COVID-19 is still around, and it seems like it's going to be like that for a while. Even though in some places gyms are open, exercising with masks and keeping a safe distance is not pleasant, and it ruins the experience for most people. That is problematic - you've worked hard for years to build your physique and develop a healthy exercise habit, and now you are forced to make compromises and change your fitness schedule completely.
One question worries many gym regulars - how to prevent muscle loss? Besides pandemic, there might be other things that get in the way in the future, which will prevent you from going to the gym. The question is: What can you do to preserve the most muscle gained in a year of closed gyms? And the answer is: a lot! Read on to find out more.
Why We Lose Muscle?
Building muscle mass is a hard process, especially if you are looking to gain muscle without gaining fat. You need to lift hard, eat well, rest and repeat, and if you don't quit, results will come.
The problem is that you need to keep doing the same if you want to keep those results. Not gaining muscle is problematic, but losing muscle mass is even worse, and you should do your best to prevent that. This article will help!
Use It Or Lose It
The real reason why people can't gain muscle mass and why they eventually start losing muscle is that they no longer give their musculature the right amount of stimulus.
If you want to keep growing, you need progressive overload - in other words, you need to do more as time goes by. But, most of us are just going through the motions. Once we build a habit, we start doing the same exercise with the same rep range and the same number of sets, lifting the same weight. You do five sets of five pullups like you always did, and then you wonder why muscle stop growing.
Still, not growing muscle is not the same as losing it. If you continue doing the same workout, you are likely only to stop growing, but you are not going to lose the muscles you gained. However, if you stop working out, muscle decay will start.
Why Am I Not Gaining Muscle Mass?
Difficulty gaining muscles comes from the fact that muscles are "expensive." Muscles grow when you stress your body, giving it a hard enough physical challenge that will cause minor muscle damage (but not injuries), which is later recovered and supercompensated. New muscle tissue is created, which is also stronger and ready for the same type of challenge when it faces it next time.
Muscles require a lot of calories just for maintenance. More muscles means better metabolism, as your body needs more energy to maintain its current state. In other words, having more muscle will also help your fat loss efforts, which is why it is recommended to lift weights when you want to lose fat.
However, when you stop exercising, your body will start treating muscles as excess. From an evolutionary perspective, that is reasonable - if you are not using muscles, they are wasting calories. And in nature, the food is scarce. Therefore, if you don't use muscles, your body will start breaking them down. The decay will speed up if you are in a caloric deficit, but we will get to that later.
5 Tips To Preserve The Most Muscle Gained In A Year When Gyms Are Closed
As you can see, muscle loss when not working out is normal. However, that doesn't mean you can't do anything about it, on the contrary.
Five tips from below will help you preserve the most muscle gained in a year of closed gyms. We also have a separate article about the concept of muscle memory, which will help you regain the lost muscle much faster. Even if you lose some, it’s not the end of the world, but your job is to try as hard to prevent muscle loss from happening.
Tip #1: Watch Your Total Calories
We have explained how muscles can benefit your fat loss goals, as they are "expensive" for maintenance and require a lot of calories. We have also said that you need to exercise if you want to preserve your muscles. But, your total caloric intake plays a huge role too.
Muscles Don't Like A Caloric Deficit
You've probably heard how it is very hard to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. To lose fat, you need a caloric deficit. And because our body knows that muscles are "expensive" and require a lot of calories, once you enter a caloric deficit, the body will try to ditch that expensive tissue if you are not using it. If you do exercise, you will signal your body that it needs those muscles, and it will have to draw calories from other sources - fat.
Because of this, when in a deficit, the body will try hard against building new muscle mass, as it is "expensive" for maintenance. Remember, you are in a caloric deficit, which is essentially the start of starvation, from our body's evolutionary perspective.
Dangers Of Undereating
When gyms are unavailable, many people first think about how they will get fat fast, as they are not exercising regularly. They believe if they continue eating as they did while lifting every other day, they will replace those muscles with fat. That is not the case.
