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24 April 2020

Will We Lose Our Gainz During Lockdown? The Detraining Continuum Explored

by David Barros 0

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, avid fitness enthusiasts have had to make the tough split from a place close to their hearts, the gym. No longer can we experience the glorious clash of plate to platform, the cheers as someone nails a new PB or the social banter that would run rampant in our…

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, avid fitness enthusiasts have had to make the tough split from a place close to their hearts, the gym. No longer can we experience the glorious clash of plate to platform, the cheers as someone nails a new PB or the social banter that would run rampant in our favourite iron palaces.

Alas, we have been forced to train within the very comfort of our homes and for some, with limited/no equipment at all. The harsh reality of lockdown begins to hit as people realise that the work they have put in for weeks, months or even years may come to a screeching halt because we are now stuck in iso.

Is it really going to be that bad though?

Moving on from the theatrics, there is some good news I can deliver: even though the situation is sub-optimal for most, we will all most likely be able to hang on to our beloved gains, be it strength or muscle mass (woohoo). While this may sound overly optimistic, there is research that suggests perhaps not all is lost when taking some time away from our regular gym routines. Although s*** has seemingly hit the fan, science is in fact on our side when it comes to maintaining muscle and strength during periods of very low volume training or even when not training at all.

Although these findings provide a glimmer of hope for many of us during lockdown, rest assured they should not be used as evidence to justify slothery or throwing in the towel. My hopes are that this article will ease the anxiety and concerns many of you may have and put your mind at rest over the coming months where you will likely be training at home with minimal equipment.

Without further ado, let’s dig into the research… 

Detraining & Strength

**Do not confuse detraining with deloads. Detraining is the cessation of training whereas deloads are periods of reducing volume and/or intensity to reduce fatigue and allow recovery to occur.

Well, when it comes to strength in the early phases of detraining (< 3 weeks), the decrease we see is most likely neural related, with further decreases (> 3 weeks) mostly due to changes in muscle properties such as fibre type changes and overall decreases in muscle size

For beginners, the research seems to suggest that we can take about 3 weeks off before beginning to lose significant amounts of strength. 

Ogasawara et (2013) separated two groups of untrained men into continuous resistance training (CTR) & periodic resistance training (PTR) for a period of 24 weeks. While the CTR group trained continuously through the 24 week training period, the PTR group trained for 6 weeks, detrained for 3 weeks and then retrained for 6 weeks – continuing for the entire study duration. What they found was that by the end of the study, strength gains between both groups were similar as shown below. Even with 6 weeks less training, the PTR group made similar strength gains. 

Another study in beginners, this time by Ochi et al (2018), found small decreases in strength (isometric) after 3 weeks of detraining following an 11 week training block.

When it comes to trained individuals, the research seems to be pretty consistent showing that we can hold onto strength gains from around 2-4 weeks before any significant drop offs. In the short term, detraining for about 2 weeks doesn’t seem to show much of a change as shown in Hwang et al (2017) and Mujika & Padilla (2001). Mujika also showed that strength performance in general is readily retained for upto 4 weeks in strength and speed athletes. 

When we stretch out the detraining times even further, we see a reasonably expected drop off. Mujika & Padilla’s follow up study showed force production reducing from 7% to 12% during periods of inactivity from 8 to 12 weeks respectively. A systematic review (27 studies) on rugby and American football player strength showed decay rates began to increase anywhere from 5-16 weeks after – this same study also showed 3 weeks of detraining had no impact. 

Stretching it right out, the below diagram from Bosquet et al 2013 shows a pretty neat summary of the relationship between increases in detraining time and strength levels (included athletes and non-athlete populations.). 

An older study (this one’s for the women out there), showed some pretty remarkable findings regarding detraining and strength. Women completed a 20 week strength training block, detrained for 30-32 week and then retrained for 6 weeks. What they found was that they were able to hold onto their 1RM even through the detraining period and then saw an increase in 1RM strength during retraining. Pretty neat if you ask me. 

As we can see from a majority of the strength data discussed, the general trend seems to show that decreases in strength occur after ~3 weeks of inactivity.

What if we can keep training but can only get one decent session a week in with all the crazy going on right now? Glad you asked. It seems like it doesn’t take much volume for us to maintain strength training adaptations, even if only completing ⅓ of previous training volumes. We also see elite kayakers being able to maintain both squat and bench strength across 5 weeks by just having one high intensity session per week. In soccer players, just the one ‘maintenance’ session per week allowed players to hold on to strength (and power) gains across 8-12 weeks. 

Should We Keep Training For Strength?

While the research shows that we’re able to hold onto it pretty well, given the current circumstances a lot of people may find it hard to directly perform strength training as they no longer have access to ‘optimal’ i.e. specific equipment or even the necessary absolute loads. Does this mean we’re doomed? Nope. It just means we may have to adjust expectations and alter training goals accordingly. 

