Can't go to the gym right now? Here are eight nutritional strategies to help you keep your hard-earned muscle.
Believe me brother, I know what you're going through. You feel miserable because you can't go to the gym.
Aside from losing your stress-relief valve, you're probably experiencing a weird kind of body dysmorphia that's not unlike that of anorexics or, more accurately, "bigorexics" who constantly worry about being too small and too underdeveloped.
Accordingly, not being able to hit the gym has probably put you in one of three camps:
- Despite knowing that muscle can't turn to fat, you're convinced that it's actually happening.
- You think you're losing muscle size by the minute. You're like the Captain America origin story in reverse. Muscular Steve Rogers steps into the pod and minutes later, out steps short, scrawny Steve Rogers who gets assigned to the typing pool.
- You're bi, bi-paranoid that is, and depending on the time of day, you either think you look as skinny as one of the teenagers from almost any British Netflix comedy series, or as lardy as one of those two memeable twins who ride mini-bikes and whose respective ass cheeks nearly scrape the ground on every turn.
I'm here to tell you that you're okay; it's largely just your mind messing with you. Granted, you'll likely lose a little physique-ground, even if you're doing some smart and challenging home workouts, but there are several smart nutritional strategies you can adopt to help preserve muscle and simultaneously keep you from turning into a fatty.
Let's first confront your fears, though.
How Much Will I Lose?
We pretty much know that "mechanical unloading," a techie term for sitting around on your butt, results in a reduction in the number of satellite cells, and muscle size is determined in no small part by the number and size of these satellite cells.
Beyond that, there really isn't a lot known, research-wise, on exactly at what rate healthy gym rats lose muscle when they're not exposed to regular resistance training. The only directly relatable research I was able to find measured the effects of a paltry two-week layoff.
The lifters in this study that continued to ingest their usual amount of protein didn't lose a damn thing as far as strength and size (not so for the guys who didn't maintain their protein habits). That's great, but not much is known about lay-off periods longer than two weeks.
There is, however, plenty of research on strength and muscle loss that occurs with complete muscle disuse, like when you go skiing in Aspen, fall off a mountain, and then get run over by a Fiji-water truck.
In cases like that, there appears to be an initial 14-day "cushion" where laid-up patients are able to keep most of their muscle mass and strength, but after that it diminishes rapidly.
On average, patients lose about 0.5% of their lean body mass and about 1.5% of their strength per day (after that 14-day cushion), obviously topping out at some miserable point, but again, that's in bedridden patients – not healthy lifters who, for whatever reason, just didn't have access to a gym.
Luckily, we do at least have plenty of anecdotal and experiential evidence that tells us the loss of muscle and strength from a long or relatively long, still-walking-around layoff isn't nearly that bad.
Christian Thibaudeau tells the reassuring story of a Canadian champion in Olympic-style lifting who didn't train for 5 years because of career and family commitments. Despite that daunting chunk of time away from training, it only took him between 2 and 3 months to regain 90% of his strength.
That being said, the average lifter will probably lose between 6 and 10 pounds of muscle mass during a three-month period. Remember, though, that we're talking about a three-month period of living like a normal, non gym-going person who doesn't do any real physical work outside hauling the trash out on Tuesday night.
A person would, of course, lose much less if they did some kind of regular workout, even if it were less than ideal and involved household items like a set of milk jugs, a bowling ball, or busts of Beethoven and Mozart from the study.
Losing any amount of muscle mass, though, can be emotionally deflating, but here's where some of those studies on muscle and strength loss in people who were bedridden comes in handy – they at least provide us with some nutritional strategies that should translate to mitigating muscle and strength loss in the healthy-but-gymless.
Here they are in descending order, from least important to most important:
8 – Regulate Energy Intake
Yeah, this is a no-brainer, but probably not for the reason you think.
You of course know that not going to the gym and working out makes you susceptible to becoming a fatty, but excess energy (calories) intake does something else during periods of inactivity: It's associated with higher levels of a marker of systemic inflammation known as c-reactive protein, which affects whole-body protein turnover.
