How Long Does It Take to Lose Muscle?
Table of Contents
- Why Do You Lose Muscle Mass?
- How Long Does It Take To Lose Muscle Mass?
- Who Loses Muscles Faster: Beginners vs. Experienced Athletes
- How to Prevent Muscle Loss
- Can You See or Feel a Muscle Loss?
- Special Considerations
- Wrapping Up
Stepping into the gym was all about building strength and sculpting that muscle, wasn’t it? Yet, with a vacation on the horizon, there’s that nagging concern:
Will your hard-won gains fade away?
But exactly how long does it take to lose muscle once you stop training?
Dive into this article to unravel the mysteries of muscle retention and strategies to safeguard your progress during those gym breaks.
Why Do You Lose Muscle Mass?
A common question that is asked by gymgoers is, “Can you lose your muscle mass after you gain some size?”
The answer is yes; however, it is not that straightforward and happens under specific circumstances.
Below, we discuss some of the main reasons behind muscle loss.
Physical Inactivity and Muscle Atrophy
Physical inactivity can lead to muscle atrophy, or muscle wasting, a process where the muscles decrease in size and consequently in strength.
Not exercising also leads to a decrease in myosin, which is the protein involved in muscle contractions.
Poor Nutrition & Low Protein Intake
Low protein and calorie intake are linked to muscle catabolism, which is the breakdown of muscle tissues. 
Protein is an essential nutrient to provide muscle with the right building blocks to repair and grow.
A low protein intake for your needs would, in fact, negatively affect this process as the body would lack amino acids to resynthesize new protein and hence new muscle tissue.
Vegans and vegetarians tend to struggle more with this aspect. However, they can easily reach their daily protein target by following a well-planned plant-based diet.
On the other hand, prolonged and extreme calorie deficits also have a negative impact on muscle preservation, as energy is necessary to repair and grow muscle.
As we age, a natural decline in muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, kicks in.
Starting from our 30s, if proactive steps aren’t taken, we could lose as much as 3-5% of our muscle mass each decade. More on this below.
Fluctuations in hormones, especially testosterone and cortisol, can greatly influence muscle maintenance.
A drop in anabolic hormones or a rise in catabolic ones can lead to muscle loss.
Some long-term illnesses can lead to muscle wasting, especially if they’re accompanied by prolonged periods of bed rest. More on this below.
Ironically, training too hard without giving your body adequate recovery time can also lead to muscle loss.
This is due to increased cortisol levels and decreased testosterone, leading to muscle breakdown.
How Long Does It Take To Lose Muscle Mass?
If you ever wondered, “How fast do you lose muscle?” then you are probably planning on taking some time off from exercising and you’re worried about losing all your progress.
Below, you can find out how soon after stopping a training program you can expect to start seeing changes in your strength and at what point muscle atrophy occurs.
Short-Term Effects of Inactivity: 1-2 Weeks
Can you lose muscle in as little as a week?
Luckily, you can stay off training for a couple of weeks without losing your muscle strength or volume, although the muscle might feel less toned to the touch. 
Muscle Loss Over 3 to 6 weeks
After around three weeks of inactivity, trained individuals can start seeing a drop in muscle strength.
In four weeks, they can start seeing a reduction in cardiovascular strength. 
After the fifth week, however, the rate at which muscle atrophies increases and muscle adaptations reduce. 
Long-Term Muscle Loss
If you spend over 6 weeks without training, you can start seeing a decrease in muscle mass and muscular adaptations.
This can harm your metabolism, as a reduction in muscle mass leads to a decrease in your basal metabolic rate, potentially making it harder to maintain a healthy weight.
A hefty reduction in muscle mass can lead to a series of health risks, such as metabolic impairments and an increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. 
Who Loses Muscles Faster: Beginners vs. Experienced Athletes
Both beginners and trained athletes can take up to three weeks off training without major repercussions on their strength and muscle mass.
How to Prevent Muscle Loss
You should not worry too much about losing muscle, as atrophy is a process that can be prevented.
Here is a list of physical activity and diet recommendations for preventing muscle loss.
Resistance Training and Muscle Preservation
Performing resistance training regularly is essential to give your muscles the right stimuli to keep repairing and maintaining tone and hence preserve lean mass. 
Despite all lifting being advantageous, compound exercises should definitely be a priority in your training routine due to their greater metabolic impact.