For those with readily available access to optimal, you can probably just keep doing what you’re doing. For those that don’t have access to what they had pre-COVID, they may have to opt for training alternative qualities e.g. hypertrophy or work capacity, which of course will still have some transfer to their future strength goals.

Detraining & Hypertrophy 

Initially we may seem a little less ‘full’. This can be due to lower glycogen stores (meaning less water content in muscle) and therefore smaller perceived muscle size!

A single week of no training in swimmers and 4 weeks of no training in triathletes, cyclists and runners saw a 20% drop in glycogen stores. These differences may have a small effect on muscle size in the short term. While we do see quick drop offs, we also tend to see that there is a rapid return to control values in a number of studies.

When it comes to direct changes to the musculature itself, most of the research suggests it may take around 2-3 weeks of detraining. Just take into account the above when seeing muscle CSA changes as glycogen may contribute to overestimating muscle size. 

With beginners, we can go back to the Ogasawara study to demonstrate that even with 3 week detraining periods, muscle CSA (cross sectional area) was similar in the long term between groups. Shown below are the cross sectional area changes for the triceps brachii and pecs major respectively:

In more experienced lifters, we see similar figures. Both Mujika and Hwang studies showed two weeks of detraining after periods of resistance training have non-significant effects on muscle size. What Mujika & Padilla (2001) also showed was that in 2 weeks of training cessation, muscle fibre distribution i.e. the ratio between fast twitch and slow twitch, didn’t change in strength athletes. 

Fisher et al (2013) also confirms that short periods of detraining i.e. 3 weeks, does not incur significant muscle atrophy. 

When greater periods of detraining are present i.e. >4 weeks, we not only see changes to the CSA of muscle, but also greater changes in muscle fibre distribution, which may be important as it can affect overall force production.

Maintaining muscle mass

Like strength, we really don’t have to perform too much volume in order to maintain training adaptations. Bicket et al (2011) showed reducing training volumes to  ⅓ of the previous phase volume was enough to maintain muscle size. Tavares et al (2017) also suggest training once per week is sufficient in maintaining muscle mass over 8 weeks, as long as it is of sufficient intensity. 

How do we limit muscle loss during quarantine? 

While putting on muscle can be difficult, as mentioned above we don’t really need an excessive amount of training volume to maintain training adaptations. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that training becomes a walk in the park. The general consensus across the literature is that training intensity and our proximity to failure are the more critical factors when it comes to increasing, or at the very least maintaining muscle mass. The following excerpt wraps it up nicely:

“Maintaining training intensity seems to be the key factor for the retention of training-induced physiological and performance adaptations, whereas training volume can be reduced to a great extent without falling into detraining. This can reach 60-90% of the previous weekly volume, depending on the duration of the reduced training volume in highly trained and recently trained individuals” – Mujika & Padilla (2000).

Of course I think it goes without saying that there are other factors involved in how well you’re able to grow/maintain muscle mass. Protein consumption, genetics, volume and fatigue management (and more) will all have roles to play. 

Can we still maintain or increase muscle mass with low loads?

Another point I’ll make before wrapping things up is that for most people, they will not have access to high absolute loads. So can we train with low loads instead? We sure can. Like I mentioned earlier, intensity and proximity to failure is going to be the most important aspect when training for hypertrophy at home. A systematic review completed by Schoenfeld et al (2017) compared low load vs high load (<60%1RM vs >60%1RM) and found that training with low loads produced similar hypertrophy when compared with higher loads. So yes, you’ll be fine when training with lighter loads as long as you’re bringing enough heat.

Main Takeaways

As we’ve seen from the research, our ability to maintain strength and hypertrophy adaptations even in periods of low volume or even no training at all is pretty damn impressive. Is the training situation optimal for a lot of us? Unfortunately not. But we can still train well enough to make strength and hypertrophy gains, or at the very least hold on to them until things do start returning to normal. 

A reminder that most of the studies above showed what happens in periods of no training. That is; zip, nada, null, zero training whatsoever and it still takes anywhere from 2-4 weeks of no training for reversals of adaptations to start happening. Keep chipping away because in the wise words of Zyzz (RIP), “we’re all going to make it, bruh”.

To conclude, here are the main points of the article:

  • ~3 weeks of detraining still shows no drops in strength/muscle mass.
  • As long as we train with sufficient intensity, we can still maintain strength and muscle mass pretty easily, even with low training volumes/frequency.
  • We can quickly regain muscle mass and strength after periods of detraining.
  • Completely detraining won’t be an issue for most.

So keep training hard, consistently and you’ll have nothing to worry about. Adios Amigos.

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