Detraining in Lockdown: How will COVID-19 affect strength progress?

Intro

Well! We didn’t expect to be releasing this detraining article under these circumstances. This situation has come as a shock to us all, and we’re feeling the hit. COVID-19 has quite spectacularly thrown a spanner in the works – the fan is truly filthy. 

Some of our lifters were gearing up to compete in spring 2020, some of our athletes were training for big events – what happens now? Has all that prep gone to waste? Should we give up on the gains? We’ve broken down some of the science for answers.

Lots of you won’t be able to train as normal due to the lockdown gym restrictions, or not having access to sufficient equipment. This is who this article is for. Stop making us jealous if you’re one of the lucky few who have amassed that tasty home gym set-up with 100s of kilos and top spec. Eleiko gear. This is a breakdown of scientific literature for those who are having to make drastic changes to their outlook on training in the era of the Rona.

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What we’re contending with here is detraining, or a forced deload. What many of us are experiencing now is some level of loss to previous physiological training adaptations due to a reduction or cessation in training. Some of us will have a few bands or light weight dumbbells, some of us will have nothing – but the main issue is that we do not have the resources to carry on in the same fashion that our pre-corona selves once did. Here we’ll address the common concerns:

-What will happen to our strength?

-Is it possible to maintain or regain these gains?

-For how long will this affect me?

-What should I be doing?

Good news

In spite of all of the harrowing scenes we’re exposed to on a daily basis, we do in fact have some positive news for you. You’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief as we answer the most commonly posed question:

No, you will not lose all of your gains!

For those of you that have spent time building on your muscular and strength baselines, you’ll be pleased to know that that investment is somewhat protected. What is clear from the literature is that it takes a very long time for training adaptations to completely diminish ¹. Your training adaptations will stay with you to some extent both after the cessation of training and also after periods of deloading. If you’ve been engaged in high intensity powerlifting (or similar) training it is likely that you’ll be able to hold onto your strength even after long periods of deload or zero activity ².

Now this doesn’t mean you’ll keep it all- some loss of strength and particularly muscle size is inevitable, but the rate at which you lose that strength is slower than the rate at which it took you to build it up³. Further to this point, you can regain the strength that you’ve lost after periods of detraining at a much quicker rate – it can take you half the time to recoup your strength losses than the time it took for the gains to diminish 3,4,5,6. 

So please don’t despair. Stay positive, stay active, and most importantly stay in the game. You will come back from whatever setbacks you face. There’s no need to talk of retirement or moving on. We’ve always known that this was a marathon and not a sprint.

It doesn’t matter what your experience level, sex, or age is; there is evidence of positive results for all athletes after sustained periods of reduced training 3,4,7. We have some more articles coming soon to bust the common misconceptions around strength training for females and the elderly but in the meantime rest assured that no matter what demographic you fall into, you can effectively rebuild your lost muscular adaptations after prolonged rest. 

Timeframes

Let’s look more specifically at the COVID-19 outbreak when we discuss timelines. Some of us are coming slowly out of quarantine settings, some of us are in areas with a long way still to go before restrictions are lifted. A difficult part of the whole epidemic is the uncertainty around timelines – we’d like to highlight the Blocquiaux and Henwood studies that analyse the detraining effect after 3 and 6 months respectively 5,6. Given the current trajectory at the time of writing, it wouldn’t be too inconceivable to presume that gyms will also be off limits for up to half a year (Correa 8 saw levels stay above baseline up to 52 weeks, we’re assuming (and praying) the reference duration is shorter than 1 year). Even on these timeframes the studies show that strength losses didn’t return to baseline levels, furthermore, regaining losses was quicker than the initial loss. The body’s ability to maintain muscular adaptations is very impressive, we can see here that the loss to gain time was 1:2, which is good news for those looking to get back to business quickly after Corona.

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Your experience level won’t affect your ability to fight your way back to your best, but it will affect what that journey looks like. For beginners, you can expect to see a large relative loss in muscle size and strength (given the smaller difference between baseline strength levels and peak performance levels). The newly formed neural adaptations for lifting are the first elements to go, but conversely are the quickest to be regained. You will need to spend more time working on the technique that you’ve recently learned but in the long-term you’ll be in the healthiest position post-lockdown for a full recovery, and will still be able to regain strength above baseline levels quickly.

