No Gym open?! How to prevent muscle mass loss.  

Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), many gyms and training studios are closed. A lot of us are noticing a growing inactivity, while it is important to stay active. In addition, we want to protect our build-up muscle mass. We don’t know how long the “COVID-19 lockdown” of the gyms will last, so it’s important to think about a plan. 

Decrease in muscle mass

Muscle cells can decrease in size. This process accelerates with inactivity and a poor diet with deficits. Decrease in muscle mass happens after about 2-4 weeks. This development is not very rapid at first. The older you are, the faster there is a decrease in muscle mass. From the age of about 25, the body gradually loses muscle mass. From about your 50th year of age you lose 1-2% muscle mass per year if you do not intervene. (1) This process is called sarcopenia. Muscle mass is important. Muscle mass is not only a strength supplier or a form of aesthetics. It is also involved as an internal organ in protein storage, glucose regulation, hormone balance and cellular communication. (2)

Maintain/build muscle mass

To counteract muscle mass loss as efficiently as possible, you will need to stay active to keep the muscles stimulated, but how do you do that without the convenience of a gym? When we think of training at home for building up muscle mass, where you are more limited if you only have your own body weight available, we often find that this method is less efficient. This is often true but depends on the level of training of the athlete. For progression in muscle mass growth, continuity is needed in expanding the intensity (heavier weights) and volume (more sets/repetitions/workouts). A beginner strength athlete can make good progress with his own body weight and possibly relatively light weights, a good plan and an optimal diet. For an experienced strength athlete, significant progress in muscle mass growth without the possibility of increasing the intensity (heavier weights) will be difficult. In this case, the goal may need to be adjusted for optimal muscle mass retention and vitality in the coming period (unless you plan to create a mini gym in your shed). Whatever you go for, there are a few things important anyway: a good plan, a lot of motivation, keep exercising regularly and a suitable diet.

Exercise at home for muscle mass retention/muscle mass growth

Intensity and volume

Normally, the guideline of 6-12 repetitions per set applies to hypertrophy (muscle growth). This guideline provides an efficient way for muscle mass growth if sufficient load can be given. So, it is important to look for a challenging weight. How do we do this without (heavy) weights? One option is to go higher in repetitions with relatively lighter weight. Go to "near failure" with each set. If you don’t go to “near failure” during your sets and therefore stop too early, there is a good chance that you will not fully activate all the motor units in your muscles. Just make sure you don’t do more than about 30 reps per exercise. A beginner strength athlete will get far with their own body weight, but (semi-)experienced strength athletes will have to get creative with, e.g. large water bottles, weighted backpacks, purchasing weights, having to work more with Time Under Tension (how long a muscle is under tension during an exercise), more sets and/or unilateral exercises (e.g. single leg squat).

Frequency

How often you have to train depends on the level of training of an athlete. Are you a beginner? Then 2-3x per week is a good starting point. For experienced strength athletes, the advice applies to 4-6x per week. Now we are much less active during the day. Our advice is therefore to be active for at least 30 minutes every day, in addition to the planned strength training sessions. This can be to walk around a block, a bit of cycling, getting steps at home, cleaning extensively or dancing in the living room. All movement is a bonus.

Adjust exercises

Your workout schedule may be slightly different from what you are used to. Since not everyone has a pulley or a bench press at home, you will have to be a bit more creative to replace exercises. You can also choose to purchase some materials. You can go a long way with some kettlebells, dumbbells and possibly a resistance band. In table 1 we have prepared a list for you with replacement exercises:

Table 1. Replacement (body weight) exercises

Gym

Home

Bench press

Push-ups (optional: weigh it down with a backpack filled with books)

Lat pull down

Pull-ups (optional: weigh it down with a backpack filled with books) or sliding lat pull downs – grab 2 shoes with rubber soles and pull (slide) yourself up on the ground

Leg press

Squat or single leg squat

Leg curl

(Single) leg curl sliders with feet on washcloths/towel on a smooth floor

Shoulder press

Pike push ups

Overhead triceps extension

Triceps extension against a bench or kitchen counter

Triceps cable push down

Dips or narrow/diamond push ups or or kneeling bodyweight triceps extension

Bicep curl

Bicep curl with a weighted bag

 

Eating for muscle preservation/muscle mass gain

Energy in kilocalories (kcal)

Most of us become more inactive by the day. This means we burn fewer kilocalories (kcal). Eating a little less is in many cases not wrong to prevent unwanted fat gain, but make sure you don't eat too little kcal. If you have too much of a deficit, you run the risk of losing too much muscle mass. Therefore, aim with kilocalories for as much body weight maintenance as possible or for minimal weight loss (up to 500 g per week). An estimate of your energy consumption can be calculated with various formulas, e.g. the Harris & Benedict formula. Don't forget to add the addition. The calculation is an estimate. In practice you may have to adjust the energy intake up or down. You can choose to log the nutritional intake in order to gain insight into how much kcal you consume and adjust it if necessary. The free app “My Fitness Pal” is very suitable for this. Would you rather not start with an energy calculation yourself or do you not know the best way how to organize the nutritional advice in practice? Then contact a sports dietitian for a customized eating schedule. If you are a (semi-)novice strength athlete, we recommend this anyway to gain more knowledge.

