Everything you need to know about how to maintain muscle

You’ve probably heard of the phrase “use it or lose it.” That phrase could easily be applied to your muscles. Even the most dedicated gym goer has days when they are less motivated to hit the iron, or life forces them to take a longer break. But if you are out of your game for too long, there will be consequences.

Your body is resilient, but the muscle you put on will not last forever if you do not challenge it. While rest days are important for recovery, staying active regularly can help maintain your strength or physique in the long run. Muscle maintenance is not only important for maintaining your desired physique, it is also important for injury prevention and lower risk of disease.

woman resting from cardio
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To keep your hard-earned muscles going, it is important to understand the physiological processes that take place behind the scenes. Here’s everything you need to know about muscle behavior and how to maintain what you have achieved.

How to maintain muscles

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is intended to be informative, but should not be construed as medical advice. When starting a new exercise plan and / or diet, it is always a good idea to consult a trusted doctor. We are not a medical resource. The testimonials and articles on this site are not intended for use in the diagnosis, prevention, and / or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified physician.

This is how muscle maintenance works

You may be training your muscles regularly, but you still need to understand the nature of muscularity to help maintain it. The Wiley Interdisciplinary Review defines skeletal muscle as “a set of innervated, voluntary cells that exhibit fatigue with high energy needs.” (1)

When exercised regularly with progressive overload, mixed with proper nutrition and recovery, muscles have the ability to grow, known as hypertrophy. That said, there is a slightly different set of rules in play when maintenance is your goal.

Studies suggest that resistance training is beneficial for maintaining muscle and strength, which is especially important for older populations. (2) However, bodyweight exercises should not be excluded as they can achieve several benefits.

If you are not able to get in the gym or eat enough calories to put on weight, it should be a top priority to maintain the gains you have already achieved – whether you do it through lifting or exercise. More than anything else, the difference between growth and maintenance is about how you dose your training stimulus and nutrition.

Why muscle loss happens

Muscle loss is the reduction in the size of muscle fibers and can be a result of aging, lack of exercise, poor nutrition or medical illnesses. While muscle atrophy in healthy individuals is generally a byproduct of inactivity, it can also be an unfortunate side effect of specific medical conditions such as sarcopenia or cachexia. (3)

Furthermore, research has shown that muscle loss is strongly associated with greater risk of certain chronic diseases and is a reliable indicator of mortality from all causes. (4) Aging also affects muscle wasting to a great extent – after the age of 30 you can lose up to 8% of your muscle mass every decade, a process that quickly increases after 60.

foods high in protein
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While it may seem like an inevitable fate, you can get out in front of muscle loss with physical exercise and a diet high in protein. Taking your muscle strength seriously is not only important for lifting heavy in the gym – muscle mass can also lower the risk of obesity, heart disease, osteoporosis, injuries and more. (5)

How to train to maintain muscle

It is difficult to build muscle, but fortunately it can be easy to maintain it – if you do it properly. An exercise program with a focus on maintenance may look different than one for bodybuilding or strict weight loss. Whether your chosen program includes gymnastics, resistance training or both, training in the right amount combined with the right nutrition can help you maintain your breast or quad augmentation.

While it can take long, grueling hours in the gym to gain lean weight, you can manage and maintain your progress on a relatively “lighter” workout. Studies suggest that to maintain muscle, resistance training only once or twice a week may be enough. Three sets of 10 repetitions is a scientifically supported benchmark for general muscle maintenance. (6)

It is worth noting that your body, and thus your needs, are unique. If you try to keep what you have earned, your training program will likely look different from your training partner.

More advanced trainers who have been in the gym longer will probably need more work in general to maintain their profits as they did more serious work to get them. Once you find your maintenance volume, first make the mistake of more and cut back as needed over time.

Exercise split for muscle maintenance

Going into the gym without a plan is a mistake. Programs are not a uniform agreement, but there are standard practices to follow for muscle maintenance. If you were trying to build muscle, progression in weight or reps would be a big focus – however, the focus on maintenance may not require as much volume or frequency.

Fortunately, the same workout structure you use while filling up or cutting down generally works fine as a muscle maintenance program as long as you keep track of your overall workload. Here are some popular ways to organize your workout in a maintenance phase:

Body part Split

A basic division of body parts is straightforward – you train each muscle or muscle group on a specific day of the week. Body parts are popular for muscle maintenance because if you only train once or twice a week, you can hit all the major muscle groups each time.

Upper lower

This program structure divides the upper body and lower body into two separate days. This can be beneficial for lifters who may need more total volume to maintain their muscles, or who want to get some extra technical exercise even during the maintenance phases.

