fat, you can start at the lower end of the range.
Of course, this is just a guideline. You may find that you can get away with eating at 14 times bodyweight or even 15 times bodyweight. But the vast majority of individuals will fall somewhere in the 10-13 range.
Here are two examples:
- Let's say we have a guy who's 250 pounds, moderately active, with 25% body fat. Assuming that we don't know his maintenance intake, his activity level and body fat would put him towards the lower end of the bodyweight multiplier range: maybe 10 or 11 times bodyweight would work well for him. This comes out to between 2,500 and 2,750 calories a day. At this rate, he could expect to see a loss of roughly .5% bodyweight per week.
- Now let's say we have a 180 pound female, highly active, with 22% body fat. As a leaner individual with higher activity levels, she could probably get away with consuming more calories. Put her at the higher end of the range at 13 times bodyweight to start. This comes out to just over 2,300 calories a day.
If you want to maintain your bodyweight, adjust the multiplier to 14-16.
Yes, this "formula" is admittedly oversimplified. But it really doesn't need to get any more complicated than this. You don't need to know your resting metabolic rate, nor do you need to calculate your daily total energy expenditure down to the exact calorie. All you need is a rough approximation to start, and be as adherent to this intake as you can over the course of your fat loss plan.
As far as what to eat, the guidelines should always remain the same for body composition purposes:
- Consume mostly minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods to cover your micronutrient bases.
- Eat adequate protein to retain or gain lean body mass.
- Be consistent with your eating behaviors from day to day.
Understandably, you may be in a situation in which the above is simply not a reality. Perhaps having access to many nutrient-dense foods isn't an option at this time, or maybe you have extremely limited food resources and the only items you can easily get your hands on are chockfull of carbs (such as rice and potatoes).
If that's the case, here are the two nutrition variables that matter the most for body composition, in order:
- Calories: If all else fails, make sure you're consuming adequate food. While food quality obviously matters, calories are king when it comes to retaining muscle and shedding body fat.
- Protein: It's the ultimate macronutrient for gains. As much as you can, try to make sure you're hitting the minimum threshold of 0.64g per pound of total bodyweight. But if you fall short, rest assured that any resistance training you're doing will help attenuate losses in muscle mass.
Don't worry about too much else – nutrient timing, meal frequency, low carb/low fat, etc. Eat in a way that suits your personal preferences and lifestyle while adhering to the above points as much as possible. And if you can't, then simply do what you can and let that be good enough.
You may have noticed the running theme here: Do what you can for resistance training (even if it means relying on bodyweight exercises), take a break from dieting if you can't train at all, and stay consistent.
If you do happen to lose a little bit of muscle and maybe gain some body fat during your training hiatus, rest assured you can bounce back. I wish there was a fancier secret, but the reality is that the fundamentals of body composition remain the same no matter your gym situation.
One last thing: As much as you can, try not to stress over any of the above. You may be out of your routine right now, but it's entirely possible to maintain or even improve your physique with limited resources.
- Ogasawara R et al. Effects of periodic and continued resistance training on muscle CSA and strength in previously untrained men. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2011 Sep;31(5):399-404. PubMed.
- Andersen LL et al. Changes in the human muscle force-velocity relationship in response to resistance training and subsequent detraining. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2005 Jul;99(1):87-94. PubMed.
- Léger B et al. Akt signalling through GSK-3beta, mTOR and Foxo1 is involved in human skeletal muscle hypertrophy and atrophy. J Physiol. 2006 Nov 1;576(Pt 3):923-33. PubMed.
- Ogasawara R et al. Comparison of muscle hypertrophy following 6-month of continuous and periodic strength training. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Apr;113(4):975-85. PubMed.
- Bickel CS et al. Exercise dosing to retain resistance training adaptations in young and older adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jul;43(7):1177-87. PubMed.
- Aragon AA et al. International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Jun;14(1):16.
- Ballor DL et al. Resistance weight training during caloric restriction enhances lean body weight maintenance. Am J Clin Nutr. 1988 Jan;47(1):19-25. PubMed.
- Layman DK et al. Dietary protein and exercise have additive effects on body composition during weight loss in adult women. J Nutr. 2005 Aug;135(8):1903-10. PubMed.
- Miller T et al. Resistance training combined with diet decreases body fat while preserving lean mass independent of resting metabolic rate: A randomized trial. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018 Jan 1;28(1):46-54. PubMed.