The Art of Not Disappearing on Vacation: How to Maintain Muscle Mass Without Lifting
Imagine being in the midst of a bulking routine, and things are going super well—you’re gaining weight on the scale each week, steadily building muscle. But then, lo and behold, disaster strikes. And not just a run of the mill muscle disaster, like running out of trail mix, but the worst kind of disaster imaginable: a vacation.
And I’m not talking about one of those cushy vacations at a resort that includes a gym, I’m talking about one of those vacations where we’re forced to stop lifting weights entirely.
For many of us, even just the thought of taking a break from our workout routines gets our hearts racing, our minds spiralling down into the depths of pure terror. Unfortunately, I’ve been there too. I know what you’re thinking:
- How much muscle will you lose if you don’t go to the gym for a week or two?
- Can you build muscle with bodyweight workouts?
- How many mojitos does it take to spike muscle protein synthesis?
- Why don’t they make luggage big enough to fit a barbell?
- Will the customs agent see whey protein but think you’re trafficking drugs?
- Will you be able to build muscle in prison?
In desperation, you might start googling around to learn more, but since only 3% of the population is trying to gain weight, good luck trying to find an article for people who are worried about losing weight when they stop working out.
So what do you do? Cancel your vacation? Do bodyweight workouts? Or take a break from lifting?
- Armi Legge’s Advice for Skinny Travellers
- What Happens if We Lose Weight Without Lifting Weights?
- Will We Lose Muscle if We Stop Lifting Weights?
- How Hard is it to Regain Lost Muscle Mass?
- Should We Do Bodyweight Workouts if We Can’t Lift Weights?
- What’s the Minimum Amount of Lifting Needed to Maintain Muscle?
- Can We Build Muscle Without Lifting Weights?
- Bonus Muscle Maintenance Tips From the Beastly Team
- Key Takeaways
I got back from Mexico a few weeks ago. Above you can see my
girlfriend wife and me in a cenote having a balancing competition. (It was a tie.) After a couple weeks of eating tons of delicious seafood and tacos, walking 5-6 hours most days, and having at least a couple drinks most nights, I came back just as muscular and finally looking like the 1/4 Cuban that I am (i.e. still 3/4 pale).
Even though we base our articles on research rather than anecdotes, we still like to walk the walk before writing about something. Luckily, the three of us get the opportunity to travel fairly often. Jared just got back from a small little island in Northern Canada, and Marco recently went hiking through Peru.
It’s about time we write about one of the most commonly asked question we get: “Will I lose all of my muscle if I take a break from lifting weights? How do I stop myself from losing weight if I stop working out?”
First of all, there’s this misconception that being a strong healthy dude makes it harder to travel. That couldn’t be more wrong. Being a strong healthy dude makes travelling so much better. You’ve got muscles that can carry around a whole family’s worth of luggage without breaking a sweat, you have the cardiovascular fitness to race your partner up the pyramids (and win), you have the rugged immune system that resists catching a cold on the airplane, the energy levels for every adventure, and the brainpower to think clearly even when jet-lagged.
Lifting and eating well in your day-to-day life makes travelling radder. So if you’re at a point where you’re healthy and happy with your body, great—you don’t really need to worry about much while on vacation. Just have fun, be active, eat delicious food, go back to your bulking routine when you get back.
This article isn’t about that though. You’re probably a guy who’s still trying to get bigger and stronger. This article is about building muscle while you’re travelling, not just being a strong and fit dude while travelling.
First, let’s get the bare basics out of the way:
- Your customs agent probably won’t mistake your whey for cocaine. I got pulled aside for further questioning the (one and only) time I tried to travel with individual-serving-size ziplock bags of whey. But the guy interrogating me in the scary little room was pretty buff, and after one whiff of my little baggies he was giving me lifting advice, not handcuffs. Nowadays I bring a few prepackaged Quest Bars instead. Less drama, far easier to eat on the go, more calories, more fibre, and more delicious. (And we aren’t even being paid to say that!)
- A mojito or three will neither create nor prevent muscle protein synthesis, but it will temporarily increase your testosterone levels by about 17% if you’re a young guy (study). Seven mojitos, on the other hand, will reduce muscle protein synthesis and suppress testosterone production (study, study). That doesn’t matter if it’s fairly irregular, but an alcoholic will really struggle to maintain a muscular physique, let alone build one. That’s why it’s best to limit your alcohol intake to 0–2 drinks per day while bulking.
- Moctezuma’s revenge is the most nefarious weight-loss cleanse. Beware the street vendor with the reckless look in his eyes.
