If you’re like many in the strength community, you’re without your gym this week. And suddenly, you’re trying to create some semblance of normal at home. It’s a time to curb expectations and do the best we can with what we’ve got. Of course, maintaining what you’ve got is key
Learning to maintain muscle mass is a skill that can benefit us over a lifetime. While a pandemic is hopefully the once-in-a-lifetime exception, events like injuries and babies can also run the gains train off track. There’s also that pesky aging thing that can take 3 to 5 percent of our muscle mass each decade. So how do we hang on to the gains when the going gets rough?
Let’s get into a little physiology. While there are three types of muscles in the human body, we’re going to focus on skeletal muscle – those that give us shape and move our limbs and joints. Skeletal muscles are made up of individual muscle fibers. Muscles generally grow when these fibers increase in diameter or length. The body knows to increase muscle fiber length or width when they experience enough stress that they split or experience tension — this is you moving heavy objects (or yourself) through space.
So the muscle wall needs more brick and mortar, and it can only rebuild if supplies are readily available. Cue: nutritional protein. Protein you eat is made up of amino acids which become the building blocks for muscle fibers. Muscle growth can only occur if the body is building muscle faster than it breaks down.
While your body is constantly breaking down and repairing cells of all kinds, research shows muscle synthesis potential is at its peak following strenuous exercise. Generally, you have a 24-48 hour timeframe after resistance exercise to make up for the muscle you broke down during exercise, so protein intake during this timeframe is key.
Muscle growth happens when there is more muscle synthesis than breakdown. So it follows, if there is breakdown in muscle fibers due to daily wear and tear (exercise induced or simply hauling your kids from one room to another), and there aren’t enough supplies to repair and further build the muscle wall, then the muscle remains broken down. You’ve likely heard the term atrophy – it usually results more from a lack of available protein, and therefore amino acids, in the body than reduction in training.
Energy balance is mission critical to maintaining your muscle mass. Some research suggests during times of inactivity, we should be taking in even MORE protein, as this is a time for the body to truly recover and repair. But at the very least, protein intake should remain consistent to maintain muscle mass.
Think of it this way: If your body is a racecar, protein is what’s keeping the engine maintained, not the actual fuel that keeps it running. Remember, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel for exercise. If you’re dropping training volume for whatever reason, you’ll be needing less fuel for the day’s journey – but you still need to maintain your engine when the checkered flag drops again.
You’re right! And truly, pounds of chicken and giant steaks probably don’t sound great when training volume is lower than usual. And, if you’re helping feed a family or making sure organized sports teams are staying well and fed during this time, you’re looking for easy options to spread protein intake throughout the day. This might involve pairing typical sources (meats and whey supplements) with some complementary, balanced foods that contain an extra punch of protein.
Let’s think about:
- Sweet potatoes: 4g protein in a cup
- Artichoke hearts: 4g protein in a cup — bonus, they usually come canned!
- Spinach: 6g protein in a cooked cup. Popeye don’t lie.
- Whole wheat pasta: 7.5g protein a cooked cup.
- Peas: 8g protein in a cooked cup. And you can find these dried, frozen or canned
- Hemp seeds: 13g protein in ¼ cup. Weird? Maybe. On the shelf? Probably.
- Spirulina: 4g protein in a tablespoon.
- Nutritional yeast: 9g protein in two tablespoons. It makes a great cheese replacement!
- Wild rice: 7g in a cup. Takes longer to cook, but you’ve got nothing but time on your hands now, right?
- Your body probably needs some time to recover anyway. Embrace this time to deload, but stay active.
- If you maintain your protein intake, you won’t lose muscle mass. Stay energy balanced.
- No chicken? No supps? No problem. Get creative and strategic with your protein sources, and blend in some new players in your nutritional game.