More than ever, people are finding themselves without a gym. Most of us experienced this with the first round of shutdowns. Some of us are finding ourselves right back in lockdown, while others have chosen not to return to the traditional gym setting. Even without Covid, this is a time of year where people are kept away from the gym in general due to holidays, holiday travel, or vacations (remember those?). Whatever the reason may be, if you are a strength athlete or have physique goals of any kind, this can be stressful. We worked so hard to build these bodies, now what? Sit at home and wither away?
If you have to stop training at your current intensity, or even completely, know that muscle memory is a real thing. While we have known this for a while, there has been groundbreaking research in recent years showing genetic adaptations from training last even after a period of no training. This means your muscle mass will return much quicker once you start retraining than it did when you were initially building the muscle. While that alone is pretty cool, the research behind it is even cooler.
This 2018 study took place in seven healthy, untrained males (27.6 ± 2.4 years old, 82.5 ± 6.0 kg). The subjects were put through three seven-week sequential testing periods. First was a progressive training program where the individuals completed two lower body days and one upper body day per week. Reps were set at 4 x 8-10 and load was increased by about 5–10% when the subject could successfully complete 10 reps in the first three sets. The next seven weeks was a detraining period where the participants were told to go back to their normal routine and were allowed to train.
Lastly, they went through a retaining period where they completed the same training protocol as the initial training period with continued load progression. At 0, 7, 14, and 21 weeks, strength was assessed via maximal isometric knee extension, lean mass was measured through DEXA scans, and muscle biopsies from the quads were used to assess gene methylation and gene expression.
After the first seven weeks, strength increased by 6.5 ± 1.0% from baseline. After seven weeks of detraining, strength decreased by 4.6 ± 1.0% from where it was after the initial training period. This means strength was still increased by about 1.9% from baseline. After seven week of retraining, strength increased by 12.3 ± 1.3% above baseline. This was 5.9 ± 1% above strength gained from the initial training.
The researchers examined genome-wide methylation patterns. For an in-depth explanation of what this means, check out the original study here. However here’s all you really need to know: the researchers found the gene expression changes with hypertrophy and strength gain occurred in the first seven weeks. These genetic modifications were maintained after seven weeks of detraining. This “memory” and maintenance of these genetic changes is what leads to rapid recovery and progression of strength and hypertrophy after retraining begins.
First off, I told you this was cool. Second of all, this should put your mind at ease. While this study does not indicate how long these genetic modifications last, we can assume if there comes a week or two or seven where you cannot train, your gains will not be lost. Lastly, this should not be an excuse to not train if you have the option. If you can train in any way, even if it is to a lesser degree than you train in the gym, the loss in actual muscle and strength will be less dramatic and you will have less ground to make up for when retraining.
While I know we are all zoomed out and at home workouts might sound like a nightmare, here are some resources to reduce muscle and strength loss when out of the gym:
Try our Body Blueprint training program. Not only does it contain a 4-day, upper/lower split for the gym setting, but it also has an at-home option. So not only can you workout from home, but you have a killer program waiting for you can get back in the gym.
Easy In-Home/ Travel Friendly Equipment
–Resistance Bands: Utilize resistance bands to mimic your traditional training patterns. These are my favorite from Amazon and with a little creativity (or help from google) you can do damn near anything with these.
It doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be ideal. Use your body weight or create resistance with stuff around your house. Just recruit your muscles and keep your vision focused on the long term.
While none of us want to backslide in progress, any backslide can be temporary. Your muscles, your DNA, literally remember the changes you made through training and you may gain back any ground you lost when you start training again. We can also reduce the amount of ground we have to make up by staying active and recruiting our muscles outside of the gym. Keep your eyes on the prize and remember the day will come where you can train in the gym again.
Seaborne, R., Strauss, J., Cocks, M., Shepherd, S., O’Brien, T., van Someren, K., Bell, P., Murgatroyd, C., Morton, J., Stewart, C. and Sharples, A., 2018. Human skeletal muscle possesses an epigenetic memory of hypertrophy.Scientific Reports, 8(1).