“No matter how strong and muscular you are, when you stop training you are nothing but a bag, full of potatoes” OR “you’d better stick with the gym for the rest of your life because if you stop, all that hard work is going to turn into fat”. These are a few statements you may have heard, a hundred times or more from your fellow gym buddies. Is this one of the biggest myths you were told when it comes to weight lifting? Of course it is, so let’s find out why…
How muscles work?
Your body doesn’t produce new muscles when you exercise; instead what happens is the increase in size of the existing muscle cells, a phenomenon known as hypertrophy. Beside muscular hypertrophy, some other phenomena are also taking place, such as an increase in the number of capillaries, mitochondria and certain proteins. These cumulative processes ultimately result in bigger and stronger muscles.
Exercise or stretching is a stimulus needed for a muscle to grow. When you stop generating stimulus, i.e. stop exercise/adopt a sedentary lifestyle, you get the exact opposite effect, resulting in the marked regression of muscle mass; another phenomenon called atrophy.
How muscular atrophy occurs
You aren’t going to gain 100 pounds of muscles in a week after joining a gym, because hypertrophy is a complex process that takes time. Like muscular hypertrophy, atrophy is also a gradual process that involves a lot of changes. Following are the major changes your body experiences when you fall off the fitness bandwagon.
Neuromuscular adaptation loss
Your brain is the major controller of the body and it is connected to muscles with wires (neuromuscular junctions). As your muscles grow bigger and larger, the number of neuromuscular junctions also increases side by side to cope with the increased muscular contractions i.e. they tend to adapt themselves with increasing muscle strength.
Loss in the neuromuscular adaptation (due to diminished exercise/sedentary lifestyle) is directly linked to the loss in muscular strength, resulting in muscular atrophy. The degree and speed at which you lose your muscular strength largely depend on age, time lapse and nutrition.
An increase of one pound of muscle mass requires a higher demand of calories, approximately 20 calories or more per day. Most of the heavy weight lifters fulfill this increased demand using various carbs, proteins and fats. However, periods of inactivity also appear to result in metabolic decline because the body turns to carbs for fuel with less breakdown of fats. So losing only 5 pounds of muscle would cut down your metabolism by 80-100 calories.
Diminished blood supply
As the number of blood vessels and blood supply to the growing muscles increases during exercise, similarly it goes on decreasing with time when you are not getting enough stimuli. The number of capillaries regresses and gets adapted to the bodies new condition. Loss in nutrition due to diminished blood supply is also a big cause of muscular atrophy.
In stopping exercise, the reason some people get fat is not because their muscles turn into fat, but due to the increased stored fats as they eat too much. To avoid muscular atrophy, you need to maintain your strength and monitor your nutrition.