You’re motivated, you workout, you work hard, and six months later you’re twice as strong as before and looking better than ever. And then, BAM! you get hit with an injury, or get busy with work, or even just lose motivation and you stop working out for three months. You lose all the results you worked so hard for, but now you want to get back into it. Round 2! You’re motivated, you workout, you work hard, and this time… only two months instead of the six months that it took the first time, you’re back to where you were before. What’s going on here is a concept that some of you might be familiar with known as muscle memory. The theory is that if you’ve trained then you take a break, coming back to where you left off is much easier than getting there in the first place.
The term “muscle memory” might be a bit misleading since no actual memory exists within your muscle. But two things are happening here, one of which is happening within your central nervous system. Whenever a motor skill is learned, such as a squat, the information is stored within the brain region known as the cerebellum. The more you practice the skill, the more efficient you become. Even after taking a long break from squatting, once you go back, your neuromuscular system is already programmed to complete the movement efficiently.
This is also why we can still ride a bike, swim, and also bust out those awesome dance moves, even after not doing them for a long time. Another interesting occurrence happens within your muscle cells. The first time you begin training, the muscles adapt and become stronger and bigger. One way it facilitates this is by increasing the amount of muscle nuclei, aka myonuclei, within the muscle cells. It was long believed that when you stop training, the muscle begins to atrophy and programmed cell death called apoptosis takes place and the myonuclei are removed. But current research actually shows that the overwhelming majority of myonuclei still exists within the muscle cells even after long periods of not training.
And since they are still there, the muscle cells can skip the process of creating new myonuclei, allowing strength gains and hypertrophy to occur at a much faster rate. That’s why you only need to train two months, hypothetically, instead of the initial six months to get back to where you were before. And that’s what muscle memory is all about! Have more fitness and health questions? Please leave a comment below!