Here’s What Muscle Memory Really Means and How to Use It

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It’s not a fitness myth: muscle memory really does exist, although that might not mean exactly what you think it means.

Although people colloquially refer to never forgetting how to ride a bike, throw a baseball or serve a tennis ball as examples of “muscle memory”, these returning skills actually arise from a process of motor learning. In other words, they are “motor memories”. When you learn how to perform these movements well and can do them automatically without conscious thought, that information is encoded in the brain, so going forward, “you still have the fundamental coordination that you learned,” David Behm explained. , university researcher. professor at the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada.

When exercise physiologists speak of muscle memory, on the other hand, they are referring to the phenomenon that previously trained muscles gain strength and size after a period of inactivity much faster than untrained muscles when they start from scratch.

Over the past 15 years, research has shown that the changes actually persist in the muscles themselves. In a mouse study, for example, results suggest that after nuclei proliferate in muscle cells in response to training overload, these extra nuclei are not lost during subsequent periods of inactivity. They are retained in separate muscle fibers, essentially waiting to be reactivated with retraining.

When you exercise, it is normal for muscle fibers to suffer minor damage. it’s part of how a muscle gets stronger. Dormant cells called satellite cells move to the site of injury and insert more nuclei — the brains of the cells — into the muscle fibers, allowing the muscle to grow, exercise physiologist Fabio Comana explained. associate professor of exercise and nutrition science at San Diego State University. Even if you stop exercising for a significant period of time, he said, “the nuclei remain [in place] and accelerate the return to muscle growth” with rehabilitation.

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Another area of ​​muscle memory research involves changes in how your genes work in response to your environment and behavior, according to Kevin Murach, assistant professor of health, human performance and recreation at the University of Arkansas to Fayetteville. “In muscle cells, genes are turned on and off in response to exercise to make certain proteins in the cell, which ultimately facilitate muscle growth and strength,” he said. According to this theory, long-term modifications of these genes could be at the origin of muscle memory.

Either way, this is clear: the more you exercise, the more you save (muscle memory). “Once you have those extra cores, they are in reserve. You’re banking on that ability,” said Lawrence Schwartz, professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “You basically have an instrumental manual for building muscle, so you can get improved growth much faster the second time around.”

And researchers believe that muscle memory is long-lasting, even permanent. “There’s never an age where it stops,” Behm said. In fact, a recent study of men between the ages of 50 and 70 investigated the effects of completing a resistance training regimen, followed by a period of detraining, then a period of retraining, each consisting of 12 weeks. As expected, resistance training increased knee extension strength and power by 10-36%. Detraining resulted in a 5-15% loss of strength and power. The big reveal: “Less than eight weeks of retraining were needed to reach the post-workout level of…maximum strength,” according to the researchers.

But how quickly you get back to your old fitness depends on your initial fitness, how long you were laid off, your age, and how long you exercised to establish muscle memory, according to Cedric Bryant, president and scientific director. of the American Council on Exercise. “The fitter you are and the more you build that muscle memory,” he said, “the more the odds are in your favor.”

Use of muscle/motor memory

All of this muscle memory news should be encouraging for those who have fallen off the fitness wagon during the pandemic. This means that you are not starting from scratch; you have a clear advantage when it comes to getting back to your old level of fitness. And the principles apply to both resistance training and endurance training, according to Cory Dungan, assistant professor of exercise physiology at Baylor University.

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With strength training, Comana recommends using this principle of weight progression to avoid injury when resuming strength training: If you do three sets of 10 reps for two or three weeks, once you get to the point where you feel like you could do two more reps until you reach the point of failure, then it’s time to add some more weight.

With aerobic exercise, the best way to rekindle your muscle memory is to get back to your workouts. “Start at a lower level than you used to, then gradually increase in duration, frequency, and then intensity,” Bryant said. “Do the minimum effective dose. A moderate challenge should be enough to get you on the road to fitness. Don’t try to go from zero to 60 scaling too soon.

Instead, it’s generally safe to increase these items by 5% every week or two as you feel comfortable, Bryant said. This means that if your goal is to do 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, which is equivalent to five 30-minute sessions, you can start with 15-20 minute sessions at an intensity where you can talk but not sing, he said. “Then add five minutes a week until you get to where you were.” Then you can increase the intensity of your workouts, perhaps by adding higher intensity intervals to your base pace.

To hone your skills in a particular sport, such as tennis, football, or golf, focus more on how you can take advantage of the motor neuron process. “You can use mental imagery to send messages to those neurons that will fire when you want to do that move,” Behm said. It can also be helpful to watch videos where other people are playing the sport, as this will activate mirror neurons in your brain, he added. (When you watch sports, specific neurons in your brain fire as if you were playing the sport yourself.)

Ultimately, it’s useful to think of muscle memory as a reward for all the past work you’ve put into learning a sport, improving your aerobic capacity or endurance, or building muscle and strength. The best way to tap into muscle memory is to “get back on the horse,” Murach said. “You’ll never know how much muscle memory you can have until you start training again.

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