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Expert Answers: What’s the Best Way to Regain Muscle Mass After an Illness?

Your Qs answered.

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Q | I’ve been sidelined by a prolonged sickness. How can I regain the lean body mass I’ve lost?

A | The more physically fit you were prior to getting sick or injured, the less quickly your body will show signs of detraining during a period of inactivity, says Chris Howard, MS, CSCS, a strength-and-conditioning coach in Massachusetts who works with baseball players.

To rebuild muscles after an illness, the key is to train diligently, he says, but not so aggressively that you risk injury. “The tendency of many people is to want to get back into training the way they were prior to getting sick, but you are better off easing back into it,” Howard says.

He offers the following tips.

  • Start with three days of strength training per week, allowing at least 48 hours of recovery between workouts that target the same muscle groups. A split-body program (performing upper- and lower-body exercises on alternating days) will help you maximize training days while allowing for sufficient recovery. If this program is more aggressive than your usual routine, scale back to two days of training.
  • The majority of your workout should consist of multijoint movements such as deadlifts, squat and lunge variations, presses, and rows. These are the most effective for building muscle mass.
  • Research shows that working within 65 to 85 percent of your one-rep-max is most effective for achieving hypertrophy (increase in muscle size). Use a resistance that you can lift for eight to 10 repetitions.
  • Eat more protein than normal — up to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight — during your rebuilding period. Also increase your intake of vegetables, healthy fats, and fruits, and consider supplementing with fish oil. “Micronutrients and healthy fats are especially important after injury,” says Howard. “They support metabolic pathways in the body and reduce inflammation.”

is a writer and personal trainer in River Forest, Ill.

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