How to preserve your gym gains using your diet
Gyms are closing again, staying home is a requisite and training equipment is, for the most of us, limited.
Are we destined to lose all of our well-earned progress?
Well, unless you’ve turned into a statue and are now completely inactive, then the answer would already be no. Most of us have turned to training in our homes, be that with bodyweight, bands, free weights, fixed weights or a mixture of some if not all of these.
Whilst most of us may not have access to the same quality of equipment, quantity of weights or whatever other training modalities we were accustomed to, training in our homes is a great start to combating any inactivity / lack of stimuli related loss of lean muscle mass.
Our diet however may be the key to sustaining our progress. What could be a better time than now to get up to speed with optimizing our intake to support our well-earned gains thanks to this sudden increase in free time.
Let’s explore the science behind muscle and performance atrophy (loss) and then dive into how we can minimize our losses, if not fully protect and maintain what we already have (in fact, some of you may actually improve upon them with these strategies!).
How long does it take to lose muscle mass and performance?
Let’s first discuss performance. Performance may decrease following a state of complete lack of training (which most of us aren’t doing) however many of the adaptations remain. If you are still training it is unlikely that you will experience any significant losses, however maximal strength and power output may decrease (and this is simply down to lack of peak neurological stimulus i.e. if your body isn’t accustomed to producing maximally, then it takes a little while to “rewire” that peak activation again).
As we discussed earlier, as long as you’re doing something, there does appear to be a protective effect on your current level of muscle mass. This has actually been shown in groups who are confined to virtually complete bed rest. As little as an hour of very minor resistance training (which could be literally anything, as is shown in this study where they simply turned up the gravity) can preserve muscle mass.
Interestingly, studies have shown that it isn’t actually an increase in muscle protein breakdown that explains any loss of muscle mass, but rather a decrease in muscle protein synthesis (MPS; the creation of new muscle protein). MPS can be stimulated by exercise, but it can also be stimulated by our dietary intake too. In fact, optimizing our dietary intake has been shown to create a “more anabolic” environment than exercise alone!
How we can adapt our diet to most effectively protect our gym gains
The primary adaptation we should focus on is increasing our protein intake to combat any loss of muscle mass which occurs in a period of inactivity / reduced stimulus.
Dietary protein has a significantly stimulatory effect on MPS. Dietary intakes of around 1g / kg of bodyweight per day appear to be insufficient. The International Society of Sports Nutrition states that 1.4–2g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day divided in several meals with 20–35 g of protein per meal may be the optimal route to maximising MPS.
But what about sources? Well, it may surprise you to know that whey protein appears to be the best quality source of protein we’re aware of at this stage. Protein consists of non-essential and essential amino acids; basically, these are the bricks that build a protein. Essential amino acids (EAAs) stimulate MPS. Whey protein is the richest source of EAAs we know of, and thus the best quality source of protein (at least as it relates to any conversation surrounding the synthesis of new proteins). A vegan protein blend would be fine too!
Another important component of maintaining your well-earned gains using your diet is mitigating any unnecessary inflammation. Increased inflammation can trigger a cascade of processes ultimately leading in an increased breakdown of proteins. Your muscle is made up of predominantly protein and so increasing the breakdown of said proteins will then lead to a loss in muscle mass.
Whilst acute inflammation forms an important part of the hypertrophy process, systemic / chronic inflammation (which may be caused by continually elevated stress and anxiety) can lead to muscular atrophy, the breakdown of existing muscle tissue.
Whilst we shouldn’t overdo it by any means, having a diet which is richer in antioxidants and or anti-inflammatories may help stave off this chronic inflammation induced atrophy. Fruits and veggies are rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, nutrients and minerals and aiming for at least five portions of these a day would be a great start!
Another potent anti-inflammatory dietary component is omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. These can be typically found in darker coloured, oily fish (salmon and mackerel for example) and confer a whole host of other health benefits too! Here is a link to a vegan friendly option for those who follow that approach.
Whilst incorporating more anti-inflammatory foods in the diet may be beneficial, it may just as important to reduce our intake of pro-inflammatory foods. Dietary sources of saturated and trans fats, as well as excessive intake of most sources of alcohol, can have a pro-inflammatory effect. Alcohol may be potentially very detrimental to maintaining muscle mass and so avoiding as best you can would be advised!
Interestingly, studies have shown that creatine monohydrate can not only help retain muscle mass but also muscular performance and function too. Typically associated with performance increase, this opens up a whole new world of uses for this incredible supplement!
Supplementing with around 3 – 6g a day (the larger and more active you are the more you may require) would be advised and no need to cycle off or anything like that as it has been proven over and over again to be completely safe when used by healthy individuals!
So, are we likely to lose all of our gym gains that we’ve worked so hard for? Not likely no, in fact, the chances are you’ll retain virtually all of them if you keep active and incorporate some of these dietary strategies we’ve outlined; have a high protein diet, up your intake of plants and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, avoid things like saturated and trans fats, as well as alcohol (for the most part) and maybe even consider supplementing with creatine!
Stay active, keep in touch with friends and family, focus on what you can control and use this added time to add in more sustainable, health promoting behaviours to set you up for a fantastic festive season and a great start to 2021!
OUTWRK is Northern Ireland's leading nutritionist services company.
Providing research & experience based nutritional coaching for everyone ranging from internationally competing athletes to individuals simply looking to solve their dietary related issues.