Muscle atrophy is something that most people want to avoid – especially bodybuilders. However, what is muscle atrophy exactly, and why is it so important to stave off?
Muscle deterioration (also referred to as muscle wasting) is called atrophy and there are two types in particular. Disuse muscle atrophy occurs when, as the name implies, your muscles shrink due to long(-ish) periods of inactivity or a severe lack of exercise.
Not only can this lead to lower levels of strength and size, but it can also open you up to various heart-related health risks. This is because the heart is a muscle, and therefore is as susceptible to disuse atrophy as your biceps or quads. The more sedentary you are, the less the heart is forced to work, allowing atrophy to occur.
The second type is called neurogenic muscle atrophy, which is when you suffer from some sort of debilitating disease that affects nerve endings. When your nerves no longer function properly, signals sent from your brain via your central nervous system can’t be received by the muscles. Therefore, muscles can’t be used properly and/or as readily. Typical causes can include strokes, multiple sclerorsis, or Lou Gherig’s disease.
Outside of living a basic healthy lifestyle, there’s not a lot you can do to prevent neurogenic muscle atrophy. As it’s a byproduct of many possible diseases, keeping yourself as healthy as possible is really all you can do. And should you suffer one of these afflictions, obviously get under the care of a qualified medical professional.
On the other hand, disuse muscle atrophy is something you have complete control over. While it may seem simplistic to regurgitate the usual cliché of “use it or lose it”, it’s still sound advice. How much “use it” you have to do before you “lose it”, is going to depend on your current physique, though.
For instance, your everyday gym goer may not start losing muscle mass/quality as quickly as an elite bodybuilder because they don’t have as much muscle to lose. They can also get away with doing a more basic exercise program, where the bodybuilder would have to stick to a more involved and intense routine.
However, the bodybuilder can more easily remain in shape than the average gym goer. If they quit training, they may not maintain their physique 100%, but because they’re starting out in so much better shape, it would take them longer to end up worse off than your “regular Joe”.
In other words, if “Joe Average” and “Joe Bodybuilder” both start being sedentary at the same time, Joe Bodybuilder will experience atrophy quicker because he has more muscle and strength to lose. However, because he does have more muscle and strength, he’ll still stay healthier than Joe Average over a longer period of time. Read our article on ‘how to avoid muscle atrophy on vacation‘ here.
How fast disuse muscle atrophy starts to occur and how much muscle you lose can vary greatly depending on your level of experience, training history, how strong you are, how much muscle you have, and so on. Diet, recovery, supplement/performance enhancing drug use, and more also play roles. That said, one thing seems to speed up this type of atrophy across the board is aging.
A study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise compared a group of 60-75 year old adults with another group of 20-35 year olds for nearly a year. While the older group maintained strength as well as the younger group (since strength is as much about CNS efficiency as it is muscle mass), they did experience atrophy much more quickly and easily.
Over the same period of reduced activity, the older group lost as much as 2.5% more muscle than their younger counterparts. Researchers also found that the older folks had to train more often in order to keep this from occurring.
When all is said and done, if you don’t want to suffer muscle atrophy, then your best bet is still to just continue being active. The better your physique, the more you’re obviously going to have to do to maintain it, but the better shape you’ll also be in longer. The older you get, you’ll want to bump up training frequency, even if your overall volume doesn’t significantly increase.
Other than that, just use your head. If you’re going to go more than a few weeks without training, or training at a much reduced volume or intensity level, then don’t be surprised if a little bit of muscle shrinkage occurs. Instead, realize that once you begin training regularly again, you can get that muscle back. Also keep in mind that how long it takes to get it back will depend on what kind of shape you were in before hand, as well as how long you went without training.