How To Maintain Muscle When You’re Injured & Not Working Out

Being injured sucks. Even if you can still get in the gym and continue training around the injury, it still sucks. Working out at anything less than 100% just isn’t fun.

Do you know what’s even worse? When the injury is something that forces you to stop working out completely. No going lighter. No training around it. Just sit at home and wait for everything to heal. Now that really sucks.

And while not being able to do what you enjoy doing (assuming you actually enjoy working out) sucks, and not being able to push yourself to make more progress also sucks, the thing that may very well suck the most is knowing that you’re going to slowly begin losing the progress you’ve already made.

I’m talking about the muscle mass and strength you’ve worked your ass off for months/years to gain.

And now an injury is forcing you to sit around and watch it disappear. I hate to use the word “sucks” again, but that sucks as much as suck is possible of sucking.

What Can You Do To Prevent It?

Anyone who has been in that shitty position before knows this all too well, and anyone who hasn’t can surely imagine. And that brings us to the almighty question of the day…

Is there anything you can do about it? Is there some way to maintain some (or all?) of your muscle and strength while you recover from your injury?

Well, in all honesty, that depends on the specifics of your injury and the time frame for it to heal. The more serious the injury and/or the longer it’s going to take to get better, the less likely you’re going to be to maintain ALL of your muscle and strength. It’s just unavoidable.

That’s the bad news.

There is however some good news. Regardless of the extent of your injury and how long it prevents you from working out, there are most definitely some things you can (and should) do to put yourself in the best position for maintaining as much muscle and strength as you possibly can.

Here now are my 7 recommendations…

(NOTE: A significant amount of the info that follows also applies just the same to people looking to maintain muscle while out of the gym for a variety of other reasons… not just injuries. For example: vacations, trips, traveling, illness, etc..)

1. Set Calories At Maintenance (Or Maybe A Surplus)

There are 3 things you can do with your calorie intake during this time (or really any time). You can either be in a:

  1. Caloric Deficit (the cause of weight loss).
  2. Caloric Surplus (the cause of weight gain).
  3. Maintenance Level (the cause of… well… weight maintenance).

So, which calorie intake would be most ideal for a period of time when you’re going to be forced to stop working out and your primary goal is to just maintain as much of your hard earned muscle and strength as possible?

Most of the time, maintenance level is the way to go. Some of the time, a surplus is the way to go. None of the time, a deficit. Here’s when and why to use or avoid each.

When To Use A Caloric Surplus

If you were already in a surplus when the injury occurred AND it will only keep you out of the gym for 1-2 weeks, I’d probably keep a tiny surplus present just like I would if someone was going to spend 1-2 weeks deloading or taking a scheduled 1-2 week break from training.

Why? Two reasons. First, because it may improve your ability to maintain muscle during this time AND recover from your injury (more about that in a minute).

Second, since the time frame for being away from the gym is so short, it’s practically the equivalent of a scheduled training break. And during a scheduled training break I’d typically recommend keeping a small surplus present (assuming it was present before the break) to best allow for recovery and super-compensation to occur.

Might as well get those same benefits now, don’t you think?

When To Use Your Maintenance Level

But what if you weren’t in a surplus at the time of the injury? For example, maybe you were in a deficit for the purpose of losing fat. Or, what if you WERE in a surplus but the injury is going to keep you from working out for longer than the 1-2 week period I just mentioned?

In both of these cases, I’d recommend staying at your maintenance level.

Reason being, a prolonged surplus WITHOUT the training stimulus that signals muscle growth is basically the recipe for gaining fat. Look at every fat person on the planet. They gained that fat because they consistently ate more calories than their bodies burned (a surplus) and didn’t provide the training stimulus that would have signaled their body to use at least some of those calories for creating new muscle tissue.

So, long story short, all of those surplus calories just went directly to fat storage. And in a case where an injury is going to prevent you from working out for weeks and weeks (or months and months), that’s exactly what would happen to you.

Which means, in order to not only put your body in the best possible position for maintaining muscle and strength but ALSO prevent yourself from gaining any fat during this time, maintenance level is often the best way to go.

When To Use A Caloric Deficit

Honestly? Never.

I guess I shouldn’t say never, because I’m sure there are some rarer cases where a deficit might have its place during a scenario like this (e.g. an injury caused by being obese). But, for most of the people most of the time… you DO NOT want to be in a deficit when injured and trying to maintain muscle/strength.

Why? Well, let’s start with the maintaining muscle and strength part.

As I’ve written about before, the key requirement for maintaining muscle while losing fat (and therefore being in a deficit) is to maintain the heavy strength training stimulus that built that muscle in the first place. More about that here: How To Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle

So the last thing you want to do in a deficit when trying to avoid muscle loss is start lifting lighter weights for higher reps (one of the more common/idiotic fitness myths around).

Come to think of it, that’s actually the second to last thing you’d want to do. The absolute last thing you’d want to do is just stop working out altogether. And hey, what a coincidence… that’s precisely what you’d be doing when you’re injured and forced to stop training.

So consistently combine NO training (goodbye muscle maintenance signal) with a caloric deficit (hello signal that tells your body to start burning fat and/or muscle for energy) and you have something close to a worst case scenario for maintaining muscle and strength.

But wait, there’s more!

As I’ve also discussed before, one of the other downsides of being in a caloric deficit is that stuff like recovery, performance and work capacity are reduced. This is why certain adjustments should usually be made to your workout to compensate. Not to mention, this is why the primary training goal while in a deficit is to maintain muscle/strength rather than increase it. A deficit just isn’t the ideal state for making that kind of progress.

So what the hell does this have to do with anything we’re talking about now? Here’s my theory…

As far as the 3 calorie intakes go, your body tends to be at its worst in terms of improving, recovering and performing while in a deficit. Do you think a deficit is where you want to be when you’re trying to heal and recover from an injury as fast as you possibly can?

