How fast will you lose muscle mass and strength when you stop working out?

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This is a question I get ALL the time from people! When many people get into fitness, they are paranoid about losing their hard gained progress. Many people who ask this are worried about losing muscle mass and strength while on summer vacation, relax! If you are worried about this, you are most likely on the verge of overtraining anyway and 1-3 weeks away from the weights is probably the best thing you could possible do. Vacation is a great time to let your joints heal and any overuse injuries subside.

So, taking a week or two off from the gym a few times a year will have virtually no negative effect on progress. Should you schedule their time off from the gym? No. Just use life’s natural surprises as chances to rest – getting mono, breaking your foot, going on vacation. You would feel really stupid if you just took 2 weeks off from the gym because it was scheduled then tripped and broke your leg on your first trip back to the gym! Dont believe in any of those stupid ‘rules’ like – ‘you have to take a week off every two months’, complete malarky. I often go years without taking a break. Because I do so much extreme cardio, I have my share of overuse injuries and I know that I can use those as my time away from weights. When I am on vacation I dont waste time in gyms but I always do my vacation workouts. So how about when you stop working out for much longer periods of time, like 6 months or a year, how fast do you lose strength and muscle mass then? It depends on what you mean by “stop working out”. I did my first leg workout in 6 months yesterday. Why did I take 6 months off from doing leg workouts? Well, lots of reasons:
  1. I was biking every day in preparation for a 900 mile bike tour in Laos
  2. I was running and biking daily in preparation for an olympic triathlon
  3. I was running and biking every day in preparation for a 600 mile bike ride
I stopped “working out” legs because I was pounding them to a pulp every day with my cardio! :) The very interesting thing was that with 6 months without lifting a single weight with my legs, I lost NO strength. Yesterday when I did my first leg workout in six months, I was very cautious and did not push it. I started very light and then just kept adding 45 pound plates as long as it felt easy. Since it was my first leg workout in 6 months, I didnt want to push any limits so kept my reps above 12. Even taking it easy, I found I was doing the same weight that I was 6 months ago! On the 45 degree leg press, I was doing nine 45lb plates per side.
So, will you lose strength and muscle mass if you stop working out? It depends on what you mean by “stop working out”! If you mean that you will be in a full bodycast for 6 months, then yes, you will lose LOTS of muscle mass. If like in my case though, you mean that you will stop lifting weights but remain very physically active then you may lose nothing! Its much easier to maintain muscle mass than it is to gain it. I often take month long cycling trips and never lose muscle mass on the trips, I just get leaner. Why? Because my lower body is being brutalized by the extreme cardio and my upper body is getting sufficient maintenance workouts with my 3x/week vacation bodyweight workouts.
In the next 9 months I have a number of even more extreme cardio events planned. I will be doing a 200 mile bike race, a half ironman, and another 800 mile bike tour. I will probably do six weeks of leg workouts before I “stop working out” again to prepare for these.