You Can Keep Your Muscle Under Quarantine! 15 Studies to Help Ease Your Mind

I’ve received so many DMs from people lately who are worried about losing their gains during the coronavirus quarantine. Relax, folks! Although you’ll likely lose some maximum strength, that will return quickly once you resume your normal training, but you likely won’t lose any muscle. You just have to know what you’re doing. The sorest my pecs ever get is after I do feet elevated handle push ups. Dips and handstand push ups are two additional bodyweight pressing exercises that build serious muscle. You think your back would lose size if you did chin up and inverted row variations several days a week? Hell no they wouldn’t. For the legs, constant tension high rep bodyweight squats are brutal, as are pistol squats and Nordic ham curls. Pause single leg hip thrusts, walking lunges, frog pumps, side lying hip raises, and extra range side lying hip abductions hammer the glutes. And if you think like MacGuyver, you can figure out ways to add load or make exercises more effective. For example, partner hip thrusts are great if you have someone to thrust at home. Check out below to see how that’s performed.

But this post isn’t about the practical side of things (exercises and programs) so much as it is about the literature. I spent the last week compiling some evidence in the research that should make you feel better about keeping your gains during this period of time.

Building Strength and Muscle is Hard, But Maintaining Them is Really, Really Easy

THIS classic article by Bickel et al., published in 2005, showed that 20-25 year old adults who spent 16 weeks training their quads 3X/wk in a progressive manner (they did 27 sets per week…each session consisted of 3 sets of leg extensions, leg press, and back squats) were able to continue building their quad size and strength while reducing their volume by 1/3 (doing just 9 total sets per week…3 sets of each exercise) and maintain their quad size and strength while reducing their volume by 1/9th (doing just 3 sets per week…one set of each exercise).

THIS brand new meta-analysis by Androulakis-Korakakis et al. concluded that trained subjects can maintain (actually they didn’t just maintain…they built their 1RM strength) their bench press and back squat strength by doing one set to failure with 70-85% of 1RM 2-3 times per week.

What does this mean for you right now (during quarantine time)?

Although you probably won’t have access to barbells and all of your favorite machines, and although you may lose some strength on certain exercises, you probably won’t lose any muscle mass during these times, even if you only train a few times per week with unfamiliar exercises.

Just chill! Gains will be kept

Heavy Weight and Light Weight Sets Performed Close to Failure Produce Similar Gains in Muscular Hypertrophy

THIS classic 2017 meta-analysis by Schoenfeld et al. concluded that although high loads lead to better strength outcomes and low loads lead to better strength endurance outcomes, high loads and low loads lead to virtually identical improvements in muscle mass. At this point in time, there are almost 30 studies showing this to be the case; it’s not up for debate. What is requiring more research is whether or not combining rep ranges (performing a variety of high, medium, and low reps) is superior to performing just one rep range for hypertrophy. Although a strong physiological rationale can be made, the research examining this question is equivocal.

According to THIS classic study, if you go lighter than normal while focusing on maximally activating the muscle (rather than lifting the most load), you’ll see better hypertrophic results in the biceps.

What does this mean for you right now (during quarantine time)?

As long as you’re pushing your sets pretty hard, you can continue gaining muscle during this period of time, even if you’re doing mostly high rep training and not using heavy loads. Make sure to really squeeze the intended muscle in order to achieve maximum results.

Flexing (Isometrics) Can Build Muscle Just as Effectively as Free Weights in Beginners

THIS monumental paper (I wrote about it in more detail HERE in 2016) showed that doing “air curls” while flexing hard produced similar hypertrophic (but not strength) adaptations. To elaborate, doing 4 sets of 20 curls with no weight and 30-sec rest between sets while just squeezing the biceps hard grew just as much muscle as doing 4 sets of 8-12 reps of dumbbell curls with 90-sec rest between sets in a progressive fashion starting at 70% of 1RM (study duration was 6 weeks…3 sessions per week for a total of 18 workouts).

