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How long will it take to regain muscle lost during lockdown?

muscles on human

During the coronavirus lockdown period, the gyms were closed and so most of us stopped weight-training completely. The two questions we’ve been asked many times are “How quickly will I lose muscle?” and “How hard will it be to get it back?”

Let’s start with muscle loss. Your rate of muscle loss will depend on: 

1. How much muscle you had gained above your natural set point (the amount you have without weight training) 
2. How much weight training you did to build that amount of muscle 

The more muscle mass you’ve gained above your natural ‘set point’ (your natural amount of overall lean body mass), the more you are likely to lose when you stop training. If you’ve only gained 2-3kg of muscle mass over the course of six months of training, you’ll likely maintain most of this. If you’ve been training for many years and have gained 12-15kg of muscle, you’re going to see a much bigger proportion (and therefore a bigger absolute amount) disappear. 

Also, the more frequently and intensively you were weight training before lockdown, the faster you will lose the muscle mass you gained. For example, if your level of muscle is where it is because you normally train six times per week, expect a faster rate of muscle loss than if you were only training twice a week. 

In other words, the more dramatic the reduction in your training regime, the faster your muscle mass will decrease.

If you have never done any resistance training, a DEXA scan is an excellent way of finding out your natural ‘set point’. A DEXA scan at Bodyscan will measure your total fat mass and total lean mass (and bone mass). While your lean mass is more than just your muscles (including organs and all fat-free soft tissue), it is an excellent proxy for your muscle because typically about half of your lean mass is, in fact, skeletal muscle.

Of course, tall people will typically have more muscle mass than shorter people, so the Bodyscan DEXA scan report provides a critical (and comparable) indicator of your overall muscle mass, known as your Lean Mass Index, or LMI. This is essentially how much muscle you carry for your height. At your DEXA appointment, your Bodyscan consultant will explain this and other indices and plot your results against those of at least 17,000 others to give you a meaningful and contextual snapshot of your natural muscle mass.

If you do not do weight training but regularly practise a sport, such as football or rugby or running, then your natural amount of muscle mass will be affected by that sport and may be higher or lower than if you stopped or switched to another sport. Read this post for the difference between endurance and strength-based sports and the rep ranges required by each.

When it comes to gaining back any lost muscle mass post-lockdown, you’ll be pleased to know that “muscle memory” is real.

The nucleus of muscle cells is responsible for rebuilding new proteins. Over time, with effective resistance training, muscle cells adapt to gain more nuclei. This allows them to produce more proteins, making the muscles bigger and stronger. 

If you stop training, your muscle mass can shrink slowly but the number of nuclei won’t change. This means the ‘machinery’ needed to build the higher amount of muscle mass you had will still be there. That’s the essence of ‘muscle memory’ and why those who have lost muscle mass find it fairly easy to regain their losses. 

If you were unable to do any resistance training at all during lockdown (and you’ve been slow to return to the gym), when you finally get back to the gym make sure you resume the same routine you were before (or, more precisely, a high-quality, optimised regimen as detailed in our free e-book Twelve Reasons Why you’re Not Gaining Muscle).

If lockdown prevented you training for 12 weeks, we’d expect it to take five to six weeks of solid training to regain your losses of size and strength. 

Although lost muscle mass can be regained, we’d advise you to do as much resistance training as you can when you can’t get to a gym. This will slow the rate of muscle loss whether your long-term goal is muscle gain OR fat loss. All exercise is good for our physical and mental health during these (still) extraordinary times and, if you weren’t aware, strength training helps to maintain and increase bone density.

A DEXA scan can show you how much muscle you lost

To understand how much muscle you lost (and how much body fat you gained) during lockdown, you will need to have had a DEXA scan at those crucial turning points – when you stopped weight-training and when you restarted. The Bodyscan Progress scan reports will show you the precise changes in total fat and lean mass between each scan, so we always recommend that two DEXA scans should ‘bookend’ a period of consistency (eg, training, rest, diet (bulking, cutting)). Take a look at our UK DEXA scan prices and book your first Baseline DEXA appointment now.

This blog about training at home would be a good place to start and has many exercises listed to help you. Stay healthy!

Archie Williams
Bodyscan Consultant