If you’ve been physically fit in the past, will you have a better way to be back in the future?
According to those who defend the existence of muscle memory, yes. But what is this concept? It is a type of memory “localized” in our muscles, which allows us to more easily do exercises that we had already practised in the past.
In this article, we turn to scientific research and different experts to shed some light on the different aspects surrounding this topic: is there really muscle memory?
How does it work? What does it depend on? What factors determine that it appears sooner or later? How long does it last? We will answer these and other questions in this article.
What Muscle Memory:
Many years ago, it was tended to be thought that the muscles that atrophied, either due to their disuse or as a result of an injury, never recovered again. However, today, this is not the case, thanks to the concept of muscle memory.
But what is muscle memory? It is that memory that “has” our muscles, that is, that ability allows us to repeat movements more easily when we have already made them before.
In this way, our muscles can “retain” the memory of certain exercises, and even our previous muscle growth, as claimed by Robert Seaborne, one of the researchers of a study developed by the University of Keele (United Kingdom) on muscle memory, and which we will discuss later.
Muscle memory can be appreciated especially in athletes who temporarily abandon sport, more easily regain their physical form, and are easier than others who have never done sport when it comes to re-exercising.
Thus, this type of memory helps us when we abandon our sports routines and return to the load, allowing us to recover the physical form more easily. But does muscle memory really exist? What does science say about it?
Neurosciences and muscle memory
Science has tried to answer the question of whether muscle memory actually exists and, if so, how it works. According to recent research, one of these answers would be found in genetics (i.e. the origin of muscle memory would be found here).
In this line, research published in Nature’s Journal Scientific Reports and developed by a team from Keele University in the UK suggests that human skeletal muscle has an epigenetic memory determined by earlier growth, which allows our body to recover more quickly.
However, this research results “collided” with what other theories about muscle memory say. One of these theories is developed by biologist Kristian Gundersen. There is an increase in the myonuclei (the nuclei found within muscle fibres) in the cells of our muscle fibres would explain (broadly speaking) how muscle memory works.
Returning to the topic of genetics, experts have found specific genes related to muscle memory and, therefore, with a better return to the physical form of our body.
These genes may improve certain rehabilitation treatments that professional athletes undergo when injured, for example. It has also been seen how these genes could also lengthen the effects of certain drugs that some athletes take to improve their muscle building.
Another study in the line of genetics, this time developed by Moberg et al. (2020), revealed that various regulatory genes, as well as some proteins involved in adapting muscles to endurance exercises, are related to muscle memory (each person’s prior training history influences, i.e., them).
One of the highlights of this study is that the leg cells exercised by the participants, after 10 weeks of training and 20 weeks at rest, were more prepared to develop volume and strength, at the genetic and metabolic level.
Specifically, the researchers found a wide range of genetic markers and biochemical signals, within the muscle cells of the participants, related to the proper functioning of the muscles and their growth.
According to research, muscle memory clearly exists, which appears as a result of sports training. However, the researchers stress that more research is needed in this regard.
However, it is not only believed that muscle memory is caused by genetics. Francisco Ozores, an anthropology technician and physical education teacher, explains that muscle memory is a broad concept, encompassing (or explained by) three essential aspects: the organic, the psychological and the physiological.
According to him, people who are used to playing sports (especially professional athletes, or high-performance athletes), have different abilities to “ordinary” people due to their work, beyond physical ones.
These capabilities have to do, for example, with a “strong” mind capable of training to the limit, or with the fact that we can develop new capillaries for that muscle mass that once had the assimilation of proteins.
Thus, according to Ozores, muscle memory would be the ability that makes us able to develop past physical exercises much more easily (which is an advantage for athletes over non-athletes); then, according to him, genetics would also act, but both for athletes and non-athletes alike.
How long does muscle memory last and what factors does it depend on?
According to the experts, this depends on various factors, such as the age at which sport was stopped, the age at which the body is re-exercised, the time elapsed between time and time, the type of diet, the activity itself, genetic and metabolic factors, etc.
Ana Chezzi, a nutritionist, specializing in anthropometry, explains that muscle memory lasts about 72 hours; this means that ideally if we do sports on a Monday, we should do it again on Thursday because if not, all the preparation that our body has done (and therefore our muscles) is deteriorating and even losing.
The importance of sport (and youth)
It is not a novelty that sport is healthy for our body (and eye, also for our minds!). Thus, experts agree to point out the importance of staying active and training our muscles as much as we can for a lifetime, although especially when we are young. This is because, as our body ages (like our muscles), muscle building becomes increasingly difficult.
In this way, although muscle memory seems to exist and can help us a lot in this sense (in our physical recovery, for example, or in being simply fit), we can always “facilitate” things on our side. Also, let’s not forget that without training, muscle memory does not exist.
- Joanisse, S., Gillen, J.B., Bellamy, L.M., McKay, B. R., Tarnopolsky, M. A., Gibala, M. J., & Parise, G. (2013). Evidence for the contribution of muscle stem cells to non-hypertrophic skeletal muscle remodelling in humans. The FASEB Journal, 27(11): 4596-4605.
- Martin, D., Carl, K. & Lehnertz, K. (2007). Sports training methodology manual. Paidotribo Publishing House. Barcelona.
- Moberg, M., Lindholm, M.E., Reitzner, S.M., Ekblom, B., Sundberg, C.J. & Psilander, N. (2020). Exercise induces different molecular responses in the trained and untrained human muscle. Med Sci Sports Exerc.