If you have been in good physical shape in the past, will it be easier for you to regain it 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 “located” in our muscles, which makes it easier for us to do exercises that we have done in the past.
In this article, we go to scientific research and different experts in the field to shed light on the different aspects surrounding this topic: Does muscle memory really exist?
How it works? 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.
Muscle memory: what is it?
Many years ago there was a tendency to think that muscles that atrophy, either through disuse or injury, never recover. However, we now know that this is not the case, thanks to the concept of muscle memory.
But what is muscle memory? It is this memory that our muscles “have”, that is to say this ability that allows us to repeat movements more easily when we have already done them.
In this way, our muscles can “retain” the memory of certain exercises, and even our previous muscle growth, as stated by Robert Seaborne, one of the researchers in a study conducted by Keele University (UK ) on muscle memory, and that we will discuss later.
Muscle memory can be appreciated especially in athletes that, even if they temporarily give up sport, they regain their physical shape more easily and have it more easily than other people who have never done sport when it comes to redoing certain exercises.
So this kind of memory it helps us when we abandon our sports routines and come back to the load, because it allows us to get back in shape more easily. But does muscle memory really exist? What does science say about this?
Neuroscience and muscle memory
Science has attempted to answer the question of whether muscle memory actually exists and, if so, how it works. One of those answers, according to recent research, is found in genetics (i.e. the origin of muscle memory is found here).
In this sense, research published in the journal Nature’s Scientific Reports and developed by a team from Keele University (United Kingdom) suggests that human skeletal muscle has epigenetic memory determined by early growth, Which allows our body to recover faster.
However, the results of this research “contradicted” what other theories say about muscle memory. One of these theories is that developed by biologist Kristian Gundersen, according to which there is an increase in myonuclei (the nuclei that are inside muscle fibers) in the cells of our muscle fibers, Which would explain (largely) the functioning of muscle memory.
Returning to the subject of genetics, the experts found specific genes linked to muscle memory and therefore to a better return to the physical form of our body.
These genes could improve some rehabilitation treatments to which professional athletes are subjected when injured, for example. We have also seen how these genes could also prolong the effects of certain drugs taken by certain athletes to improve their muscle building.
Another study in the field of genetics, this time developed by Moberg et al. (2020), revealed that several regulatory genes, as well as certain proteins involved in the adaptation of muscles to resistance exercise, are linked to muscle memory. (In other words, they are influenced by each person’s training background).
One of the remarkable results of this study is that the cells in the legs exercised by the participants, after 10 weeks of training and 20 weeks at rest, were better prepared to develop volume and strength, both genetically and metabolically.
Specifically, the researchers found a wide range of genetic markers, as well as biochemical signals, in the muscle cells of the participants, related to the proper functioning of muscles and their growth.
According to research, muscle memory clearly exists, and it shows up 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 due to genetics. Francisco Ozores, anthropometric technician and physical education teacher, explains that muscle memory is a broad concept, which encompasses (or is explained by) three essential aspects: the organic, the psychological and the physiological.
According to him, people used to playing sports (in particular professional or high level athletes) have different capacities from people “in the street” because of their work, beyond the physical.
These abilities have to do, for example, with a “strong” mind capable of training to the limit, or with the ability to develop new capillaries for that muscle mass that once had protein assimilation.
Thus, according to Ozores, muscle memory would be this ability that allows us to develop old physical exercises much more easily (Which is an advantage for athletes over non-athletes); then, according to him, genetics would also act, but as well for the athletes as for the non-athletes.
How long does muscle memory last and what factors does it depend on?
According to experts, it depends on several factors, such as the age at which you stopped playing sports, the age at which the body is re-exercised, the time elapsed between one moment and another, the type of food, its own activity, genetic and metabolic factors, etc.
Ana Chezzi, nutritionist specializing in anthropometry, explains that muscle memory it lasts about 72 hours; This means that the ideal would be that if we play sports on a Monday, we should do it again on Thursday, because otherwise all the preparation that our body (and therefore our muscles) has done deteriorates and even loses.
The importance of sport (and youth)
It’s nothing new that sport is so healthy for our body (and our eyes, also for our mind!). Thus, experts agree to underline the importance of staying active and training our muscles as much as possible throughout life, Although especially when we are young. This is because as our body ages (just like our muscles), building muscle becomes more and more difficult.
This way, although muscle memory seems to exist and can help us a lot in this regard (in our physical recovery, for example, or just being in good shape), we can still “make things easier” by putting our part. Outraged, let’s not forget that without training, muscle memory does not exist.
- Joanisse, S., Gillen, JB, Bellamy, LM, McKay, BR, Tarnopolsky, MA, Gibala, MJ and Parise, G. (2013). Evidence of the contribution of muscle stem cells to non-hypertrophic skeletal muscle remodeling in humans. The FASEB Journal, 27 (11): 4596-4605.
- Martin, D., Carl, K. and Lehnertz, K. (2007). Manual of sports training methodology. Editorial Paidotribo. Barcelona.
- Moberg, M., Lindholm, EM, Reitzner, SM, Ekblom, B., Sundberg, CJ and Psilander, N. (2020). Exercise induces different molecular responses in trained and untrained human muscles. Med Sci sports exercise.