Experienced lifters will see a large initial loss in strength and muscle size following the deloaded period 9. The long climb up the hill will lead to a steeper descent. Given that you have a more comprehensive base to draw from, the losses in strength from sustained periods of detraining will be minor and easy to recover from. You won’t lose all of the hard work you’ve built up over the years. You may see changes to your musculature leading to different performance outputs and larger reductions in overall muscle size, however this again can be regained 10. If you’ve been grinding for 5 years, a 4 month absence isn’t going to undo all that you’ve worked for.

So how can we make the losses as minimal as possible and the recovery as quick as possible???

What to do in the meantime

Do whatever you can!

It may seem futile, it may seem pointless, but even a little goes a long way. You may be used to squatting x2 bodyweight or benching 400lbs but even the act of dusting off the old dumbbells will greatly help to slow down the detraining process, and in turn reduce the amount needed to regain at the end of the lockdown period 11.

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Don’t turn your nose up at the people strapping themselves up with resistance bands or sweating through bodyweight home exercises. Even engaging in reduced stimulus work can help to stave off the detraining effect, even at 20%. You may have to be more creative when chasing those contractions. Heavy loads are optimal, but you will likely have to delve into the higher rep ranges. It’s unlikely that you’ll have access to heavy weights so you’ll have to increase your use of lower intensity training.

Use this time to focus on specificity. Iron-out some of the areas you’ve been neglecting in favour of your normal heavy workouts. How’s your mobility? When was the last time you focused solely on core stability? Your ‘General Physical Preparedness’ and longer workouts will improve if you have a better cardiovascular base to work from. As the skill elements are the first to go, you’ll be doing yourself a world of good by trying to keep those technique cues sharp where possible now.

This isn’t the time for excuses, this isn’t the time to give up. It’s true, we’ve been handed the biggest lemons known to man, but it’s time to make some sweet sweet lemonade.

Refs

  1. Coyle E.F., Martin W.H. 3rd, Bloomfield S.A., Lowry O.H., Holloszy J.O. (1985) Effects of detraining on responses to submaximal exercise, Journal of Applied Physiology 59(3): 853-859.
  2. Fatouros I.G., Kambas A., Katrabasas I. (2005) Strength training and detraining effects on muscular strength, anaerobic power, and mobility of inactive older men are intensity dependent, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 39: 776-780. 
  3. Ivey F.M., Tracy B.L, Lemmer J.T., NessAiver M., Metter E.J., Fozard J.L., Hurley B.F., (2000) Effects of Strength Training and Detraining on Muscle Quality: Age and Gender Comparisons, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, 55(3): 152–157
  4. Staron R.S., Leonardi M.J., Karapondo D.L., Malicky E.S., Falkel J.E., Hagerman F.C., Hikida R.S. (1991) Strength and skeletal muscle adaptations in heavy-resistance-trained women after detraining and retraining, Journal of Applied Physiology 70(2): 631-640
  5. Blocquiaux, S., Gorski, T., Van Roie, E., Ramaekers, M., Van Thienen, R., Nielens, H., Delecluse, C., De Bock, K., & Thomis, M. (2020). The effect of resistance training, detraining and retraining on muscle strength and power, myofibre size, satellite cells and myonuclei in older men. Experimental gerontology, 133, 110860
  6. Henwood T.R., Riek S., Taaffe D.R. (2008) Strength Versus Muscle Power-Specific Resistance Training in Community-Dwelling Older Adults, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, 63(1): 83–91
  7. Vassilis S., Yiannis M., Athanasios M., Dimitrios M., Ioannis G., Thomas M. (2019) Effect of a 4-week detraining period followed by a 4-week strength program on isokinetic strength in elite youth soccer players. J Exerc Rehabil.,15(1),67‐73
  8. Correa C.S., Cunha G., Marques N., Oliveira‐Reischak A., Pinto R., (2015) Effects of strength training, detraining and retraining in muscle strength, hypertrophy and functional tasks in older female adults, Clin Physiol Funct Imaging, 36: 306-310
  9. MUJIKA I., PADILLA S. (2001) Muscular characteristics of detraining in humans, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: 33(8): 1297-1303
  10. Staron, R. S., Hagerman, F. C., & Hikida, R. S. (1981). The effects of detraining on an elite power lifter. A case study. Journal of the neurological sciences, 51(2): 247–257
  11. García-Pallarés, J., Sánchez-Medina, L., Pérez, C. E., Izquierdo-Gabarren, M., & Izquierdo, M. (2010). Physiological effects of tapering and detraining in world-class kayakers. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 42(6): 1209–1214.

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