In truth, lifting weights doesn't burn calories on its own, at least not a lot. It does increase your muscle mass, which requires more calories, but that's different. Therefore, if you are not a huge cardio fanatic, you won't burn many calories directly from exercising.
Therefore, drastically cutting back on calories as soon as you stop regularly working out is suboptimal. You will enter a caloric deficit while inactive, and your body will start breaking down muscles you are not using to prevent them from wasting away precious calories.
Undereating is the fastest way to lose muscle you worked so hard to build. To prevent this, it is best to keep calories at maintenance and keep exercising even at home (we will get to both later).
Signs Of Under Eating
One of the most apparent effects of undereating is feeling hungry all the time. But, that sign is easily detectable and self-explanatory, and if you feel hungry, just eat.
However, if you constantly feel tired and have much lower energy levels, it is time to check your calories. If you are not getting enough food, the body will go into the self-preservation mode, conserving energy, and will feel much slower. This is not only physical, but you will have issues focusing, and your concentration and deep thinking will suffer too.
The same goes for your mood - if you get irritated by anything and anybody and are experiencing mood swings, it might be because you are chronically intaking too few calories.
Also, for women, undereating can interfere with periods and can even create problems if you are trying to get pregnant. If that is the case, make sure your calories are right, you will experiment with crazy diets later.
Tip #2: Increase Your Relative Protein Intake
To build muscle, you need to exercise, which creates muscle damage, which is later repaired during muscle protein synthesis. Therefore, for muscles to grow, protein is very important.
It is a good idea to keep your total protein relatively high compared to the other two macronutrients. If you want to avoid getting fat while gyms are off, but you want to prevent muscle decay, cut back a bit on either fat or carbs, and replace that amount of calories with protein.
When your diet lacks amino acids, the body will turn to muscles, as they have proteins bound in their structure. Breaking those muscles down will release proteins our body needs to survive. But, that's something you should look to avoid, not just because of how you look but also for health reasons, as muscles are very valuable.
Keeping your relative protein intake high will preserve that muscle mass you've worked so hard to build but won't lead to fat accumulation as much (if you are not in a caloric surplus). Another benefit of protein-rich foods is the fact that they are quite satiating. You can hardly overeat on chicken breast and eggs, at least when compared to ice cream or fast food.
If you struggle with increasing protein from real food, consider taking supplements. Whey protein isolate is a great option, as it is a complete protein and is very low in calories. If you are vegan or lactose intolerant, consider a plant-based protein powder blend.
Tip #3: Keep Working Out Regularly!
Yes, gyms are unavailable, but that doesn't mean you should stop working out. Remember, to preserve muscle, you need to keep them in use. That will signal your body that they are not wasting precious calories.
Without gyms, your most obvious choice is doing bodyweight exercises at home. This requires minimal equipment, as you need to get a pullup bar at least. But, you can be creative with home furniture, too, using chairs for dips, getting underneath a table for rows, and similar. Of course, you can do lunges, squats, and pushups, with countless variations to keep things interesting and challenging.
Invest In Home Gym Equipment
Now is the best time to invest in some quality home gym equipment that will last you a lifetime. Not only that it will serve you now when gyms are unavailable, but it will also benefit you later when they reopen too. You will be able to do a quick morning and evening workout on days when your schedule is overbooked and you can't make it to the gym.
You should get a pair of adjustable dumbbells and/or a set of quality resistance bands. Versatility is the #1 reason to get these, as dumbbells and bands allow you to hit almost any muscle in your body. They are long-lasting and will be one of the best fitness investments you ever made.
Later, you should look to invest in an adjustable bench. It will unlock exercises you can't do without it but will also save your home furniture from damage. If you don't have the money for a quality bench, you can buy a large pilates ball, which you can use instead of a bench, and for sitting too, which is excellent for your posture.
Look For Other Training Variables
Look to cover all muscle groups, and try to do it more often than you would do in a gym. That's because your workouts will most likely lack intensity, as you will not be able to add weight to the bar like you would in a gym.