Push / pull / leg

This program divides push-ups, such as push-ups and shoulder presses, pull-ups, such as pull-ups and rows, and legs, such as squats and lunges, across three different days. This split provides three intense, high-volume sessions to ensure you cover your bases. However, these workouts will be more demanding and thus require more dedicated recovery.

You can also maintain the muscles by following a whole body routine. That said, splits are generally more appropriate for maintenance as they reduce the amount of time spent in the gym in general and help naturally control the volume.

Sets and reps for muscle maintenance

Once you have determined your exercises, it is time to find out how many repetitions you need to complete, how many sets of these repetitions and the weights you need to use. Since maintenance is the goal, you are typically looking for less weight and more volume.

Since you want to be smaller in the gym than you were when you built muscle, you may want to use high-volume training as a way to both stimulate your muscles and make sure you move throughout the day.

partner training for the dumbbell row
Credit: WitthayaP / Shutterstock

This means that your weight should be light enough to get you through a larger number of repetitions. For larger muscles – chest, legs and back – use a heavier weight than you would for smaller muscles such as arms and shoulders. You will also want to start your workout with compound exercises like squats or deadlifts and leave the isolation exercises to last.

For general muscle and strength maintenance, start with 70 to 80% of your max one repetition for three sets of eight or more repetitions. If you are also particularly focused on maintaining your strength, it is a smart move to kick the weight up from time to time. But to hold on to muscles specifically, you should not be afraid to train at higher rep intervals instead of laying up on plates.

Nutrition for muscle maintenance

Of course, you may be even more attracted to comfort food now than you are when you are deep inside a heavy training cycle. Keep in mind, though, that nutrition is just as important when maintaining your excess as it is when adding new muscle.

Maintaining your muscles requires enough calories and enough protein to ensure that you do not chew through lean mass during your workout. As long as you are get enough protein in and is not in one calorie deficit, you will be on solid ground in terms of muscle maintenance.

To determine how many calories you need to maintain (or gain) weight, you can check out this calculator:

The importance of recovery

For some lifters, not going to the gym can be just as motivating as going to the gym. Rest days may feel like a struggle, but they are important and you may rest more in a maintenance phase.

Recovery days can be just as important as training days because they allow your muscles to repair and help prevent overtraining, which comes with its own negative side effects. Some researchers recommend resistance training two to three days a week at 48-72 hour intervals. The time between workouts proved to be beneficial for muscle recovery and strength. (7)

It is important to note that even on rest days, adequate nutrition should still be followed, and just because you did not exercise does not mean that your body does not need the same amount of calories or macros.

So if you’re looking for an excuse to sit all day, you might be able to catch up on your favorite program, take a day off. That’s good for you.

Finishes

Maintenance is not as glamorous as putting on or losing weight. But life does not always allow for a picturesque bulking routine, or you may simply not want to change your body further.

Phasing yourself out of a weight adjustment routine and into a period of balance is as simple as adjusting the knobs for your nutrition and exercise. Get your calorie intake to match your activity level, and get used to your workout intensity a bit if necessary. As long as you keep your protein intake high and your training is moderately challenging, you can keep what you have built completely without any problems.

Are you looking for more tips on muscle maintenance and nutrition? See our other articles below.

References

  1. Mukund, Kavitha, Subramaniam, Shankar. Skeletal muscle: A review of molecular structure and function, in health and disease. Wiley interdisciplinary reviews. Systems biology and medicine. 2019; 12 (1). doi: 10.1002 / wsbm.1462
  2. Pollock, Michael L., Franklin, Barry A., & Balady, Gary J. Resistance exercises in people with and without cardiovascular disease. Circulation. 2000; 101. doi.org/10.1161/01.CIR.101.7.828
  3. Evans, William J. Skeletal muscle loss: cachexia, sarcopenia and inactivity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2010; 91 (4). doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2010.28608A
  4. Wilkinson, DJ, Piasecki, M, Atherton, PJ. The age-related loss of skeletal muscle mass and function: Measurement and physiology of muscle fiber atrophy and muscle fiber loss in humans. Aging research reviews. 2018; 47. doi: 10.1016 / j.arr.2018.07.005
  5. Volpi, Elena, Nazemi, Reza, Fujita, Satoshi. Muscle tissue changes with aging. Current opinion on clinical nutrition and metabolic care. 2004; 7 (4).
  6. Trappe, Scott, Williamson, David, Godard, Michael. Maintenance of full muscle strength and size after strength training in older men. The Journals of Gerontology. 2002; 57 (4). DOI: 10.1093 / gerona / 57.4.b138
  7. Yang, Yifan, Bay, Pang B., & Wang, Yongtai R. Effects of consecutive versus non-consecutive days of resistance training on strength, body composition, and red blood cells. Limits in physiology. 2018; 9. doi: 10.3389 / fphys.2018.00725

Selected image: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock

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