Having a positive energy balance during periods of inactivity is actually associated with higher levels of muscle atrophy. What you need to do, for the sake of your waistline and your muscles, is to optimize your energy intake. Eating enough calories maintains muscles. Eating too many calories helps break them down, in addition to pudging you out.
If you're gaining weight, you're obviously taking in too much mac and cheese or other comfort foods and your muscles will suffer for it.
7 – Even Out Your Protein Distribution
When we're working out, most of us know to evenly distribute our protein intake across our 3 daily meals (and however many additional meals or snacks we may have).
However, when not going to the gym, we may have a tendency to slip back into our old "civilian" habits, like skewing the majority of our protein intake towards the evening meal. This is a mistake. Even distribution of protein throughout the day has been shown to promote a 25% greater muscle protein synthesis response than a skewed pattern.
So if you take in 30 grams at dinner, try to take in 30 grams at breakfast and lunch, too.
6 – Put Out the Flame
If you're not working out, it's likely you're stressed out. Combine that with any nasty eating habits you might have picked up during your period of inactivity and it's highly likely your body is en fuego – inflamed.
Persistent systemic inflammation is bad news in general, but it's been well demonstrated that in conditions of muscle loss, inflammation is the main negative regulator of skeletal muscle protein synthesis.
To keep inflammation in check, eat anti-inflammatory foods like fatty fish, olive oil, green leafy vegetables, or nuts like almonds and walnuts. If you can afford the supplement route, take Flameout® and/or Curcumin.
5 – Anti-Oxidize
"Oxidative stress" is, of course, related to inflammation, but it's not the sole cause of it. Other things can cause this kind of stress, too, things like little to no physical activity, environmental crap, lack of sleep, less than pristine diet, etc.
Regardless of the cause, there's increasing evidence that oxidative stress is directly associated with skeletal muscle atrophy.
When the number of reactive oxygen species in muscle increases, it leads to DNA fragmentation and lipid and protein oxidation, all leading to apoptosis, which is the death of muscle cells. Under a microscope, it would look very much like a tiny starship Enterprise phasered a Klingon vessel into smithereens.
The recourse to high levels of oxidative stress is, naturally, antioxidant supplementation, which is thought to be a useful approach to reducing the muscle wasting associated with muscle disuse.
So eat your assorted fruits, berries, vegetables, and plant matter in general, and if you're not getting in a minimum of four servings a day, consider using Superfood (each serving has the antioxidant capability of 9 to 11 average servings of fruits and vegetables).
4 – Take Creatine
We all know what creatine does for the weightlifter who's actually lifting weights, but there's evidence that creatine also helps maintain muscle during periods of disuse or inactivity.
Johnston, et al found that when creatine was given to lifters who'd volunteered to have one arm immobilized for two weeks, the non-essential amino acid better maintained upper-arm muscle (0.9%) over placebo. Creatine also attenuated the reduction in elbow flexion strength (-4.1% vs. 21.5%) and elbow extension strength (-3.8% vs. -18.3%).
Again, this research involved immobilized limbs, so we can only extrapolate from the findings. Still, if you were taking Micronized Creatine before your layoff, you should think about using it during your layoff.
It has plenty of healthful attributes and, at the very least, it engorges your muscle cells with fluid, giving at least the cosmetic look of someone who hasn't missed any workouts.
3 – Keep Levels of T High or Maybe Even Use Steroids
Stress reduces testosterone levels, as does inactivity. As testosterone levels decline, so do levels of muscle protein synthesis.
If that happens, it may be time to bring in the heavy guns. Maybe you're in a position where you've managed to stockpile some of your testosterone replacement meds. Maybe you've got an extra box of packets, an extra multi-dose pump, or an extra vial of injectable T in your medicine cabinet.
