For decades, the only muscle that seemed to matter was the heart, and doing cardio was the main recommendation.
Aerobic exercise has its role, of course, but it is not enough to optimize our health and aesthetics, you need to train your strength. More and more studies show that muscle mass is not only a source of beauty, but also of youth.
Today you will understand why muscle is a life insurance, what is the maximum amount you can gain naturally, how much you lose when you stop training and how quickly it can be recovered.
The importance of muscle
Strength and muscle mass are good predictors of mortality risk , even among young people .
More muscle mass is associated with lower risk of diabetes (study), longer survival from cancer and less cardiovascular disease.
It is not only a matter of size, but also of quality. For example, fat infiltration impairs muscle function and reduces its protective role.
In this study, the quintile (20%) with the best muscle quality suffered less mortality than the others. Maintaining your muscle mass makes you harder to kill.
Aging degrades this muscle quality, but much less than previously thought. People over 70 years old who have continued training for decades maintain muscles comparable to those of young people. We don’t stop training because we get older, we get older because we stop training.
How does muscle benefit us?
On the one hand, a healthy muscle allows us to perform daily activities and helps us to mitigate shocks and falls. Muscles also stabilize the joints and the back, reducing the risk of pain and wear and tear.
Muscle also acts as a physiological reserve, and in the face of almost any operation or treatment, people with more muscle mass suffer less mortality and recover sooner.
Finally, and just like our adipocytes, muscle is an endocrine organ, and when you train it releases a multitude of beneficial compounds called myokines. Different myokines produce different effects on multiple organs in the body, explaining why sedentary lifestyles are so destructive.
Different myokines help for example to regulate metabolism, reduce inflammation, improve insulin sensitivity, strengthen bones, improve cognitive function, modulate the immune system and develop brown fat.
In short, if you don’t train your muscles you’re depriving your body of the best anti-aging treatment. And it’s free.
How much muscle can you gain?
Our ability to gain muscle mass is partly determined by our genes, but even in men with privileged genetics and rigorous training it is rare to see gains above 20 kg over a lifetime.
Proportionally, women have about the same capacity to gain muscle mass (detail), but since they start from a lower muscle level, their total gain for similar training is about half that.
As with improving any ability, the gains are much greater in the beginning, and slow down as we get closer to our genetic potential.
In the case of muscle gain, 4-5 years of good training are required to achieve 90% of the potential. After that time, gains will be slow and will require more complex programming.
Based on different studies and the practical experience of thousands of people, we could establish approximate maximum gains depending on the time of training.
What if you stop training?
Nature hates waste, and what you don’t use atrophies. If you stop training you will lose muscle mass, but all the previous effort will not have been in vain. Your body interprets that if at some point you faced a certain physical stress it is possible that you need to do it again, and maintains part of the adaptations generated.
This is why regaining muscle mass is much easier than gaining it in the first place, an effect called muscle memory.
Although multiple elements contribute to this effect, the most relevant seems to be the maintenance of the nuclei gained in the muscle fibers during the previous training.
Muscle fibers are very particular cells, and one of these particularities is that in order to hypertrophy they must develop new cell nuclei (detail). When you stop training, the muscle fiber atrophies, but the nuclei gained remain.
How quickly do you lose what you have gained?
The loss is small for the first two to three weeks, assuming you stay active, and both strength and muscle mass are regained in a few sessions. After three weeks, atrophy accelerates.
For example, this study compared the progress of two groups of young men against different strength training schedules: one group trained steadily and the other took three weeks off every six weeks of training. Interestingly, the gains at six months were similar in both cases.
In short, don’t be afraid to take a little (active) vacation from time to time, trying not to exceed three weeks. And the same with your diet.
That said, keep in mind that your muscles will look smaller in a short time, but not so much because of muscle loss as because of glycogen depletion.
When you stop training you lose muscle glycogen (study), and each gram of glycogen carries three grams of water (study). In any case, the loss is temporary, and you will recover it once you start training again.
If we are talking about immobilization due to an operation or injury, the loss is greater, but in most cases you will be able to recover your previous level in a matter of weeks.
How much is the minimum I need?
A corollary of the above is that you need more effort to gain than to maintain, and in periods where you have little time is enough with one session a week to preserve the strength and muscle gained.