Hey Angels and Alphas,
As we all know, good fitness is the result of a combination of factors working over a long period of time. One of these factors is especially interesting in that it highlights the complexity of the process of growth and recovery of our muscles – that factor is more commonly known as “muscle memory.”
Now, it’s important that we’re clear right off the bat – muscle memory has 2 meanings.
The first type of muscle memory implies that the muscles have a memory related to fitness, and can quickly return to it after someone skips the gym for a few weeks or gets injured.
The second type of muscle memory relates to the on-board neurological memory regarding how muscles move, often related to sport-specific exercises like throwing a ball, throwing a jab, and so on. This means the person can perform that specific movement years later, even after they’ve stopped practicing the sport.
Until recently, we didn’t have any documented evidence on the first context, and very poorly understood studies regarding the second.
But even though pro athletes and gym-goers didn’t have any definitive proof of this, they sort of intuitively knew it because of their personal experience.
Today, I hope to dive deep into each of these contexts so you can learn how they work, how they overlap, and how you can benefit from these in your fitness journey.
Let’s get started.
Neurological Muscle Memory
This is the ability of muscles to remember and perform complex motor patterns that are usually very specific. The most common example of this is riding a bicycle. It’s something that the individual learns to do intuitively.
If you get on a bike after a long period of time, you’ll find that this isn’t a skill that needs to be re-learned. However, you’ll probably find yourself lacking balance and being a little “wobbly” in some particular movements.
You can notice which movements you have “muscle memorized” because they won’t require much of your concentration.
Athletes such as boxers, dancers, and gymnasts know very well that this type of muscle memory actually beings in the brain – and further extends to the body through the central nervous system.
This type of muscle memory is not actual memory. It’s a muscle movement controlled via your network of neurons. When this movement is done over and over, the neural connection grows stronger, and the “memory” is reinforced.
There is a very important takeaway here:
Everything we do sends information back to our central nervous system.
Driving a car, unlocking your door, throwing a ball, everything.
The body learns to efficiently interpret all this data with time. Therefore, a complex series of dance movements or martial arts combinations become easier to encode and perform. This is why constant repetition makes you better at literally everything.
Every time you are successful at something, your brain receives signals and remembers them. And every time you’re not successful at something, it doesn’t.
This leads us to conclude that this type of muscle “memory” is, in fact, a real phenomenon. The specific neural networks formed to control a movement or activity are all in our brain, and we can still access them even if we haven’t practiced in a long time. That being said, there’s still going to be a little of that information lost because our neural connections will have naturally weakened a bit over time.
Cellular Muscle Memory
Now, this is the other type of muscle memory often talked about in the fitness community. It started as a few anecdotal reports from athletes who, after coming back from a layoff, realized that they got fitter and stronger faster than those who didn’t have a similar background.
Everyone who decides to stop going to the gym altogether knows how quickly the body can react – with visual changes being visible in as little as 7 days, and strength dropping in as little as 14-21 days. This is a very fast reduction – in both endurance and muscle mass.
And from the standpoint of evolution, this makes total sense. Muscle is expensive to your body metabolically and it requires a lot of energy to maintain. When your body feels you don’t need it anymore, it starts a process of energy conservation that begins this reduction.
But here’s what the studies say. A 2016 study by molecular exercise psychologists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm concluded that muscle tissue doesn’t have “memory” of this past exercise.
They did a study where they asked more than 20 people (who all had a sedentary lifestyle) to come into their labs and do a basic leg kick movement for up to 45 minutes. Participants repeated this exercise four times a week for three months. Then, they took nine months off and came back again – but this time, with both legs.
Then, they took muscle biopsies before and after each training period and analyzed which parts of the muscle tissue were the most active in each leg. They concluded that both trained and untrained muscle tissue showed the same physiological change.
When you first train a muscle, the first thing that happens to it is the increased number of nuclei. They’re responsible for the production of protein – essential for the growth and recovery of the muscle. These proteins are necessary for the healthy function of your muscles, especially during exercise. The more nuclei a muscle group has, the better it responds to high-intensity exercise.
The findings of the Karolinska Institute were that even though one leg had a three-month training program months ago, there weren’t any differences in its gene expression.
As it happens, they were focusing on the wrong part of the mechanism around muscle memory. Detrained and untrained muscles actually don’t exhibit differences in gene expressions even as they build up strength.
Two years after that study, a follow-up study was done, observing muscle tissues from a cellular level.
This time, they took men and put them through a 22-week period of exercise, then a layoff, then exercise again.
What this study revealed what we all already knew: that getting into shape is faster after a layoff than building up for the first time.
This means that muscles that were strong before can be strong again by quickly increasing the production of essential muscle-building proteins.
Here are the two most important takeaways:
- Muscles have a memory of their previous level of fitness and strength, and it’s encoded in their genes, allowing them to rebuild faster after a layoff.
- Continous exercise produces epigenetic changes on a cellular level, allowing us to modify DNA (technically).
Note: Although retraining muscle is easier, the ability to remember strength-building capabilities decreases as we age. This means one thing – it’s better to keep exercising than stop and take a rest, blindly believing we can just pick up where we left off.
Here’s what this means for YOU…
Here are the practical takeaways you can learn to boost your motivation, fitness, and physical ability by utilizing both types of muscle memory.
Neurological muscle memory:
- Repeating complex movements is essential for motor skill development.
- Activities like boxing and dancing are some of the best examples of effective neural adaptation.
- You need to reinforce your neural muscle memory to keep the strength of the connections growing.
Cellular muscle memory:
- Continuous training (3 months+) creates changes at a cellular level. This also happens to be the length of time first-time trainers need to see the significant changes in their body and performance.
- If you’re younger, you’ll have more time to develop and grow this muscle memory.
- Trained muscles recover and grow quickly after a time away from training.
A variety of training programs that will constantly challenge you as you move forward on your fitness journey is the best way to deliver quality cellular adaptations. Creating new variations of your training routine while ramping up the challenge will deliver excellent results quickly.
To conclude, we can say that both types of muscle memory can work for us (instead of against us) when they’re better understood. Together, they paint a clear picture of how the body and mind are two parts of the same organism, and they help each other by receiving, interpreting, and adapting based on information.