The idea that muscles "remember" sounds outlandish, right? After all, muscles cannot think and are far less complex than the human brain. However, they do have a memory of sorts, and it works in your favor if you strength train for a while and take a long break. In this article, David Reagan - Atlanta-based fitness coach - explains the phenomenon of muscle memory and how you can take advantage of it to get back in shape.
You might not want to take a break from exercise, but sometimes life intervenes. You get injured or develop an illness that keeps you from training for a while. What happens when you stop? If you take a long enough hiatus from training, you will lose strength and muscle size over weeks to months, but all is not lost at a deeper level. Regaining that strength is easier the second time around, and it's due to a phenomenon called muscle memory.
What is Muscle Memory?
Once you master a particular movement, such as a squat or bench press, the nerve cells in regions of your brain that control movement develop stronger connections that make it easy to jump back into the exercise even if you haven't done it in a while. The same happens with other movements. For example, if you jump on a bicycle after many years of not riding, you may feel less confident, but you can still ride. The connection between neurons, or nerve cells, that control that movement is still there. So, you can jump back on without learning to ride a bike again, as you had to in grade school. It's reassuring that once you learn to ride a bike or do a particular exercise, you don't lose it every time you stop doing it. You've built a template that your brain and muscles use to get you back up to speed fast!
Building Muscle Size is Easier Too
It's easier and faster to build strength the second time around, but also faster to regain the muscle size you lost when you stopped training. When you don't challenge your muscle fibers by working them against resistance, muscle cells atrophy or become smaller in size and you lose the muscle size and definition you once had. This doesn't happen all at once, but slowly over weeks to months of inactivity. Studies show that the average person loses muscle strength and size after 3 to 4 weeks of inactivity, but it can happen much faster if you're confined to bed rest for some reason. Fortunately, this process is reversible and it's easier to turn things around after taking a break. So, you aren't starting from scratch even if you take a year or more away from training.
Why is it easier to make a comeback? When muscle cells initially grow in size, they enlist help from myonuclei, tiny nuclei within muscle fibers. Where do the myonuclei come from? Special cells called satellite cells donate them to the muscle to help them repair the damage created by strength training. With the myonuclei, the muscle cells have more machinery to help the muscle repair damage and grow in size. Such reinforcement is helpful!
But it gets even better. Studies show that even when you don't train a muscle for months or even years, the myonuclei shrink in size but remain and provide support and a framework for rebuilding muscle fibers quickly once you start training again. Having a foundation, and help from the additional myonuclei makes it easier to regain the muscle size and definition you had before. Scientists even think that exercise as early as childhood may lay down myonuclei you can tap into to build new muscle faster later in life. So, this is another advantage of being active early in life. The physical activity you did years ago makes your life easier now!
Train Hard Now for More Muscle Memory
To maximize muscle memory, you'll need to train at a high intensity. The number of myonuclei satellite cells donate to muscle cells for memory purposes goes up with the intensity of training. In other words, using light weights won't stress your muscles enough to increase myonuclei and muscle memory. Instead, devote portions of your training to lifting heavy and doing compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups, like deadlifts, squats, push-ups, and bench press. The greater the challenge, the more you build a storehouse of myonuclei that will help you regain strength and muscle size quickly.
The Bottom Line
You may think the muscle you build and the strength you gain is only temporary. Once you stop training, it goes away. That's true! But you also built a foundation for recovering those strength and size gains faster the second, third, and fourth time around. Hopefully, you never have to take a long break from strength training, but if you do, you can rest a little easier knowing your gains will come back faster, thanks to muscle memory.
About David Reagan
David Reagan is a personal trainer working with executives and high-end clients in Atlanta, Georgia, helping them balance their busy schedules with workout and meal plans to achieve optimal results. He has graduated Atlanta Personal Trainer Program and is NASM Certified. David Reagan specializes in weight loss, personalized workout plans, bodybuilding, and nutrition, and believes that customer satisfaction always comes first.