How To Limit Muscle Loss When You Are Unable To Work Out

Screenshot 2021-04-18 at 21.20.18
Sean Wilson

Sean Wilson

Many people face situations when they are unable to train and become worried as a result. So, how can you make sure that you retain your muscle and stay in shape during this period?

For many people, staying in shape is harder than getting in shape. During a fitness journey, you can be inspired, motivated and excited when you start to see changes to your body. As a result, you want more throughout the process and you become intrigued to see how far you can push yourself.

However, there will come a time when you are satisfied with your body shape and the goal then shifts to maintaining the results that you have achieved. This requires consistency, discipline, and routine above all else, yet there will be barriers that get in the way, one of which being periods when you can’t train.

This could be for a number of reasons, such as injury, lack of facilities or equipment, or an extremely busy schedule, among others. However, if you don’t train for 2-3 weeks, you will start to see a slow rate of muscle loss. So, how can you prevent this during the period when you are not able to train? What strategies can you put in place to make sure that you stay in shape?

High Protein Intake

Protein is an important macronutrient that plays a crucial role in the process of muscle recovery and repair when you are looking to build more muscle or tone your body. It has ‘building blocks’ called amino acids that the body uses to build and repair muscles and bones, in addition to making hormones and enzymes. Protein is also essential for retaining the muscle you have already gained and can be used as an energy source.

To retain the muscle you have gained, your protein intake needs to remain high to continue protein synthesis in your body. This means getting 0.8-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, which is vital in the process of muscle recovery and repair when you are looking to build more muscle or tone your body. Having a variety of protein sources is going to be essential for keeping your diet interesting and enjoyable, as well as getting plenty of vitamins and minerals into your body. If you keep your protein intake high, you have a much higher chance of retaining muscle during this period.

Do What You Can

This will depend on your situation, but it is important to try and do what you can in terms of training and exercise. If you have a serious injury that affects the mobility of your whole body, it may be the case that you will have to wait until your recovery improves before you do a light session. However, if your injury is less serious, you should look at what you can do without aggravating the problem area. For example, if your injury is in your lower body, you may well be able to do some upper body exercises in the meantime.

If the issue is lack of equipment, you will be surprised at what you can do without much at your disposal. As we have seen during lockdown, you can fit in some great workouts with just your own body weight. If you have any form of equipment to add onto that, such as bands or dumbbells, then you can then add some more variety in.

It is very important that you assess your situation and look at what you can do in terms of training and exercise. If you can’t train at all for health reasons, then don’t, but if you can work around your injury or situation, you may well be able to fit in a good workout that will help break down your muscle tissue and retain it.

Keep Stress Levels Low

High-stress levels can seriously affect many people’s progress. They can be caused by several things, such as lifestyle, poor sleep, poor emotional health, work, and a poor diet. The issue with increased stress is that is releases high cortisol levels, which can trigger a glucose intolerance in the body, which can encourage inflammation – something that is harmful to muscle growth, retention and the overall health of your body. Some of the areas that stress can affect include your immune system, neuroendocrine system (sex hormones), blood pressure, blood glucose levels, and the increased risk of developing metabolic syndrome.

So, it is very important that you manage stress levels so that you can stay calm and positive throughout challenging life situations. There are certain supplements you can use to support lower stress levels, such as Rhodiola, Ashwaganda, Magnesium Glycinate and L’Theanine, but one of the best things you can do for your stress is work on your personal development. Understand that you are only unable to train for a certain period of time before things in your life go back to normal. Relax, see it as some valuable time off from the gym, and decide to enjoy life as much as you can. Once you do that, you will be able to deal with challenges much better, leading to more muscle retention and a healthier body.

Sleep Well

This is an area that is crucial, not only to your goal of retaining muscle, but also to your overall healthA high-quality night’s sleep of 7-9 hours gives your body much-needed rest and recovery from your daily exercise and tasks, which is also vital to progression. Furthermore, you produce a large portion of your growth hormone when you sleep, particularly in the first two hours. In order to retain lean muscle tissue and burn fat efficiently, we need growth hormones, and as your growth hormone levels decrease gradually in your late 20’s, the importance of sleep then increases.

Sleep also produces Melatonin in the pineal gland and is involved in energy metabolism. It also balances your cortisol levels (the stress hormone that is part of our survival mechanism), and your levels of your insulin (the major hormone that controls your blood sugar levels), which is vital for your body to be able to rest and recover from your activity during the day. So, make sure that you are prioritising consistent, high-quality sleep – it is a gamechanger to your muscle retention and health.

Quality Nutrition

Whilst being able to train, keep high protein levels, manage stress and sleep well over a long period of time is the most important thing when it comes to retaining your muscle, you also need to prioritise the quality of your nutrition. This involves improving your macronutrient split (hitting your protein target, adding in carbohydrates and fats) and consuming healthy, unprocessed foods.

Higher intake of protein is going to increase protein synthesis (the process in which cells make proteins) in your body, which is vital for muscle health, recovery and growth. Carbohydrates are going to be your primary energy source, so that you can be productive during the day and fuel a limited workout, if that is what you can do.

Staying away from highly processed foods is going to be important because this will reduce potential inflammation in your body, which lowers internal oxidative stress and improves overall digestion. It is also important for general health that you get a good balance of protein, carbohydrates and vegetables in your meals, with healthy fats included too – these meals will be the building blocks to you having a productive day that will make sure that you can retain muscle when you are unable to train.


The reality is that if you are unable to train at all over a substantial period of time, it is going to be very difficult to prevent muscle loss. However, there are certain strategies, such as keeping your protein intake high, working out around your injury/situation, keeping stress levels low and feeding your body with quality nutrition, that can make sure that you can slow down the rate of muscle loss, if not prevent it, so that you are in a better place to start from, once you are able to train again.

Prioritise your nutrition and recovery, keep active and do what you can in terms of training. You will then find that you can retain muscle a lot easier during this difficult period.

Photo Credit: Envato Elements

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