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Muscular Atrophy in Athletics and Fitness

What is Muscle Atrophy?

Muscle atrophy is the breakdown of muscle protein that results in loss of mass. The most common cause of atrophy is a lack of movement, which can be due to lifestyle choices or an underlying condition. In athletes, atrophy typically results during inactivity because of an injury. Other factors that contribute to muscle atrophy are inadequate calorie and protein intake.

Understanding Muscle Atrophy

Muscles operate under the “use it or lose it” principle. Given a proper stimulus and overload, muscles adapt by growing stronger and getting bigger. The precise adaptations gained depend on the specific type and magnitude of training.

However, athletes sometimes experience a degree of muscle atrophy following a period of inactivity or less intense training than usual. The amount of muscle lost depends on how long someone goes without training.

When there isn’t an adequate training stimulus, the body breaks down some muscle to conserve energy, given that muscle is metabolically costly tissue.

The most apparent symptom of muscle atrophy is a reduction in muscle size, which can be particularly noticeable following a fracture. For instance, if an athlete breaks their arm and must keep it immobile in a cast for several weeks, they will lose much more size in that arm compared to the other.

Another sign of muscle atrophy is loss of strength and explosiveness. As the athlete becomes detrained, there is also a reduction in neuromuscular efficiency––the efficiency with which the central nervous system can cause the muscles to produce force.

Fortunately, as athletes return to their previous training, they can rebuild lost muscle faster than it took them to gain it initially and improve neuromuscular efficiency, resulting in better performance.

Ways to Prevent or Limit Muscle Atrophy

The most reliable way to prevent or slow muscle atrophy is for the athlete to continue doing some training. The type, intensity, and duration will depend on each trainee’s unique situation and needs.

For instance, if an athlete is dealing with an injury, they can still do activities that don’t aggravate the affected area and leverage special tactics like blood flow restriction (BFR) training to provide a strong muscle stimulus with light weights.

Short but intense sessions can also be practical if the athlete or trainee doesn’t have much time to work out. Circuits, drop sets, and supersets are fantastic methods for condensing more training in less time.

On the nutritional side, athletes must consume enough calories to maintain their body weight (particularly when not working out) and enough protein (at least 1.6 grams per kilogram; 0.7 grams per pound). 

While good nutrition alone is not enough to prevent muscle atrophy, it can slow the process and make it easier for athletes to return to training later.


1. What is the fastest way to recover from muscle atrophy?

The quickest way to reverse muscle atrophy in athletes is to put them on a high-protein, calorie-controlled diet and a workout plan that provides the necessary overload. 

2. How can athletes balance training to prevent atrophy without risking overtraining?

Proper pacing is necessary for athletes to provide the stimulus needed to make progress without risking overtraining or injuries. Slow and steady progress is far better than short bursts of quicker improvements followed by weeks or months off training due to an injury.

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