You might even have a stash of anabolic steroids hidden in your underwear drawer, waiting for the time you decide to do a cycle. It might be counter-intuitive, but now may be the time for that cycle; now may be the time to slather on a little more testosterone gel or suck a bit more injectable T up into your syringe.
It's one of the surest ways to maintain your muscle mass and there are dozens of research papers to back up that strategy (not many in recent times, though), although the vast majority of those studies focused on people suffering from some horrible medical condition where atrophy was a side effect.
If none of those approaches are feasible, at least make sure your testosterone levels are up to normal or, if possible, slightly elevated. If you suspect that your crankcase is low because of your current circumstances, consider using the testosterone-booster Alpha Male®.
2 – Take Leucine In-Between Meals
This branched-chain amino acid has been shown in multiple studies to preserve muscle mass, strength, and endurance in bed rest patients.
Leucine is known as a "nutrient signal" as it reduces muscle protein breakdown while stimulating muscle protein synthesis. It does this by signaling the mTOR pathway, along with other signaling pathways. Both are known to become resistant to leucine in cases of chronic inflammation or oxidative stress, conditions which are common with immobilization or disuse.
Just a couple of grams can provide an anabolic boost in-between meals where you might otherwise be shorting yourself on protein. Taking it with all 8 essential amino acids in a product like BCAA Peptides will further help curb muscle loss.
1 – Meet Your Protein Requirements Every Day
One of the problems with disuse of muscles is that it induces anabolic resistance, which blunts the protein synthesis response to protein ingestion. That makes it paramount that you keep protein levels adequate, if not high.
If you were taking 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram a day before your layoff, keep taking at least 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram a day during your layoff. You can get that amount of protein through whole food, but in doing so, there's the possibility that you exceed your daily energy intake requirements, the danger of which was laid out earlier.
A good option, of course, is to use a micellar casein product like Metabolic Drive® that allows you to easily take in precise amounts of high-quality protein without any superfluous calories.
This Too Shall Pass
You might have noticed that most of the nutritional strategies I listed for preventing muscle loss from not working out – or not working out as hard or as often as you normally do – are a lot like those you should use for when you are working out hard and often.
That shouldn't be too much of a surprise; muscle is muscle. It just needs a little more of everything when you're working out.
But, even if you do lose a little size during your hiatus from the gym, recognize that when you do go back, you'll be healed up, fired up, and ready to go. You'll recoup your muscle losses quickly.
In the meantime, maybe think about what you want to do when you get back to the gym. In a way, it's like starting over. Personally, there were plenty of times over the years when I'd say to myself, "Man, if I were starting over and I knew then what I know now, I'd do things a lot differently."
You must have said the same thing yourself at some point. If you did, this is your chance to start over and do things right. Toss out stupid programs and exercises. Follow a plan. Do more deadlifts and fewer curls. Do the smart nutritional stuff.
You know, have a plan.
- Arny Ferrando, et al. "EAA supplementation to increase nitrogen intake improves muscle function during bed rest in the elderly," Clinical Nutrition, Volume 29, Issue 1, February 2010, pages 18-23.
- Elfego Galvan, Emily Arentson-Lantz, Séverine Lamon, and Douglas Paddon-Jones "Protecting Skeletal Muscle with Protein and Amino Acid during Periods of Disuse," Nutrients. 2016 Jul; 8(7): 404.
- Hugues Magne, et al, "Nutritional strategies to counteract muscle atrophy caused by disuse and to improve recovery," Nutrition Research Reviews, Volume 26, Issue 2, December 2013, pp. 149-165.
- Adam Johnston, et al. "Effect of Creatine Supplementation During Cast-Induced Immobilization on the Preservation of Muscle Mass, Strength, and Endurance," The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23 (1), 116-120, Jan 2009.
- Mettler S, Mitchell N, Tipton KD, "Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes." Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 Feb;42(2):326-37.
- Phillips, SM, Glover, EI & Rennie, MJ, "Alterations of protein turnover underlying disuse atrophy in human skeletal muscle" J Appl Physiol 107, 2009, 645-654.