When you’re clanging and banging in the gym on a regular basis, crushing PRs, burning fat, building muscle, and making gains like never before, it’s safe to say that life feels pretty great.
When injury sets in, or circumstances outside of your control such as, perhaps, a global pandemic, and you’re unable to train, though, watching your hard work disappear right before your eyes can be very demoralizing.
There’s nothing worse than busting your rear end in the gym for months, even years, on end and making great progress, only for you to be forced to take some time off from training and lose all of your hard work.
To some, losing muscle and strength is a frightening prospect, as they’re worried that it will take them months, even years, to get back to where they used to be when they are able to train again.
Thanks to muscle memory, though, this is not the case.
But what is muscle memory?
Let’s find out.
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If you’re pretty experienced when it comes to training, you’ll likely have heard fitness enthusiasts, bodybuilders, athletes, and fitness experts talking about muscle memory, but what exactly is it?
In order to understand what muscle memory is, we need to first look at how some people respond to training after a particularly long layoff from the gym.
In order to bulk up and build muscle, it takes months, even years, to make any significant progress with your training.
The last thing you want is to find that suddenly you’ve picked up an injury and are unable to train, or have found that your local gym has closed down due to a global pandemic.
That means that you’ll be unable to adequately train and you will likely lose all of the muscle that you worked so hard to build over the last several months and years.
Sure enough, after several months away from the gym, your 20-inch arms have suddenly shrunk down to 14-inch strands of spaghetti, your chest is flatter than a pigeon, and the less said about your quads and glutes, the better.
Does this mean that because it took, say, five years to get to where you were happy with your physique, you need to train for another five years to get back to that level of jacked-ness?
Bodybuilders that have suffered injuries or simply taken months off from the gym and have lost nearly all of their size will find that once they head back into the gym and start training hard and intensely again, their muscles respond very well to the training and they quickly gain back the strength and size they lost.
Whereas it took years to get to where they wanted to be initially, once they begin training again they’ll find that it may only take a few months to gain back all of the strength and size that they lost, and perhaps even a little more for good measure.
Okay, now that we’ve established that you can gain back lost muscle and strength much faster the second time around, we now need to understand precisely why this process works the way that it does.
Muscle memory enables muscle fibers to regain their strength and size much faster than the duration of time to initially gain them in the first place.
This is where things get technical, so pay attention.
Within each cell that makes up your muscles, you will find several nuclei known as myonuclei.
These are very important because they are responsible for transporting the DNA which is required for orchestrating the construction and development of brand new muscle proteins.
Each nucleus plays a key role in decreasing or increasing a variety of different chemical processes and chemicals and compounds in general.
On top of that, they also help to regulate cellular function, growth, and repair, while also playing important roles in various other physiological processes.
If you imagine the nuclei of each cell as the memory of your phone, you’ll find that it can only store so much data and info before it becomes full and unable to process anything new.
Because each nucleus has a limited amount of data, in order to process more data it requires more myonuclei.
Just to make life harder, cells cannot naturally synthesize more myonuclei, instead, they must be obtained from stem cells.
Stem cells are unique because they can be ‘reprogramed’ to become different cells in the body, including muscle cells.
In the body, there are a number of different forms of stem cell, yet the ones which are most actively involved in muscle growth and recovery are known as satellite cells.
These unique cells are located close to muscle cells, where they lay dormant until they are called upon to assist with the growth and repair of muscle fibers.
Once required, satellite cells are able to bind themselves to damaged muscle cells, where they are then able to donate their own nuclei.
This is where things get interesting because not only does the nuclei aid in the growth and repair of the muscle, it also boosts the muscle cell’s potential for strength and size.
When people talk about progressive overload training, this is basically the body’s natural response as the harder you train and the more weight and volume you add, the more strength and size you will gain.
Basically, more training equals more myonuclei which means more muscle growth and greater resistance to damage.
As you know, muscle growth occurs when you damage your muscle tissues so if you aren’t creating this damage you aren’t growing.
Therefore, you need to train harder in order to make the necessary gains.
For those wondering what is muscle memory, you may want to pay attention to this next section because here’s where this factor enters the fray.
