This is not a theoretical precautionary tale intended to trigger your imagination into wondering what it would be like if someone else’s problems were your own. This is real, unbridled, serious insight into the power of inactivity. This is the story of how a man who had never been out of shape, who had never gone more than a 1-week vacation without exercising, who literally was in the best shape of his life at age 34 suddenly found himself in the worst shape of his life at age 35. Thanks to the CoVid-19 pandemic, this relatively young man, a personal trainer no less, went from a 175lb lean athlete to a 200lb achey sack of sedentary sadness.
In case it was not obvious, that young man is me, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I was in the absolute best shape of my life just a few months before the pandemic started. I can still remember feeling something akin to lightening in my legs when I would row during my CrossFit workouts. I’d never felt that before. I’d started doing CrossFit in July 2019 and by that November I couldn’t believe how strong, fast, energetic and athletic I felt. I had never exercised at such high intensity before and I’m still amazed and forever grateful that circumstances pushed me in CrossFit’s direction. I was lifting more than I ever had, running the fastest I had since my early 20’s, and all while having a baby and starting grad school.
Let’s pause there and talk about a few facts of atrophy. Then we will pick back up where things started to go South for me.
Facts About Atrophy
Atrophy takes a toll on more than just muscle tissue, and its effects and rate of progression vary greatly. Muscular atrophy has been measured at a rate of 0.5-0.6% of total muscle mass lost per day of inactivity for up 42 days upon the onset of inactivity (most commonly a result of disuse due to injury or illness). Strength has even been measured to decrease as much as 50% during that same time, or approximately 12% per week.
It’s important to know that strength, especially in the early stages of beginning to strength train, has very little to do with how much muscle mass you have. Someone who has been sedentary for years and then begins a basic resistance training program can very easily double their strength in a matter of months. During that time, their total volume of muscle mass could easily go unchanged, or it could increase as much as 5-10%, but nothing remotely close to their percentage increase in strength. Strength increases quickly in this case not because muscles have enlarged, but because the brain has improved its connection with all the muscles responsible for movement. It has improved the coordination, direction, order and intensity of impulses it sends to each muscle, which increases the stability around each joint and the power produced by the mobilizing muscles, all of which results in greatly improved movement efficiency and subsequent force production.