And THIS brand new paper showed that flexing in between sets built additional quad muscle (but reduced leg press maximal strength) compared to traditional training (not flexing).

What does this mean for you right now (during quarantine time)?

Bodybuilders have long touted the benefits of posing and flexing in the mirror. Not only does it help improve the mind-muscle connection, it also builds muscle. If you spend some time doing isometrics and just flexing your muscles for 10 minutes or so a few days a week, it can help minimize losses in muscle mass during this time and set the stage for further growth once normal training commences.

Single Leg Training Can Effectively Help You Maintain Lower Body Strength

There are currently 3 different studies investigating the effects of unilateral training versus bilateral training on squat strength. All 3 of them showed the same squat strength outcomes between both groups. In other words, doing Bulgarian split squats and step ups will improve your squat strength just as much as doing squats will. Don’t believe me? See HERE, HERE, and HERE.

What does this mean for you right now (during quarantine time)?

Many lifters and coaches mistakenly underestimate the transfer of single leg training to double leg training. Why wouldn’t it transfer well; it’s the same movement pattern?! My buddy Ben Bruno only does single leg training; he never does squats but could hit a 365lb front squat (which is double bodyweight as he weighs 172lbs) on any given day. But the caveat is that his single leg training is absolutely brutal.

Now, during the quarantine you may not be able to perform heavy BSSs or step ups, but you can definitely hammer your legs. I don’t care how strong you are, there’s always a challenging single leg variation (pistols, skater squats, super high step ups, single leg box squats, etc.). Trust me, if you train hard during these times, your squat strength won’t suffer too much.

Push Ups Can Effectively Help You Maintain Upper Body Pressing Strength

THIS study and THIS study both show that push ups and bench press share very similar movement patterns and levels of muscle activity. That’s all well and good, but three studies to date have shown that push up variations transfer similar to bench pressing compared to actual benching. See HERE, HERE, and HERE.

What does this mean for you right now (during quarantine time)?

It’s obvious that push ups could help you maintain your bench press strength due to their similarity in kinematics. And even if push ups are super-easy for you, you can figure out more challenging push up variations to help you retain more maximal bench strength. For example, band resisted push ups, weighted push ups, between-bench feet-elevated push ups, self-assisted one-arm push ups, etc. If you train hard and intelligently during these times, you may be pleasantly surprised when you find yourself back at the gym and find that your bench has remained strong.

Mental Imagery and Imagined Contractions Can Help You Maintain Strength

THIS classic systematic review paper by Slimani et al., published in 2016, summarized the findings of mental imagery training. Performing imaginary workouts have been shown to mitigate strength losses during detraining in addition to boosting strength during normal training times.

What does this mean for you right now (during quarantine time)?

I used these methods while rehabbing from my glute injury last year (“The Glute Tear Heard Round the World” lol). Consider injecting some mental imagery training into your routine while you’re under quarantine. Use both internal and external imagery and go through the motions while you do it and activate the proper muscles – this leads to better results. You can hold onto more of your maximal strength if you adopt some of these strategies. See below for a visual.