Protein

The production of proteins in the muscles (protein synthesis) is stimulated by both nutrition and training. By eating protein-rich food, you maintain the stimulus for protein synthesis. Too little protein and too few good quality proteins can lead to a decrease in muscle mass, especially in combination with an energy deficit. (3,8)

It varies per person how much protein is needed. Table 2 shows an overview of protein requirements per kilogram of body weight per day. Calculate your protein requirement and divide the total amount over the eating times of the day. For example, aim for a main meal with +/- 30-40g protein and a snack with +/- 15-20g protein. Do you find it difficult to meet your protein needs? Then consider a protein powder as a supplement. Choose a higher quality protein powder that is high in BCAAs and especially leucine (at least 2.5g per serving). Leucine appears to be a primary trigger of muscle mass synthesis and plays an important role in promoting recovery and training adjustments. (3,7,8) SUPPLEAM® Premium Plant-Based Protein Powders contain between 3.4-3.9g leucine per serving (35-40g protein powder in a scoop).

Table 2. Protein requirement per kilogram (kg) body weight per day

Strength athlete, omnivorous

1.6g-2,0g/kg body weight

Strength athlete, vegan or dominantly plant-based diet

1.8-2.2g/kg body weight*

Athletes in an energy deficit to lose weight with as much muscle mass as possible

1.8-2.7g/kg body weight (4,5,6)

 

*estimate based on omnivore guideline

 

Conclusion

If we lose some muscle mass, there is no need to think the worst yet. Many of us will quickly rebuild lost muscle mass. The most important thing for now is to stay as active as possible, not only as a muscle stimulus, but also for overall health.

Think positively and see the coming period as periodization, which will get your body back on its toes by a trip to strength-endurance, in which you exchange weight (training intensity) for repetitions (training volume). In addition, there is a lot of time to put in extra effort for your health. Keep healthy habits or work on new ones if you have the opportunity. Hopefully COVID-19 will be back under control soon and we can go back to the gyms. For now, we have a list of steps you can take to counteract muscle loss and stay as vital as possible:

  1. Frequency: plan how many times a week you will train. Preferably choose fixed days and plan this in your agenda;
  2. Make a training schedule in which you determine your exercises/sets/repetitions/rest or ask a qualified trainer to make one for you. This is not only efficient, but can also be motivating, because you have a clear plan of what you are going to do. Virtual-Personal Training (virtual-PT) is also a good solution and definitely recommended if you want to keep the motivation high;
  3. Determine how many calories you will eat and adjust for training days and rest days if necessary. Do not eat too much, but also not too little! If necessary, log your food in My Fitness Pal or another food log app;
  4. Calculate your protein requirement and divide it between your meals on the day; to meet the protein requirement, we recommend planning several protein-rich eating moments in one day and supplementing them with a high-quality protein powder if necessary;
  5. Go for healthy: Keep eating healthy by integrating lots of vegetables, fruits and whole wheat products in your daily diet, get enough sleep and work on stress reduction;
  6. Are you unsure about your diet? Enlist a sports dietitian for a personalized eating schedule.

 

Sources

  1. Buford TW, et al. Models of accelerated sarcopenia: critical pieces for solving the puzzle of age-related muscle atrophy. Ageing Res Rev. 2010;9:369
  2. Bijlsma AY. Meskeys CGM, Westerdorp RGJ en Maier AB. Sarcopenie. Op weg naar klinische toepasbaarheid. Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd. 2013;157:A5336
  3. Phillips SM. The impact of protein quality on the promotion of resistance exercise- induced changes in muscle mass. Nutr Metab. 2016;13(1)
  4. Rogerson D. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers: a review. Journal of the International Society of Sport Nutrition.2017; 14:36
  5. Phillips SM, Van Loon LJC. Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci. 2011;29(Suppl 1):S29–38.
  6. Helms E, Aragon A, Fitschen P. Evidence-Based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal international Society Sports Nutrition. 2014;11(1):1
  7. Tipton KD, Wolfe RR. Protein and amino acids for athletes. J Sports Sci. 2004;22(1):65–79.
  8. Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, La Bounty P, Roberts M, Burke D, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007;4:8.