You may be reading this thinking: "Why would you EVER take time off from the gym?? Rest is for the WEAK. #NoDaysOff"
First off, chill.
It is true that in order to build muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus and put in work at the gym. However, there are times when getting to the gym every day is not realistic.
Maybe you got injured and were required to take time off for recovery.
Maybe a major life event caused you to take a break from the gym.
Or maybe you have found yourself int the middle of a pandemic and all of the gyms have been shut down for the last 3+ months.
Whatever your reason for taking time off from the gym, it is important to understand the science behind rebuilding lost muscle, and the steps needed to rebuild safely, and effectively.
If you have taken more than 3 weeks off from the gym, it is very possible that you are beginning to experiencing a reduction in overall muscle mass. Turn that 3 weeks into 3+ months and it is very likely that your overall muscle mass has decreased. Don't worry, there is good news!
Rebuilding old muscle is a much quicker process than gaining new muscle. This is thanks to a concept known as muscle memory. According to research, when a muscle is gained, then lost, and then gained back again, it will grow more quickly during the re-building phase compared to the initial training period from an untrained state.
The term "muscle memory" gets thrown around quite a bit, but what exactly does it mean? Obviously, your muscles do not actually "remember" things. However, as you gain muscle mass, the number of nuclei in your muscle cells increases. When you lose muscle mass, your muscle volume will decrease, but those nuclei do not go away. The muscle cells simply shrink from lack of use. Muscle memory comes into play by using the previously built-up nuclei to regain the volume lost at a faster rate than building new nuclei from scratch.
Essentially, the extra nuclei form a type of "muscle memory" that allows the muscle to bounce back quickly when you start training again.
A general rule for the timeline to rebuild muscle lost is that it takes about half the amount of time that was taken off to re-gain the muscle lost. For example, if you take 12 weeks off from the gym, a realistic timeframe to rebuild the muscle lost is about 6 weeks.
Follow a workout program
The first day back in the gym is exciting, but it is important to come in with a plan so you do not over-do it. Instead of doing every movement in the book, create a program that you will follow for the first few weeks until your body has eased back into gym-style workouts.
Prioritize warm-ups, cool-downs, and recovery
In order to re-build muscle, your body needs to be able to fully recover. This means prioritizing stretching and recovery. If you go too hard, too fast, your body will not be able to recover fast enough and the muscle will not be able to build back up.
Focus on form vs weight
With a reduction in muscle comes a reduction in overall strength. It is important to start with a weight that will allow you to complete the repetitions while maintaining proper form. This will likely be lighter than what you were previously used to lifting. Each week, slowly increase your weight until you have returned to your regular strength.
Keep it simple
This is not the time to try brand new, complex movements. For the first few weeks, it is important to stick to what you know, and what your body is good at. Start with the basic movements, and add more complexity as you rebuild your strength.
Eat to fuel your workouts
If your goal is to build muscle, you will need to eat enough food to fuel your workouts and allow your muscle to recover and rebuild. This means being in a caloric surplus, or maintenance at the least.
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