Compound exercises, or multi-joint exercises, are, in fact, those that activate more than one muscle group at once, and for this reason, allow to build muscle mass and strength more efficiently. 
The most common compound exercises include squats, deadlifts, lunges, and pull-ups.
Optimal Nutrition for Muscle Maintenance
Eating a balanced diet rich in protein and whole foods is essential to build and maintain muscle mass.
Protein, specifically, is the main nutrient you should focus on to maintain muscle mass as it promotes the repair and growth of lean tissues.
Aim to eat at least 1.6g of protein per kilo of body weight to maximize muscle retention. 
Carbohydrates and fat provide energy to perform your daily activities and training.
Therefore their intake should be calculated based on one’s needs so to prevent lean mass loss. Ensure to eat enough fats also to prevent hormonal imbalances that might negatively affect protein synthesis. 
Having a diet rich in whole foods such as grains, fruit, and vegetables is also essential to get the micronutrients required to boost health and facilitate and assist all the metabolic pathways required to repair muscle tissue. 
You may also like: Good Carbs to Build Muscle
If you train, then regular creatine supplementation can also be a great aid in maintaining muscle mass. 
Combining Cardiovascular Exercise with Resistance Training
While resistance training primarily builds muscle strength and size, aerobic exercises like running or cycling improve blood circulation and endurance. This increased blood flow delivers vital nutrients to the muscles, aiding in their recovery and growth. 
Contrary to popular belief, cardio would only result in muscle loss if you are in a calorie deficit.
Therefore, to prevent risking losing your muscle mass as you do cardio, ensure to eat adequately for your needs and aim to perform cardio training after your resistance exercises.
Here are two workout programs to consider.
In general, the more weight you use, the fewer reps and the more sets you perform. For example, the first workout focuses on strength.
That means the reps will be lower, and you should use a weight that’s around 70% to 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM).
Higher rep counts mean you can use less weight – usually around 60% to 75% of your 1RM.
Routine Example 1 – Strength
|Speed walk on a treadmill||25 minutes at RPE 5-6/10|
Routine Example 2 – Hypertrophy
|Sprints on a spin bike||20 seconds on RPE 8-9/10 and 10 seconds active recovery for 15/20 minutes|
Can You See or Feel a Muscle Loss?
Some people may be able to visually see muscle loss by looking at themselves in the mirror, depending on how much muscle they lost.
But even if you cannot see it, body measurements are likely to capture this change.
Losing muscle can also make you feel less strong, so tasks that used to be easy, such as carrying heavy shopping bags, might feel harder.
You might even feel your body more tender and less toned to the touch due to the muscles being atrophied.
There are some instances where muscle loss occurs due to other reasons, such as disuse due to age or injury.
Here you can find out how to prevent muscle loss in each of these instances.
Muscle Loss in Aging Individuals
When you get old, do you start to lose muscle more easily?
The answer is yes, as getting older leads to a physiological reduction in skeletal muscle, also known as sarcopenia.
Muscle Loss Due to Injury or Illness
Being unable to move completely due to injury or other medical conditions can lead to faster rates of muscle wasting.
In fact, studies demonstrated that keeping a leg completely immobilized in a cast for as little as five days already resulted in substantial muscle loss. 
Rehabilitation can involve progressive resistance training and functional training so to improve muscle strength and mobility.
Isolation exercises can be ideal to reduce the load on joints and regain adequate range of motion at the beginning of the rehabilitation process.
As you get stronger, compound exercises should be included to further aid strength. Once you regain mobility and strength, you can perform dynamic exercises to restore normal joints’ kinematics, endurance, neuromuscular control, balance, and proprioception. 
If you injure yourself, always ensure to consult a healthcare professional to tailor a personalized plan for safe and effective muscle rebuilding.
There are many reasons why muscle loss can occur, but there are also many ways this can be prevented. Here you can find the key points about muscle loss and prevention:
- Muscle loss occurs due to inactivity, poor nutrition, or a combination of both.
- Both trained and untrained individuals can refrain from training for up to three weeks without incurring major muscle and strength loss. After this time, muscle loss starts occurring at a faster rate, especially for beginners.
- Muscle loss can be prevented by performing resistance training exercises, eating adequate amounts of calories, proteins, and nutrients, and implementing cardio training.
- Muscle loss can be seen visually or felt to the touch, but also seen through body measurements.
- Aging individuals and injured people can maintain their muscle mass and gain more strength through tailored exercise routines and appropriate nutrition.