Most of us want muscle. In addition to looking nice, producing force and helping increase the power our body can produce, muscles are “incredible shock absorbers,” says performance specialist and neuromuscular physiologist Joel Seedman, PhD. Having muscles “helps us save our joints, save our connective tissue and protect our body.” This reduces the risk of injury and inflammation in our joints and ligaments.
Plus, the more muscle we have, the higher our metabolism runs and the better it functions, he adds. Since metabolism slows and we also lose muscle as we age, you certainly don’t want to do anything else that may cause muscle loss. So be sure you’re not doing these six things that could inadvertently sabotage your efforts:
“When you work out, you are breaking down muscle fibers, so hitting it hard every day and never giving your muscles time to rebuild and recover can be a problem,” says exercise physiologist Tom Holland, author of “Beat the Gym.” Too much intensity can also lead to overtraining, adds Seedman, who says if you experience muscle soreness for more than a day or two, you’re likely atrophying muscle and need to rest.
Cardio exercise can be catabolic, causing the body to burn too many calories and impair recovery, especially after strength training, Seedman says. “It also doesn’t seem to have as strong of a hormonal response as strength training does that helps improve body composition,” he explains. “And it can cause your muscles to take on more characteristics of slow-twitch fibers, making us weaker so we can’t handle as much weight in the gym.” Cardio has benefits, but Holland recommends at least 2–3 days of strength training a week.
Of course protein matters. Aim for 1/2–1 gram of protein per pound of lean muscle, choosing the higher end if you work out intensely. But forget the anabolic window. “It’s less about timing and more about making sure you get enough in throughout day,” Seedman says. Most experts recommend aiming for 30 grams at every meal. You also can’t ignore carbs. Pre-workout, they give you the energy to give it your all, and post-workout, they prevent your body from using muscle tissue for fuel, regeneration and recovery. Lastly, you need enough calories or your body will think it’s starving and begin to burn muscle.
It’s not just beauty rest. “If you shortchange your sleep, you shortchange your muscle,” Seedman says. “Hormonally, sleep is huge, and if your endocrine system isn’t functioning optimally, you could lose muscle. Plus you recover better when you receive a good amount of sleep.” Also don’t forget to take rest days, Holland adds. You should take at least one full day off if you work out intensely.
“Muscles don’t know how much weight is on the bar; muscles understand tension,” Seedman says. So if you load up on weight but use poor form, you won’t be placing appropriate stress on your muscles — and without that stimulation, not only will they not grow, you may also stress your joints and injure yourself. Lift properly, using a weight that’s challenging but not so hard that you compensate or use momentum.
“Muscles don’t suddenly atrophy and start shrinking,” Seedman says. “Lots of time people have telltale signs after two weeks and will ignore them because they are subtle.” If you suddenly can only do 1 or 2 reps less on an exercise than a week ago, it’s a sign you’re not able to produce as much force, which could be a sign your muscles will gradually and slowly atrophy, he adds. Let a month go by, and you will lose muscle, so go over the rest of your plan — your diet, sleep, recovery, stress levels — and figure out what has changed so you can get back on track ASAP.