You've worked long and hard to build up muscle and strength. When life interferes and interrupts your established schedule -- whether it's due to an injury, a business trip or just a vacation -- you might wonder what kind of loss you'll suffer while you aren't able to make it into the gym. It's true that if you stop lifting weights you will lose muscle and strength, but how quickly it goes depends on a few factors.
Depends on Your Fitness Level
How fast you lose muscle once you've stopped lifting weights depends on your level of fitness before you take a break from working out. Chris Gilbin reports for "Men's Fitness" that just as muscles take time to build up, they also take time to break down. That means that if you were dedicated to working out frequently before your break and plan on getting back into your same routine afterward, a week or two out of the gym won't noticeably affect you. In fact, if you are extremely fit, even after a month of inactivity you'll generally maintain your strength and mass, according to a 2001 review published in "Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise." The bad news is for those who are weekend warriors or who work out less than once or twice a week. The less training you do on your normal schedule, the quicker you will lose muscle and strength when you stop lifting weights. After all, if you haven't built up much muscle, there's less to lose and the decline will be faster.
The Upside to Taking a Break
If you're not taking a break from working out of your own free will, you probably resent the time out of the gym. But your body needs a break every now and then, so there is an upside to taking time out from working out, whether it's scheduled or not. In an article for "Men's Fitness," exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise Pete McCall says that taking a break from exercise for a week or two serves as time to focus on your recovery. Don't worry if you find yourself eating more during your break, either. The additional calories will give you extra energy when you return to your regular weight-training schedule.
Once you are able to get back into the gym, you shouldn't try to pick up where you left off. In "Men's Fitness," American Society of Exercise Physiologists President Shane Paulson cautions that even if there hasn't been any noticeable muscle loss from your week or two away from the gym, there may be some strength loss. Paulson recommends taking a step back when you return to the gym to ease back into your regular routine to avoid muscle strain and possible injury. The good news is that it won't take long -- only a few days, possibly a week -- before your strength is right back to where it was before your break.
If you simply can't stand the thought of not training at all for a week or longer, you can always exercise in alternative ways to at least maintain fitness and motivation. If it's an injury that's keeping you from your usual workout, try something less strenuous but still physical like walking, biking or swimming. Check with your doctor first, though, to make sure it's OK to participate in the exercises you intend on doing. If it's not an injury that's interfering with your workout, you can still stay active even when you're not able to get into the gym. Look at it as the chance you've been waiting for to try something new like kickboxing, running or suspension strap training. As long as you're staying active and keeping your body challenged, you'll be helping to maintain as much muscle and strength as possible.