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Muscles: Use It or Lose It

April 1, 2016

Between the ages of 20 and 75, muscle strength declines by as much as 30% with most of the strength being lost after the age of 50. This decline is even faster after periods of prolonged bed rest and surgery. But there is good news! No matter your age or current level of fitness, you can make significant strides in maintaining or building strength.

Muscle strength is required for things such as standing up from a chair to more difficult tasks like performing a pull up. Take a look at this video to see how muscles build strength and get bigger (hypertrophy).

In physical therapy, patients often ask their physical therapist, “How long will it take for me to get stronger?” You can start to feel strength gains in as little as 2 weeks! This change is typically due to improvement in the efficiency in the connection between the nerve and muscle, also known as motor learning.

However, it can take 6 weeks or longer to see hypertrophy in the muscles, which happens through changes in the cellular makeup of the muscle in response to exercise related stress.

This question is typically followed by, “How often do I have to do my exercises to see improvement?” The amount of strength gain has many variables including current strength level, current and past activity levels, intensity of exercise and genetics. Your therapist will customize your home exercise program to suit your needs, but current guidelines and research indicate strength training at a MINIMUM of 2-3x per week per muscle for all ages.


Once you have gotten stronger, you may think you no longer need to do the exercises. Unfortunately, detraining (or losing that newly gained muscle strength) can start happening in as little as 2 weeks. In as few as 8 weeks you could be back at your pre-trained level! Performing your exercises at least 1-2 times a week has been shown to assist in maintaining your strength level!

Strength has been a strong predictive factor in age related falls and level of function, so do yourself a favor and get stronger today!


Goto, Kazushige. Muscular Adaptations to Combination s of High- and Low-Intensity Resistance Exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.. 18(4), 730–737

Evans, William; Lipsitz, Lewis. High- Intenisty Strength Training in Nonagenarians: Effects on Skeletal Muscle. JAMA. 1990. 263(22). 3029-3034.

Hakkinen, Keijo. Et al. Changes in Muscle Morphology, Electromyographic Activity, and Force Production Characteristics During Progressive Strrength Training in Young and Older Men. Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences. 1998. Vol. 53A, No. 6, B415-B423

Franklin, Barry et al. ACSM Position Stand: The Recommended Quantity and Quality of Exercise for Developing and Maintaining Cardio-respiratory and Muscular Fitness, and Flexibility in Healthy Adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 1996. June 1998 – Volume 30 – Issue 6 – pp 975-991