Probably not. If I had to guess, I’d say your body will be better/faster/stronger at getting healthier when sufficient calories are present than when they are not.

Meaning, maintenance or a surplus depending on the specifics explained above.

2. Keep Your Protein Intake High

The single biggest dietary factor for maintaining muscle while losing fat is eating a sufficient amount of protein each day. Every study I’ve ever seen looking at different weight loss diets and the composition of weight that was lost (was it fat or muscle?) confirms it.

Protein is THE dietary difference maker between losing muscle and maintaining muscle.

So even though this has little to do with weight loss or fat loss, it still has everything to do with trying to avoid losing muscle while injured. Which means, even in the temporary absence of training, protein should still be kept at sufficient levels.

3. Safely And Cautiously Do What Little Training You Can

Let’s say the part of the body you’ve injured is on your upper body. Is there any lower body training you can safely do? If so (and your doctor agrees), then do it! The same goes for if the injured body part is on your lower body. Is there any upper body stuff you can safely do?

And you’re not just limited to upper vs lower. Maybe your elbow is totally screwed. You might still be able to do exercises that don’t require any flexion or extension without any problem… like front and lateral raises. Shoulder injury? Can you do rows pain-free and without making things worse? Maybe. Ankle problem? Can you leg curl and leg extension? It’s possible.

I’m not your doctor (or even A doctor), and I don’t know the extent of your injury. But what I do know is that during the handful of minor to slightly-less-minor injuries I’ve personally dealt with, there’s often something – no matter how small and seemingly insignificant – that I was still capable of doing without negatively effecting the injury.

And when you’re looking to maintain as much muscle and strength as possible, every little bit helps as long its not making anything worse.

4. STOP Trying To Train Through It You Idiot!!!

You see, I’m just like you. If an injury is going to keep me from working out, it’s going to drive me insane, mainly with the fear of the muscle and progress I’m going to end up losing.

When I was dumb enough early on, this fear would completely overtake all sense of intelligent and logical decision making I was capable of to the point where I’d just keep trying to train through the injury so I’d avoid missing any workouts and losing any muscle/strength.

And then, you know, I’d just kinda hope for the best. Maybe things will magically get better?

You know what ends up happening 99.9% of the time with this mindset? You make the injury worse, and something that would have only kept you out of the gym for a couple of weeks will now keep you out of the gym for a couple of months. Or worse.

Which means, if you want to avoid losing the progress you’ve made, you’re going to want to suck it up now and get 100% healthy as soon as F-ing possible. That means doing whatever is needed in the present to avoid screwing yourself in the future by adopting the “ignore the problem and hope for the best” mentality which just makes things worse and prolongs the entire situation.

5. STOP Trying To Come Back Too Soon You Idiot!!!

Ah yes, the equally ugly sister to #4. You are smart enough to stop training so your injury can heal, but then you start to get a little antsy as more time passes and you’re still not back in the gym.

You look in the mirror and see results beginning to fade and muscle beginning to disappear. You feel weaker, fatter and less muscular each passing day. (Note: Depending on how long it’s been, some of this may be legit. Often however, it’s largely in your head and your mind is messing with you.)

So, what do you do? You go back to the gym too soon because you just can’t take it anymore.

And what happens? You tweak the still-not-fully-healed injury you’ve been recovering from, and set yourself back days/weeks/months. Or, even better, to a point worse than where you initially started at.

So rather than just waiting the extra little bit of time it would have taken to fully heal 100%, you went back at maybe 80% to “avoid losing any more muscle,” and this genius idea set you back to 20% which causes you to miss even more workouts and lose significantly more muscle and strength than you would have if you just held out a little longer.

Like I’ve heard Lyle McDonald say before: Wait until you think the injury is healed… then wait another week.

6. Keep Doing Everything Else Right

Keep getting plenty of sleep (details here: How To Sleep Better). Keep drinking plenty of water. Keep eating a sufficient amount of various macro and micro nutrients. Keep your intake of essential fatty acids at sufficient levels (e.g. keep taking a fish oil supplement). Keep your diet higher in quality foods and lower in garbage that makes you feel like crap. Limit stress. Blah blah blah.

Basically, everything you would be doing to put yourself in the optimal position for improving your body should still be happening just the same.

No matter how big or small, it all plays some beneficial role. Whether it will help you maintain muscle longer, help your injury heal faster, make returning to lifting a little easier or just keep you feeling sane during a time where it’s easy to go insane, do it.

Speaking of sanity…

7. Remember: Muscle Memory IS Real

No matter how long it takes, or how bad it gets, or how much it sucks… there is one important fact you should always keep in the back of your mind during this time. In fact, maybe you should keep it in the front of your mind.

And that is, muscle memory is real and legit.

I’ve known this for quite a while, but it was mainly based on things I’ve seen and heard rather than experienced. It wasn’t until I was forced to miss a truly significant amount of time — 3 months due to injury — that I was able to see it happen first-hand.

And let me tell ya, it’s real… and it’s spectacular.

I’m talking simultaneous fat loss AND muscle growth for starters, along with muscle/strength gains (or more accurately, re-gains) at a rate significantly faster than I can ever remember at any other point in my training.

I fully intend on doing a post covering all of the details and specifics, but until then, just remember… no matter how much muscle/strength you may end up losing, you’ll be able to gain it back much faster than you initially gained it.

Injuries Suck, But…

There is nothing good about being injured. It’s always gonna suck. But, that degree of “suck” is something you still have some amount of control over.

As someone who has been in your shoes, I can tell you first-hand that you’ll maintain muscle better, get back to 100% faster, and just generally feel less like crap during this time off if you follow the simple basics laid out above.

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