Building muscle can take some time; we all know that is the case. But, maintaining muscle is much easier than building it. Why is this? We all know how much hard work it takes to get in shape, get aerobically fit, build muscle, gain strength or even reach any fitness goal. Once again, I am using GAA as the direct example simply because I can relate. Every team in the country gears up to peak at championship, months before championship begins; players are being put through such gruelling grunt work on the pitch, getting faster, learning to sustain pace, improving their aerobic capacity, raising their lactate threshold and improving the overall economy of their lunge and legs. Not to mention, the strength gains you must make in the gym on top of this, lifting heavy, lifting explosively and improving our body composition. This can all take months to build to this point before championship begins, but as soon as we reach that peak (usually two/three weeks before the first game), why is it so easy to hold that pace, hold that fitness and keep that strength even though we have taken the foot off the pedal and we are just training at a maintenance level now? This will be the discussion.
First of all, we need to understand why building and maintaining is so different. As I mentioned before, have you ever seen someone in fantastic shape, and upon talking to them, they mention they only train 3 times a week at the moment. How is this possible? Is it due to magnificent genetics, or did the person just fail to mention they trained 6 times a week for 4-5 years before that? It sounds simple, but building muscle is not all sunshine and rainbows, it takes work, consistency in the gym and adherence outside the gym. Building muscle (A.K.A hypertrophy) is a huge part of why everyone trains, to get toned, to look good, to be stronger and most people who train for performance will always have a goal of being aesthetic at some point as we are all human. You cannot create more muscle cells, but you can increase the size of the ones you have, just like you cannot decrease the amount of fat cells, but you can decrease the size of them (side note, you can eliminate fat cells with surgery). Muscle is usually built in certain areas through specific movements, if you want to increase muscle in your chest? Easy, pick a chest dominant movement, overload (increase volume as time goes on) on that movement/muscle each week and frequently train it (minimum twice a week).Think whenever you are building muscle in an area, specificity, overload and frequency are king.
Once you get to the level you want to be at, it is a lot easier to maintain this muscle, you can stop overloading and stick to your 8-12 reps or else you can drop frequency from 2-3 days a week to 1-2 days a week and still maintain, why is this? Muscle is very resistant to atrophy, so much that research shows you can maintain muscle size with training breaks up to 2-3 weeks (Hwang P.S, 2017, Department of Health, Human Performance and Recreation). But, if you are lowering intensity for this long or on holidays and plan to have no training, nutrition will be more important. If you can at all, fit in a session at some point during the week and you’re as good as gold. You do not need to train every day when you are away, but 1-2 sessions every week at this point is enough to even overload and improve. The reason muscle looks smaller when you’re not training is down to muscle glycogen being lost, and this happens quickly during a training break which is completely normal. Since muscle glycogen is glucose that is physically stored in your muscles, any decrease in muscle glycogen stores affects the size of your muscles. But, this is only temporary, once you are back training (even after 3 weeks off), your muscle glycogen stores fill up again. 1-2 hard training sessions can bring you back to ‘pre-break physique’.
As we get older and more experienced training-wise, the term ‘less is more’ comes into effect. Once we have years of training behind us, it will not take much to hold that shape, strength and fitness levels. But, less is more at this point, with age comes a lot more responsibility, workload, commitments and all of these things are stresses. As you are more experienced, get the job done with the least amount of tools.
Secondly, we must understand fatigue, fitness and deloading. As we go through a phase or a training block, two variables begin to raise, fitness and fatigue. Fitness is subjective as to what the goal is, for some it may be defined as strength and others it may be endurance, for athletes it could very well be a combination. Fatigue can be described in the short run and in the long run as the inability to sustain a given power output or speed. An example of short run fatigue would be slowing down in a run as you cannot sustain a certain speed. Fatigue in the long run is more along the lines of overtraining/burnout. Today’s discussion is more about the physiological side of things. When you begin a phase/training block and you are fresh, fatigue is not a problem. Your overall fitness begins to rise at a steady pace. As you get into the program/season, fatigue begins to increase as steady pace also, if you keep overloading your fitness trainings, fatigue will eventually grow at a faster rate that your fitness. Once fatigue surpasses your fitness levels, you could be in trouble and your fitness, recovery and performance will take a hit. We all know it is impossible to constantly improve week in week out at everything so a deload will help this by resetting the clock.
Deloading is a brilliant way of avoiding fatigue. As you train for weeks at a consistent rate where you are constantly overloading, by simply cutting volume for a week or a few days here or there, you are able to maintain fitness and manage fatigue. The goal is always to keep that fatigue at bay, while maintaining your fitness levels. It is important to understand that maintenance is not difficult and you can maintain muscle with a 50% volume cut (in running or lifting).