With that covered, we can get to the interesting stuff. To cover the elusive science of what happens to muscle when travelling, we brought in the big guns—Armi Legge.
Armi has long been known in the fitness industry for being one of the best researchers out there. He’s a bit of a controversial figure in the best way because he’s a young guy who’s not afraid to stand up to some of the most influential guys in the industry when they get their facts wrong.
Recently, he wrote up a piece in Alan Aragon’s Research Review (which
is was perhaps the most respected research review in the fitness industry). As luck would have it, that article was about building muscle while travelling. In fact, Armi’s latest area of research has been everything related to muscle, fitness and travel.
Armi Legge’s Advice for Skinny Travellers
Armi’s a naturally skinny guy himself, he’s recently built a ton of muscle, and he travels pretty much constantly for business and adventure. Not only does he maintain his muscle while travelling, he’s building tons of muscle while travelling (as you can see above).
We used this as an opportunity to help you out (since he’s done a ton of research into this), and it’s also a chance for him to talk about his rad new eBook about staying fit, strong and lean while travelling.
Without further ado, here are my questions, with his answers in blue.
What Happens if We Lose Weight Without Lifting Weights?
What will happen if we lose weight while not lifting? We’re naturally skinny guys. Airports, carrying luggage around, strolling around exciting new cities, being way too far away from a refrigerator, needing to get most of your meals from restaurants, etc. This means that we’re burning more calories and eating fewer. The perfect storm for accidental weight loss.
Armi: If you lose weight without lifting, then you’ll mostly lose fat, along with some muscle. The larger your calorie deficit, generally the greater your risk of muscle loss. The amount of muscle you lose is largely dependent on your genetics, although the absolute differences between people tend to be pretty small.
Most research also shows that eating a higher percentage of your diet from protein can generally help you retain more muscle while under-eating. So if you don’t lift weights and you under-eat, make an effort to get in slightly more protein.
If you gain weight, you’ll gain some muscle and fat. That’s something most people don’t realize—any calorie surplus, even if you aren’t lifting weights, generally causes some muscle growth. The problem is that a lot more of the weight tends to come from fat. But since you’re reading this, under-eating is probably more of an issue for you than over-eating.
Will We Lose Muscle if We Stop Lifting Weights?
If we stop lifting weights, how long before our muscles begin to atrophy, assuming we eat enough calories to maintain our weight?
Armi: I’d say you’d have at least two weeks or so before you started to lose muscle, assuming you were eating enough to maintain your weight. You’d probably lose a little strength after a week, but that would mostly be neurological—feeling rusty. After a few workouts, you’d be back to your normal self.
There have been a few studies on this, too. In general, 3-6 weeks off from training will cause around a 6-12 percent drop in strength. That’s really not much when you consider how long these people weren’t training. In these studies, muscle mass didn’t change much after 4 weeks. There probably was a drop in muscle mass, but it was small enough that it wasn’t measurable.
In short, you can maintain your muscle mass and strength without training for longer than most people think.
How Hard is it to Regain Lost Muscle Mass?
That’s a really interesting question. I’d say that a week or two without training isn’t that big of a deal, assuming you don’t do that every month. You might lose some muscle and strength, but you’ll gain it back much faster. It’s easier to regain or maintain muscle mass than it is to build it in the first place. This is partly due to satellite cell activation.
In a nutshell, when you lift weights, special stem cells called “satellite cells” donate their myonuclei to your muscle cells. That extra nucleus helps the muscle support a slightly larger area, and your muscles get bigger. The interesting thing is that those myonuclei stick around even if your overall muscle size shrinks. When you start lifting again, it’s generally easier to shoot back up to your previous size, partly thanks to those new myconuclei.
Should We Do Bodyweight Workouts if We Can’t Lift Weights?
I’d say that if you’re out of the gym for two weeks or less, it’s okay to stop training completely. If you aren’t lifting for more than two to four weeks, you can probably expect to lose a moderate amount of muscle mass and strength. It’s hard to say exactly how much, but probably not enough to have a significant impact on your appearance.
When you get back into training, you’ll regain your lost strength and size much faster than when you had to build it in the first place.
But, I think it’s still a good idea to do at least a little strength training while travelling for another reason—habit formation. Even if you just do a 10-minute bodyweight workout twice a week, that helps you maintain the habit of working out. When you come home, it will be much easier to get back into your normal training schedule.
What’s the Minimum Amount of Lifting Needed to Maintain Muscle?
