2020 has been a bit of a disastrous year so far, the most notable of events being the forced isolation and lockdown in an attempt to control and stop the spread of the novel Corona virus (Covid-19). Whilst there have been many negative effects from this, the most relevant to us as a gym community, returning to training after an extended time off is the effect on our muscles and tendons and how this may affect our own individual lifting ability and strength.
Our coaches have been recommending to our athletes, particularly those who were not able to access weights over the lockdown period, that they take time to build back up to their previous lifting metrics and for the time being work off of an RPE or “difficulty” based prescription for loading rather than a percentage based prescription (Helms, 2018)
This is short article is going to explain why.
What happens to muscle after time off?
Muscle tissue is a very diverse and remarkable tissue, with a number of roles in the body. The most commonly known is movement, for the purposes of this article we will only be referencing this function.
Before we can discuss what happens to a muscle after time off, we need to discuss what happens to a muscle following training. Put simply, following an extended period of resistance training, an overall adaptation in size of the muscle will occur, as well as the levels of fibre recruitment (how much of the muscle we can ACTUALLY utilise). These adaptations, as well as a handful of others help to increase the force the muscle can generate (Schoenfeld, 2019)
Unfortunately, these adaptations can be quickly lost if the stimulus that causes them is removed. We lose the ability to recruit a maximal number of fibres and our fibres are quickly broken down by the body to decrease their size. The overall result is a loss of strength and power.
Fortunately for us, these adaptations are “remembered” by the muscle and so occur at a much faster rate than they originally did and so after a period of several weeks of returning to training, similar levels of force production (strength) will be seen.
So, what’s the problem?
The problem occurs when we consider our tendons, the structures that connect the muscles to the bones and allow for all of that force to be transferred and create movement.
You can think of tendon like the exercise bands at the gym, some are thinner and “stretchier” than others and some feel like they don’t stretch at all. This property enables that force transfer and a number of other actions.
The problem comes in when we look at tendon blood supply when compared to muscle blood supply. Muscles are highly vascular and so receive a rich supply of blood, whilst tendons, by comparison, are relatively avascular and receive far less blood supply. The result is that the RATE of adaptation for a tendon is much slower than that of a muscle, and so, whilst the muscle may seem strong and back to its previous abilities the tendons capacity to handle the forces transferred through it is compromised leading to injury when excessive loading is repeated a number of times (Bohm, 2015)
The tendon needs time to adapt and “catch up” with the muscle, during that time care needs to be taken with loads lifted.
So, what do I do?
Take time to return to your previous levels of lifting, there is absolutely no need to rush. Listen to your coaches, leave your ego at home and put yourself into a beginner’s mindset. And focus on technique over load. Longevity is more important than performance for the majority of the population.
By Matt Gilpin – Unbound Athletic
- Helms ER, Byrnes RK, Cooke DM, et al. RPE vs. Percentage 1RM Loading in Periodized Programs Matched for Sets and Repetitions. Front Physiol. 2018;9:247. Published 2018 Mar 21. doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.00247
- Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Krieger J, et al. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019;51(1):94‐103. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764
- Bohm S, Mersmann F, Arampatzis A. Human tendon adaptation in response to mechanical loading: a systematic review and meta-analysis of exercise intervention studies on healthy adults. Sports Med Open. 2015;1(1):7. doi:10.1186/s40798-015-0009-9