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When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ After I tore my glute, I immediately did what I do best – research. As I mentioned in the last post, there are benefits to the injured limb when you train the healthy limb, and there are benefits to mental imagery training while injured. ⁣ ⁣ For rehab, I’m currently performing 5 minutes of isometric glute contractions below the pain threshold each day, I’m training the right glute 2 out of 3 days – 1 day with single-leg hip thrusts and standing hip abductions, and the next day with Bulgarian split squats and single-leg RDLs, I’m doing daily 10-minute mental workouts, and 5 minutes of self-massage. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ With the mental workouts, I close my eyes and go through an actual workout, going into as much detail as possible, and performing the exercises from supine/standing positions to make them more realistic. I go through as much range of motion as permitted and breathe just as I do during normal lifting. I’m amazed at how intense my concentration can be. At the end of the 10 minutes, I’m sweating, I’m tired, and my heart rate is up. My last “workout” involved hip thrusting 495 lbs x 10, 585 lbs x 6, 675 lbs x 3, squatting 315 lbs x 10, 365 lbs x 5, and 455 lbs x 2, deadlifting 495 lbs x 10 and 600 lbs x 1, lunging 200 lbs x 10 steps, and 45 degree hypers with 150 lbs x 20. You can pack in a lot of volume in a short time because you don’t have to recover metabolically, and the nervous system treats it as a legit workout.⁣ ⁣⁣ Envisioning from the first person leads to much better results than envisioning from the third person. Some research indicates that they cause different adaptations, so I do a little of both. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ During the isometric contractions, I utilize different stances and positions of hip flexion. I’m also walking and carrying out activities of daily living to the best of my abilities. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ My glute is healing very rapidly, the swelling is going down, ROM is going up, and every day, I’m able to do a little more. My guess is that in 12 weeks, I’ll be back to full strength. ⁣⁣ ⁣⁣ I will keep you posted along the way. Swipe left for titles of research articles. Science is F’ing awesome! ⁣⁣ #gluteguy

A post shared by Bret "Glute Guy" Contreras PhD (@bretcontreras1) on

I hope you enjoyed the article and find it beneficial for your training and mindset under these crazy circumstances. We’re all in this together, stay positive!

References

  1. Bickel, C. Scott, James M. Cross, and Marcas M. Bamman. “Exercise dosing to retain resistance training adaptations in young and older adults.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 43.7 (2011): 1177-1187.
  2. Androulakis-Korakakis, Patroklos, James P. Fisher, and James Steele. “The Minimum Effective Training Dose Required to Increase 1RM Strength in Resistance-Trained Men: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Sports Medicine (2019): 1-15.
  3. Schoenfeld, Brad J., et al. “Strength and hypertrophy adaptations between low-vs. high-load resistance training: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 31.12 (2017): 3508-3523.
  4. Schoenfeld, Brad Jon, et al. “Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training.” European journal of sport science 18.5 (2018): 705-712.
  5. Counts, Brittany R., et al. “The acute and chronic effects of “NO LOAD” resistance training.” Physiology & behavior 164 (2016): 345-352.
  6. Schoenfeld, Brad J., et al. “To flex or rest: Does adding no-load isometric actions to the inter-set rest period in resistance training enhance muscular adaptations? A randomized-controlled trial.” Frontiers in Physiology 10 (2020): 1571.
  7. McCurdy, Kevin W., et al. “The effects of short-term unilateral and bilateral lower-body resistance training on measures of strength and power.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 19.1 (2005): 9-15.
  8. Speirs, Derrick E., et al. “Unilateral vs. bilateral squat training for strength, sprints, and agility in academy rugby players.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 30.2 (2016): 386-392.
  9. Appleby, Brendyn B., Stuart J. Cormack, and Robert U. Newton. “Specificity and transfer of lower-body strength: influence of bilateral or unilateral lower-body resistance training.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 33.2 (2019): 318-326.
  10. Gottschall, Jinger S., Bryce Hastings, and Zachary Becker. “Muscle activity patterns do not differ between push-up and bench press exercises.” Journal of applied biomechanics 34.6 (2018): 442-447.
  11. van den Tillaar, Roland. “Comparison of kinematics and muscle activation between push-up and bench press.” Sports medicine international open 3.03 (2019): E74-E81.
  12. Calatayud, Joaquin, et al. “Bench press and push-up at comparable levels of muscle activity results in similar strength gains.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 29.1 (2015): 246-253.
  13. Kikuchi, Naoki, and Koichi Nakazato. “Low-load bench press and push-up induce similar muscle hypertrophy and strength gain.” Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness 15.1 (2017): 37-42.
  14. Kotarsky, Christopher J., et al. “Effect of progressive calisthenic push-up training on muscle strength and thickness.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 32.3 (2018): 651-659.
  15. Slimani, Maamer, et al. “Effects of mental imagery on muscular strength in healthy and patient participants: A systematic review.” Journal of sports science & medicine 15.3 (2016): 434.

 

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