Sometimes injury, sickness, vacation, or your hectic schedule keeps you from the gym. (Been there.) Here’s how to maintain the muscle you worked so hard to build during your next workout hiatus. (But don’t force yourself to do more than your body can handle — days off are crucial too.)
See If You Can Work Around Your Injury
Wondering how to maintain muscle while recovering from an injury? Consider exercising the rest of your (non-injured) body, if that’s possible. “If your left leg is injured, for example, there’s benefit to training the uninjured leg,” says David Hooper, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., an assistant professor of exercise science at Jacksonville University in Jacksonville, Florida. “It has been shown to transfer to the injured limb to some degree,” he notes. Yes, exercising one part of your body can help you keep muscle in other parts — seriously. Just be sure to watch for any muscle imbalances if you train one side or muscle more than the others.
Enjoy a Burger
You’ve probably seen creatine supplements at your local supplement store, but it’s also found in red meat. Creatine provides fuel for muscles and has been shown to be a solid option for how to maintain muscle strength and size when you’re injured, says Jeffrey R. Stout, Ph.D., professor and director of the school of kinesiology and physical therapy at the University of Central Florida. If you don’t eat meat, you might opt for those supplements.
Research shows that maintaining or increasing protein intake may help preserve muscle during a prolonged workout break since protein provides the body with amino acids, the building blocks of muscle. “Quality protein sources such as animal protein (poultry, eggs, fish, beef, low-fat dairy) and plant-based protein (soy, beans, legumes, vegetables, nuts, and seeds) should be included in every meal and snack,” suggests Arizona-based registered dietitian and nutritionist Tiffani Bachus.
How much protein do you need to maintain muscle? “Aim for 3 to 5 ounces at each meal and 2 to 3 ounces at snack time,” recommends Bachus.
Eat Slightly Fewer Carbs
Less activity should mean fewer carbohydrates: “When your body’s active, carbohydrates are used for energy (along with fat),” says Bachus. When you’re inactive, excess carbs are stored as fat. (But remember, it’s no biggie to gain a bit of fat.) Try consuming approximately 15 to 25 grams of carbohydrates at each meal and snack, suggests Bachus. Try these high-protein, low-carb foods nutritionists love.
Bust Your Butt Before Your Break
If you know you’re going on vacation or foresee a jam-packed schedule next week, push yourself more this week — if you can. If you work harder than usual, your body will need more time to recover, allowing you to build muscle during your hiatus, says Hooper. That said, don’t break your back this week just because you forsee a break next week. Being so sore you can’t walk isn’t the best way to feel on vacation. Plus, taking a break from working out isn’t a bad thing.
Picture Yourself Exercising
Exercise your imagination on your off days. In a Journal of Neurophysiology study, 29 subjects had a cast placed on their non-dominant arm for four weeks. Half of the subjects imagined contracting their forearm muscles and flexing their wrists for five seconds (without actually doing it), while the other half didn’t do the mental imagery exercises. At the end of the month, those who worked out with their imagination only lost 24 percent of their strength, compared to the 45 percent lost by the group who didn’t do the mental exercise. Manifestation works, folks!