“Don’t worry – the muscles come back quickly!” – Every athlete has probably heard these or similar comments from his immediate training environment after a voluntary or involuntary training abstinence has decimated your own muscle volume without further ado. Or to put it another way: The muscle loss after a long break from training has started and is not just a mental problem for the ambitious athlete. After all, rebuilding muscle mass after a long break from training requires considerable effort. Or is there a so-called memory effect that relativizes a short-term muscle loss ?
Muscle loss after a long training break
Anyone who is forced to take a long break from training due to an injury, or who cannot train for a longer period of time for other reasons, will quickly notice that muscles are an absolute luxury for the body and only with consistent and regular exercise!
After 6-8 days of non-use the muscles, the body begins to release the water bound in the muscles and to metabolize the muscular protein. In addition, new fat deposits are created. Muscles shrink, fat arises. Bad deal. Not just for muscle volume.
The muscle loss happens for the following reason:
The human body always strives for an optimal energy balance t in order to be able to obtain the highest possible energy from as little food input as possible. In a sense, this is a holdover from evolution: when there was insufficient food supply, there was a maximum efficient energy balance is essential for survival . Living beings that were less well adapted to food shortages starved to death and were naturally selected if they could not catch up on a diet for targeted muscle building quickly.
More muscles also require more energy
A muscle is built up by the body when it has to perform extensive physical work on a regular basis. If the demand on the muscle increases, the muscle must also grow – we speak of hypertrophy or muscle hypertrophy.
With larger or more pronounced muscles, the overall energy requirement of the body also increases, since the number of mitochondria increases with the increase in the number of muscle cells. These are the body’s power plants and synthesize the direct energy carrier ATP, which is then energetically devalued (“consumed”) to ADP during muscle contraction.
Increased ATP synthesis requires a higher supply of energy (high-energy substrates such as carbohydrates or fats) from food so that the increasing energy demand can also be met. Or to put it another way:
The larger the muscle, the greater the energy consumption during rest and work!
If the muscle is no longer used, destructive stimuli are set, catabolic processes begin and the muscle breakdown picks up speed.
Destructive stimuli are the opposite of growth stimuli, which are set during (muscle building) training. The body begins to remove the water from the muscle cells and metabolizes many energy-rich organic compounds from which the cells are built (this means in particular proteins) in order to reduce the cell activity of inactive cells and thus make the metabolism more efficient again.
True to the motto “What is no longer needed, just throws it out” the body dispose of the unnecessary energy consumers. Quasi an organic energy policy. The fact that one (or woman) has worked hard for it, invested a lot of money, protein powder and time and is proud of the attractive muscles is of little interest to our body.
Do my muscles break down when I use too much energy?
Fat is the only long-term source of energy for the body, and it becomes increasingly important with sustained stress. In the case of loads that last for around 45 seconds, the aerobic energy supply through the oxidation of fatty acids and carbohydrates takes the primary part in the energy supply.
This process works until the glycogen stores are completely emptied or an overacidification takes place due to a strong accumulation of lactate, which is produced when glycogen is burned actual oxidation of glycogen is thus hindered. A classic “drop in performance” occurs, which we as meticulous athletes can also recognize again and again during over-motivated training on the weight bench.
In times of acute protein deficiency, it can also happen that the body metabolizes already built-up protein structures (muscles) in order to compensate for the energy bottlenecks or functional limitations that result from an insufficient amino acid content in the blood and to be able to maintain essential metabolic processes .
In practice, however, this process only takes place in absolutely exceptional cases. The renewed metabolism of already built-up (and also free) amino acids is energetic highly inefficient and is only implemented by your body in tough emergencies that are difficult to achieve with conventional muscle building training can.
Basically, however, the oxidation of fatty acids results in the lowest energy yield per liter of oxygen. Thus, despite the high energy content of fats, fat burning is the most inefficient variant of energy generation and is also only used by the body when there is an acute supply shortage.
However, these bottlenecks can occur with dwindling glycogen supplies. The metabolism of amino acids (the building block of protein) can be neglected in the oxidative energy supply, because the amount of energy supplied is marginal here.
The memory effect when building muscles
This phenomenon describes a so-called ” muscle memory ” (English: memory = memory) of the body. If an untrained person starts intensive muscle building training, the body is initially confronted with completely new movement sequences in combination with great effort and coordination.
These processes must first be learned from the ground up. So in the beginning it is not just the lack of strength that is the cause of poor performance among beginners. The movement sequences and changes in load must first be recognized, processed and stored in the cognitive control unit behind our forehead. This learning process is correspondingly omitted when you return. This is roughly comparable to riding a bicycle. You don’t forget either. At least that’s what they say.
The main reason for building muscle quickly after a break from training lies in the processes that take place on a cell biological level during muscle building or muscle breakdown:
If regular strength training stimulates growth, cell duplication takes place in the muscle. This process is called mitosis (one cell creates two genetically identical daughter cells) and it is the reason for the growth of organisms.
During the regeneration phase after training, the muscle cells and thus also cell components such as mitochondria or cell nuclei multiply cyclically and the muscle grows.
If the muscle is no longer used, the body dissolves and metabolizes the proteins and the water from the “superfluous” muscle cells (cells mainly consist of water and proteins) and the volume of the cells decreases.
However, the cell is not completely degraded!
Among other things, the “brain of the cell”, the cell nucleus , is preserved and with it information on the cell’s former capacity and volume. If the muscle is now used again, a growth stimulus is set again.
The already preprogrammed cells that have lost their volume and strength are now reactivated and built up again at a remarkable pace. The cell doubling does not have to take place again because the cells are still there. This eliminates a second essential step in muscle building for those returning to the gym: The process of mitosis in muscle growth!
Conclusion: Muscle loss and the memory effect
This also creates the theoretical basis for the fact that returning to muscle building training after a long break with considerable muscle loss does not mean that we will “start over”.
The “memory effect” is not a myth. It enables the muscles to be rebuilt much faster after a (long) training break.
Even after a training break of several years, it is possible to return to intensive muscle building or strength training, as we can see for ourselves. Although it is scientifically not conclusively proven how long the mitosis in the cells can fall back on the original information and when this information is lost, in practice this is also not of the highest importance.
It is much more important that you have mastered some fundamental basics about physiology, training and nutrition . Without the adequate training know-how, you will spend a long time unnecessarily lifting up iron equipment that you could have invested in your retirement provision.
Do you need a guide for the targeted rebuilding of your muscles or do you want to start an effective strength and muscle building training for the first time? Then register now for our training and nutrition newsletter.