Armi: I’d say once per week of heavy, full-body strength training would help you maintain most of your muscle mass for one to two months. That’s assuming you’re eating enough to maintain your weight. (You’d probably lose some muscle if you were in a deficit.) You’d lose muscle mass eventually on this routine, but one full-body session per week is probably enough to maintain your muscle mass for several months.
Can We Build Muscle Without Lifting Weights?
Is there anything, in particular, you’d recommend for a naturally skinny guy who wants to not just maintain but also build muscle while travelling? (Keeping in mind that our tendency is to accidentally lose weight while travelling.)
Armi: Great question. I tend to default toward under-eating too, so this is something I’ve thought about. Here are a few strategies that work well for me:
- Pick more calorie-dense foods. Nuts, protein bars, whey protein, chocolate and dried fruit are all good choices. If you can’t get a large meal at a restaurant, you can supplement your calorie intake with one of those options or something else. When I was travelling in England, the portion sizes were much smaller than normal, so I’d often have a protein bar or something else to supplement my calorie intake.
- Pack some snacks. Beef jerky, whey protein, apples, bananas, yogurt, or anything else that has some protein and fiber can work well. If I don’t bring anything, I’ll just forget to eat.
- Eat more often. I get full easily, so spreading my calories throughout the day makes it easier to eat enough.
- Make time to eat. When you’re travelling, it’s easy to get distracted by exploring new places and meeting new people. In the end, it really just comes down to reminding yourself to get in a meal.
Bonus Muscle Maintenance Tips From the Beastly Team
Jared’s travelling tips:
- It’s normal to feel a little worn down when travelling. Everything is a new experience, meaning there’s no chance to fall into your energy saving auto-pilot routine. Making decisions all day long, however small, is tiring. Bringing some super easy snacks along, like a Quest bar and some water, will remove the stress of figuring out where your next meal will come from. This will help keep your willpower, mood and energy high while sneaking in calories/protein throughout the day. (Sharing your snacks will also keep your travelling mates from getting hangry on you.)
- A light bodyweight exercise circuit in the morning, while your willpower is still high, will improve your energy levels throughout the day, and also give your muscles a reminder that they’re still needed.
Shane’s travelling tips:
- Armi’s travelling guide has some really great recipes that are really easy to make, even when travelling. But let’s be real here—when you’re travelling you’ll probably be getting a lot of your calories from restaurants and corner stores. Corner stores tend to sell milk, fruit and nuts, which are perfect muscle-building foods. At restaurants you can order a meal that centres around a protein (rather than a vegetarian style dish). Chefs often cook with a lot of fat and salt, so the main problem with eating out all the time is that the food is high in calories. That’s not much of a problem for us, so don’t worry about it.
Marco’s Travelling tips:
- Oh man the Moctezuma thing. I had some real bad street meat in Peru…
- I do makeshift workouts, often just for fun. Squats with my brothers on my shoulders, workouts in the park—that kind of thing. In Peru it was a run through Cuzco culminating hill sprints (although I forgot to consider the low oxygen levels at such a high altitude and passed out afterwards), in Hong Kong they had a bunch of bars to play on, and in Japan they had a really cool park to run through.
- I guess if you put a tip from me, it would be to explore and enjoy your surroundings. There’s exercise related stuff everywhere if you open your mind to it. However, this would only take up a short portion of the day. Just 15-30 min in the morning before setting out for more adventures.
Even if we take a break from lifting weights, our muscle is fairly resilient, and we have at least 2–4 weeks before we lose a noticeable amount of it. Furthermore, any muscle that we do lose will come back as soon as we get back into our regular workout routines. Regaining muscle is extremely fast and easy, so there’s no need to fear losing it.
If you’re thinking about sneaking in workouts while on vacation, first of all, you don’t need to. You could just as easily take a well-earned break and then just get back into your lifting routine a couple of weeks later. But if you want to keep in the habit of working out, some quick at-home bodyweight workouts are great. Even just fifteen minutes of push-ups and jump squats per day can keep your habits strong and your fitness levels high.
The worst thing is building a stronger and tougher body but then being in constant fear of it disappearing on you as soon as you take it outside of your normal gym routine. That’s totally backwards. A strong and healthy body is less fragile and more versatile than a weak one. Even if you lose muscle, it will spring right back. There’s nothing to worry about.
If you have any questions, tips, success stories, horror stories—who doesn’t love horror stories?—drop them below.
Have a great vacation, man!
Shane Duquette is the founder of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, each with millions of readers. He's gained seventy pounds and has over a decade of experience helping more than ten thousand naturally thin people build muscle. He also has a degree in design, but those are inversely correlated with muscle growth.