How to deal with situations where you can’t train and why we should not worry too much

Will I loose all my progress during isolation or detraining?
Science explained and some tips to remain fit.

Everyone know this situations when you are injured or ill and can´t train or are not allowed to. This has always been a really difficult thing to handle for me as I instantly felt guilty because I wasn´t training as usual and thought that I would loose my progress and everything I worked really hard for in the past weeks. That I would loose a lot f muscle and endurance and therefore wouldn´t be able to keep up with the others anymore and all the time I had previously had invested would go to waist.

If you can relate to that than I can reassure you that none of this will happen!

I intentionally started this blog post to address situations when you are injured or need to focus on other tasks in life that make it impossible for you to train as much as you are used to. But in the current situation of the Corona Virus I thought that now this is important for nearly every athlete, no matter what you are training for at the moment. Gyms and running tracks are all closed so no training for all of us, at least not the kind of we are normally used to.

Will I lose all my progress? Was all that effort useless? and What am I going to do with all of this time? That were just some of the many questions that popped up in my mind the instant I knew that all the Gyms were closing and all training was cancelled. Everyone started to get anxious and worried, but I can assure you it is not as bad as it might seem. First of all we should be grateful for being alive and if you haven´t caught the virus yet be grateful for that. I realised that because we are now all stuck at home we start to connect a lot more to the people around us and most importantly to ourselves. Suddenly we all need to figure out what to do with all of the time that we normally wouldn´t have. I see a lot more people in their garden, planting flowers or just enjoying the sunshine as well as people going for a run because now that we know of people that are completely isolated we realise how nice it is to move our bodies outside. Now we have the time to do all the things that we always wanted to do but then neglected saying “I don´t have time for that right now”. Well let me tell you: now is the time! Start reading all those books that have been standing in your bookshelves for ages. Go on, start investing more time in the things that you enjoy.

But what about my training? So first of all relax! You are not going to lose all your progress. For beginners in strength training multiple studies have shown that detraining for under four weeks has no significant impact in the long term. The figure below shows that detraining for 3 weeks has no real difference to training continuously for 24.

Ogasawara et al., 2013 - 1RM
The Studie revied 1RM changes over the course of 24 weeks of training. The black lines (PTR group) trained for 6 weeks, then took a break for 3 weeks . The white line (CTR group) trained continuously. (2)

For trained lifters (at least 3 years) studies have also shown that

“Strength performance in general is (…) readily retained for up to 4 week of inactivity, but highly trained athletes’ eccentric force and sport-specific power may suffer significant declines.”

(Mujika and Padilla, 2001).

That means that if your are really used to strength training a few weeks of won´t lead to a massive decrease on strength. But it also shows that “eccentric force and sport-specific power may suffer” which in return means that in the next weeks when neither of us has access to the Gym we should not stress about that but rather focus on keeping our explosive power and sport specific skills like practising a lot of explosive movements or technique.

Nevertheless the loss of muscle mass is a different subject to strength loss. First of all it should be noticed that during the first weeks of detraining the muscle is going to look a lot smaller, not because of significant muscle loss but due to the fact that the muscle no longer stores huge amounts of Glycogen and the Glykogen stores become smaller. This way the muscle appears smaller than before because it does not hold on to as much water as before. (1) Furthermore a Studie has shown that:

“Trained persons performing regular resistance training are encouraged to allow adequate rest between training sessions without fear of atrophy. Brief (~3 weeks) absences from training appear not to cause significant atrophy and potentially promote greater hypertrophy upon return to training”

Fisher et al., 2013

Generally that means that if you are not able to train as frequently over a period of time you can maintain your strength and muscle mass to a certain extend. But this does not mean that you should or can relax all through the isolation period. Fortunately during isolation you are still able to do some sort of exercise unlike if you really had to have bedrest because you are actually ill or injured. That way you can still practise some body weight movement to stay fit or adapt to your current situation by using some type of resistance bands or water bottles as weights. This will definitely help you to retain some muscle mass and stay in shape which is especially important for all endurance athletes because our endurance capacity does suffer a lot more during times of detraining.

“it would seem worthwhile for the injured or less active athlete to perform either a reduced training programme or an alternative form of training (i.e. to cross-train), in an attempt to avoid or reduce detraining.”

(Mujika and Padilla, 2000a) in a study on endurance training

Another factor which we should positively take into account is the principle of “muscle memory”. During overload resistance training myonuclei seem to be recruited into the growing muscle fiber (even though some argue if they are added before or after a hypertrophy threshold – 26% fiber growth- is reached). Studies have shown that the myonuclei in a fiber segment remain the same after 21 days of denervation which proves that myonuclei are not lost during atrophy. (1)

Myonuclei are not lost during atrophy (Adapted from Gundersen and Bruusgaard (2008))

That means that you gather extra myoluclei during resistance training as shown below. As your muscle tissue grows we seem to add more myonuclei to the tissue which are not lost even if the fiber shrinks during detraining and might even remain for longer than 15 years (Gundersen, 2016).

Bruusgard et al., 2010
Muscles quickly returning to previous size levels after a detraining-retraining routine (Gundersen, 2016) (figure adapted from Bruusgaard et al., 2010) (1)

For this reason this phänomenon is called “muscle memory” because it indicates that the muscle tissue can remember former times of training and remember the earlier growth through resistance training. The idea is that you can quickly return to previous training levels and regain muscle size if you’ve been highly trained before even after a long period of detraining. (1)

Furthermore it is speculated that periods of detraining makes the muscle more sensitive to anabolic signalling. Hence, detraining or deloading might actually be beneficial to gains in the long-term (Ogasawara et al., 2012; Fisher et al., 2013; Schoenfeld et al., 2014). (1)

All in all it seems like we don´t need to worry too much about loosing all our achieved progress because or body provides us with a number of mechanisms that allow und to regain muscle quicker than previously. That said it is also important to remember that we will not loose muscle as easily as we think we do because initially what we loose the most in water and Glykogen. Nevertheless in times where we can´t train as we are normally used to we should still keep doing some sort of exercise just to maintain a certain level of fitness which will help us later to get back to or normal practise more easily. Also exercise is an excellent method to release endorphins which can be nothing than helpful in this uncertain times where we might tend to be absorbed into a much to negative state of mind which neither helps us nor the people around us.

I hope that these information where somewhat useful and helped to brighten your day just a little. If your are interested in some at home workouts or other ideas what you could do with your free time please let me know, I am happy to help ; )

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1 Adam Tzur (SCI-FIT facebook page)
Published: Jan 12, 2017

2 Riki Ogasawara •Tomohiro Yasuda •Naokata Ishii •Takashi Abe 2013


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