Muscle lost if workouts stop?

Some very common questions people ask are:
  1. “Will I lose all my muscle if I stop working out?”
  2. “How fast will I lose my muscle if I stop working out?”

Well, it turns out that I unintentionally did a little research project on myself to answer your above questions. After six months of not working out upper body because of shoulder issues, I am finally back to limited upper body workouts. You folks who complained that my legs were proportionally too small got your way, I reduced the size of my upper body to match :) The first thing you have to define very precisely is what you mean by “stop working out” because the results will vary dramatically. By “stop working out” do you mean:
  1. Do no physical activity at all, no cardio, no resistance training, no isometrics, no nothing, feel sorry for yourself and eat potato chips on the sofa all day long. … or …
  2. Stop working out the affected bodypart but do what you can and keep a good attitude. Continue working out all the other bodyparts as well as continuing your cardio. Continue with excellent nutrition.
Surprisingly enough, the answer to how much muscle is lost is highly dependent upon this. There has been research that shows that even just doing cardio can help reduce muscle loss. Odder still, there has been research that shows a very interesting carry-over effect. If you workout your left arm only, your right arm will get bigger to without it doing anything. Obviously your right arm wouldnt get as big as if you were actually working it out, but it does get bigger. The number I remember reading is that the non-trained part gains about 10% of the muscle that the trained part gains. Still pretty incredible. Nutrition plays a huge role as well. We all know that nutrition is extremely important for bodybuilders who want to gain muscle, its just as important for injured or sick people who dont want to lose muscle. Letting your nutrition go to pot will accelerate your muscle loss. Now I mention mental attitude as well. I have no proof for this whatsoever but I suspect that a positive mental attitude reduces muscle loss as well.
Back this spring right before my shoulder problems started I did a series of articles on carb cycling and as part of this I very carefully charted my weight and bodyfat. Now remember, I did #1 above – I did everything I possibly could within the limits dictated by my doctor. Today I am exactly the same bodyfat as I was back then (7%) and I weigh 2.0lbs less. So there is your answer. I stopped working out upper body for six months and lost 2.0 pounds of muscle, that is surprisingly little! By looking at my weekly videos over this timeframe you can see that most of the muscle lost seems to have been from my shoulders which is not surprising because with them I couldnt do anything. Remember, this isnt a research study. To do this properly and come up with really accurate results would require hundreds of people and gobs of money. My personal experience just gives you a ballpark number of how fast muscle loss occurs.
So, if you have to stop working out because of injury, work schedules, family responsibilities, school or whatever, here is what you can do to reduce the loss of muscle:
  1. Have good nutrition, just as good as when you were working out, or better
  2. Keep a positive mental attitude
  3. Do what you can!!! Do cardio. Do resistance training on any bodyparts you can. Do isometrics or Flex-R-cise on injured bodyparts if your doctor gives the OK.
And remember, dont despair. Adding muscle is a very slow process but getting it back after an injury is much, much faster. When peoples legs atrophy in a cast, the leg very quickly gets back to its normal size when the cast is removed.
Note to self: add Flex-R-cise and this post to in the “Medical Problems” section. Add links to research showing effects of cardio and workout carryover effect.

14 thoughts on “Muscle lost if workouts stop?”

  1. So if you work out lower and upper body then your upper body will be bigger compared to only training upper body?

  2. thats sounds good, i was in the hospital last year having a back operation, since then working out hard first to loose pain and bodyfat, than to gain muscle,it worked out perfect, never was in such a good shape before. Before i was 6.5 feet with 216lb, now after loosing alot of fat and follow you Program i still have 205lb but mutch more visible muscle:)
    thanks Scooby for all the advise, calculators and pillow screams)

  3. hey scooby. Just a thought. Could you make a blog post about what we should do on Thanksgiving. What is your take? Is it ok to stuff ourselves for just the one day of the year, or is it not worth it???

    You still look great btw.

  4. @michael LOL! Those were all the things I was supposed to do before publishing the article. For a blog post, I start with a todo list and delete them one by one as I complete them. In this case, you see what I didnt complete :)

  5. Im a hardgainer with a fast metabolism. I did the whole sit on the couch and eat potato chips after I was layed off of work. Stopped lifting and let my nutrition go to hell. I lost almost 30 pounds in only 2 months and now I'm back in the 140lb range. How long do you think it would take to regain that much mass?

  6. >feel sorry for yourself and eat potato chips on the sofa all day long.

    This is a global trend, the food may vary, chips, ramen noodle or candy bar. It's alway junk food that are associated with self-pity.

  7. Really interesting. I've heard from a few doctors that the body is very efficient at maintaining muscle(as long as you eat right), and that to maintain it requires only moderate exercise, so even the smallest/easiest workouts will still be a massive help. Like you Scooby, just gotta do what you can and stay positive.

  8. Couldn't agree more, Scooby. I had to stop training for a month due to a series infection. When i restarted, i had lost around 15-17% of my strength. However, i regained this much more quickly than when initially moved from that level to my max. Not sure what the physiological mechanism is, maybe muscle memory, latent potenital. Nonetheless, the capacity of the human body to bounce back is amazing.

  9. @JPD I wish that were the case. Trouble is that I have been working ALL bodyparts like a fiend the last decade and havent gained an ounce of muscle, I have long since reached my max genetic potential. Its very likely that my increased leg workouts resulted in any muscle gain. Every year in the last decade I have done an equivalent leg-centric workout plan in the volleyball off season (Dec, Jan, Feb)

Comments are closed.