If you are an athlete, or even just fitness inclined, you have probably heard the phrase ‘muscle memory’ being thrown around before. But what does it actually mean? Muscles don’t have memories like the brain does, so how does it work?
Two Types Of Muscle Memory
Firstly there are two different types of memory when we talk about muscle. Some people refer to muscle memory as the ability to memorise a specific sequence of movements, like a pianist learning a song. They practice and practice and eventually they are able to play with their eyes closed because their fingers remember where they need to go.
Except this isn’t the muscle remembering, this is your brain taking charge, stepping up to the challenge and learning something new. Your brain is quite an extraordinary organ that is capable of even more than most of us can comprehend. Learning an instrument is only one of the amazing feats it can accomplish.
The other kind of muscle memory is the one we are more likely to hear in relation to fitness. This is the process in which a person who has built up a certain level of fitness, strength and muscle mass, then stops exercising for whatever reason and like anyone their muscles begin to atrophy (wither away or shrink). This is normal and to be expected. However when they resume their normal exercise regime they find their muscles regain their size and strength much faster than it had originally taken to acquire it. This is referred to as muscle memory.
But as we have already established muscles don’t have memories, so how exactly does this work?
Magical Muscle Cells
To understand how muscle memory works it is first important to have an understanding of muscles cells and how they are formed.
The tissues that form muscle are made up of muscle fibres or muscle cells, also known as ‘myocytes’, which are formed from strings of embryonic cells called ‘myoblasts’. These myoblasts themselves are formed from a combination of protein filaments that contain both oxygen and glycogen, both of which are used to fuel the movement and energy of muscles.
Because muscle cells are formed by many smaller myoblasts linking together, the actual muscle cell ends up with numerous nuclei. Basically the nuclei work as the brain, or computer, and store all the information in the DNA. So with numerous nuclei to each muscle cell, there is a lot more capacity to store information.
When you train hard, to build strength and bulk, you are actually stressing and damaging these fibers. This causes the body to go into ‘upgrade mode’ and starts to rebuild the damaged cells stronger, larger and more durable than before.
This is why you need to allow for rest days inbetween training specific muscle groups!
All of this information of how to be stronger and more resilient is stored in the multiple nuclei. When your muscles atrophy, the cells shrink down, but the multiple nuclei remain.
This means that all the information stays within the remaining muscle, so that when you once again resume training, your body knows how to build itself bigger, better and faster!
Why Do Muscles Atrophy So Fast?
If any of you have trained hard at building strength or muscle size,and then stopped training for an extended period of time, you will know first hand that muscle will atrophy faster than it took to build.
You might be surprised to know that if you are fairly new to exercise then you can lose up to 80% of you gained muscle mass in as little as 2 weeks!
As soon as you stop exercising your body stops producing the muscle building enzymes needed to build and repair the muscle fibers that are responsible for your strength and muscle definition.
It’s like the old expression says, ‘Move it, or lose it!’