You see after a satellite cell has very kindly donated its nucleus to a muscle cell, it will stay there permanently.
Because satellite cell donation plays an important part in muscle growth, this in turn can help with muscle memory.
Each muscle fiber can only grow to a specific size until they then require additional myonuclei.
Afterward, the only way for them to expand and increase in size is to add extra myonuclei.
So, basically, if since you started resistance training, you have gained around 20 pounds of muscle, you now will have a lot more myonuclei than you had when you initially started training.
In order to build muscle and strength, you need to ensure that you are hitting the gym hard and training regularly in order to make the most gains.
But what happens if you pick up an injury or are simply unable to train?
Well, not surprisingly, your muscles begin to shrink and atrophy, and you’ll lose your precious gains.
But don’t worry, because all of those extra myonuclei that you acquired through your hard work in the gym will remain.
Once you are able to begin training again, thanks to the myonuclei in your muscle cells, you’ll find that your muscles respond extremely favorably to the training you are doing and consequently, you’ll find that you regain the muscle and strength much faster.
The reason for this is that you no longer need to acquire new satellite cells to make you bigger and stronger.
Once you get back to your previous size, in order to continue to make gains, however, satellite cells will need to be newly acquired.
Because of this, once you regain your size, don’t suddenly expect to build additional muscle as quickly as it took you to regain your lost size and strength.
When a regular Joe that has barely lifted weights before suddenly decides he wants to get big and jacked, and he commits to a solid training regime and healthy and nutritious diet, you’ll find that he builds an impressive amount of muscle in the early stages of his new lifestyle.
These are known as ‘newbie gains’ and it is a theory that basically works on the premise that those new to training find that their muscles are much more sensitive to muscle damage caused by lifting weights and exercising.
The body finds it easier to activate satellite cells in the early stages of lifting weights because the stimuli placed on the muscles is unknown to the body and is something new.
As you begin to build more muscle, though, you’ll find that you struggle to add additional strength and size to your frame as you become bigger.
This is known as the ‘repeated bout effect’ and it is basically a principle which states that the more of a specific form of exercise you perform, the more of a resistance the body will build up to it.
You see, as you increase muscle mass, the total amount of new satellite cells recruited to aid with muscle growth and recovery will decrease.
To generate new ones, you need to work harder and really overload the muscles and put them through their paces.
Sadly, there is a natural limit even the biggest, strongest, and most capable of individuals will reach when training for muscle growth.
The less damage you can cause to the muscles, the less satellite cell activity you will encounter.
Now, take this next section with a very fine pinch of salt, because there is no definitive proof that it is true.
As you train hard and build muscle, the longer you train and the more muscle you build, the harder it becomes to make any progress.
This is because the more muscle you build, the less effective the satellite cells become.
There is some evidence that may point to the fact that if you take scheduled breaks from training, you can actually re-sensitize your satellite cells to assist with muscle damage and repair like they did earlier on, without losing any muscle during your break from training.
Basically, if you train for, say, six weeks at a time, and then take a two-week break away from the gym and train for a further six weeks and repeat this cycle again, you MAY find that your satellite cells revert back to their ‘factory settings’ as it were and that they once again assist with impressive amounts of muscle growth and repair.
Just remember, though, this is largely unconfirmed and for now, it does reek of ‘bro science’ so take it with a pinch of salt.
Whereas re-sensitizing satellite cells may not be confirmed, what is confirmed is the fact that this process is indeed very real, and can be very beneficial.
For those of you asking what is muscle memory Hopefully now, things are a great deal clearer than they were when you initially began reading this article.
Basically, if you’ve been training for years to get a physique you’re proud of, only to find that you’ve picked up an injury, you need surgery, and you’re going to be out of the gym for 9 months, don’t worry about losing your gains during that time.
Yes, you will lose your gains and it will be a lot to get your head around but trust the process.
Once you’re able to train as you once did, you’ll find that your strength increases, and your muscles will quickly expand in size and quickly grow back to the size they were before your injury, in a fraction of the time.
Reda is an ACE Certified Nutritionist, Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt and bodybuilder with 11 years of experience. He's been published on many influential websites such as lifehack.org, Wealthy Gorilla, Good Men Project and more.