Therefore, look to increase training frequency. Instead of training 3x per week as you did at the gym, try 5x per week, or even every day.
Also, increase the number of sets and reps, and try to go near failure more frequently, especially on bodyweight movements. Bodyweight exercises are more forgiving and let you recover faster.
Another great tactic is to cut rest times and time your exercises, trying to do more per unit of time. This will not only stimulate muscle growth but is excellent for your cardiovascular fitness too.
If you hate training at home, visiting your local park might do the trick for you. Calisthenics is a great way to get in shape, but for staying in shape too. Maybe you will find some new friends who share your interests and start loving those training bars even more.
Tip #4: Relax, Rest Adequately And Stay Hydrated
We live in quite a turbulent period, and most of our everyday activities are getting increasingly complicated with COVID-related things such as wearing masks. That contributes to daily stress levels significantly. When combined with the mental pollution that's coming from the television, it is pretty easy to feel anxious and nervous all the time, worrying about things you can't control.
Give Yourself Permission To Relax
One of the stress hormones, cortisol, has a catabolic effect on our bodies, which means it inhibits muscle growth and contributes to muscle decay. What's worse, if you are stressed while not eating properly, and not exercising, the cortisol levels will skyrocket, further increasing muscle decay. And that will cause even more stress, and the vicious cycle continues.
Therefore, your job is to relax. Even if the gyms are closed, you can still enjoy time outside, walking in the park with your family or friends. Enjoy outside activities, but also indoors too. For starters, turn off those toxic news channels!
Make A Sleep Schedule
Also, prioritize sleep! You are wondering how many hours of sleep for muscle growth? The answer is eight, as expected, and yet so many of us struggle with achieving that.
Now is the perfect time to ingrain 8 hours of quality sleep per night as a habit. If you can't do that, schedule afternoon naps, as it all adds up. Sleep will positively influence your hormones and help with muscle preservation too.
Limit your caffeine intake 6 hours before bed, and try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. This will do wonders for your productivity too.
Water For Muscle Growth
Lastly, stay hydrated. Although water isn't anabolic, staying hydrated will keep you healthy and eliminate toxins in your body. It will also help your mental and physical performance and fight stress.
Tip #5: Rotate A Caloric Surplus, Maintenance And Deficit
When in a caloric deficit, it is hard to build muscle mass unless you have just begun your gym journey. If that isn't the case, your main focus should be maintaining the existing muscle while shedding fat.
But, overweight people who don’t have enough muscle mass will want something called body recomposition, or the process of simultaneously losing fat while building muscle is possible.
On maintenance calories, you will not lose muscle mass, and you will have more energy to lift harder, which can trigger new muscle growth.
You'll burn more calories from that increased activity alone, and as your muscles grow, your relative muscle to fat ratio will be much better.
Eventually, more muscles will require more calories - you will either have to fuel them through food, or the body will start using fat stores, leading to more fat loss.
Can You Build Muscle On Maintenance Calories?
If you want to build muscle without gaining weight, another good approach is to rotate between a caloric surplus and caloric maintenance or deficit on the days you don't lift.
On gym days, consume more calories, focusing on protein. This will give your muscles more fuel to plow through a hard workout and sufficient protein to repair the damage.
Then, on your cardio days, you will eat at the maintenance level again.
But, on your rest days, eat below maintenance, as you will not have any activity. This is usually a good balance, as you won't bulk up too fast, risking to become fat, and will still be able to build muscle.
Be warned that if you decide to follow this approach, you must track calories. It is very easy to get carried away, as rotating the amount of calories you intake daily requires a lot of discipline. Therefore, try this only if you feel like you have what it takes.
Bottom Line: Take Matters In Your Own Hands
Our 5 Tips To Preserve The Most Muscle Gained In A Year When Gyms Are Closed have one point - don't wait for the situation to solve itself and things to get back to normal, take matters into your own hands!
Your job is to do what you can and not let time pass by while being idle. Even if you lose some size, that's only temporary, and muscle memory will get it back once you hit the gym. But, until then, no excuses, so drop and give me 20, soldier!