Newbies and experienced gym-goers alike have probably all worried about losing their gains. It’s only natural to want to keep the progress you’ve made and not have to start over from scratch, but sometimes life gets in the way. You might get injured, sick, or just too busy with other things and have to take a break from working out. But when you’re ready to get back into it, how do you know if all your hard work hasn’t gone to waste? The good news is, if you’ve built up muscle before, it’s easier to do it again. This is because of something called muscle memory (5). In this article, we’ll take a look at what muscle memory is, how it works, and how you can use it to your advantage the next time you find yourself having to start from scratch.
What Is Muscle Memory?
When you lift weights, you’re causing microscopic tears in your muscle fibers. In response to this damage, your body repairs and strengthens the muscles by building them up larger and stronger than they were before. This process is called muscle hypertrophy (4).
Muscle memory is your muscles’ way of remembering how to grow larger and stronger more easily than they did the first time because the process of muscle growth has already been established (1).
How Does Muscle Memory Work?
The science behind muscle memory is still being studied, but researchers believe that it has to do with changes in the genes of your muscle cells. When you lift weights and cause damage to your muscles, it triggers a process called muscle satellite cell activation (10).
Satellite cells are dormant cells that surround muscle fibers and help with repair and growth (7). When they’re activated, they fuse together to form new muscle fibers. This process is called myogenesis (3).
Myogenesis is thought to lead to changes in the gene expression of muscle cells, which is how your muscles remember how to grow larger and stronger more easily (12).
Researchers are still working to understand exactly how this works, but it’s thought that the changes in gene expression caused by myogenesis lead to an increased number of satellite cells and a higher rate of muscle protein synthesis (6).
When you take a break from working out and then start again, your muscles can more quickly rebuild to their previous size because of the presence of these satellite cells.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you can take long breaks from working out and expect to pick up right where you left off. If you want to maintain your muscle mass, it’s important to keep up with some form of exercise, even if it’s just light activity.
Just like muscles, satellite cells can atrophy from disuse (8). So, if you take too long of a break, your body may have trouble rebuilding muscle mass, even if you’ve built it before.
How Can You Use Muscle Memory To Your Advantage?
If you’re starting from scratch, it’s going to take some time and effort to build up your muscles again. But if you’ve built them up before, you can use muscle memory to your advantage.
Here are a few tips on how to do that:
Stick To A Familiar Training Program
Use a similar training program to the one you used before. If you switched up your routine last time and then took a break, try going back to the old program. This will help activate the same satellite cells and lead to more muscle growth.
Increase Your Training Volume Gradually
Don’t try to do too much too soon. If you try to jump back into your old training routine without giving your body time to adjust, you could end up injuring yourself. Instead, start with a lower volume of training and gradually increase it over time.
Give Yourself Time To Adapt
It takes time for your muscles to adjust to a new training program. Give yourself at least 4-6 weeks of consistent training before you start to see results.
Be Consistent With Your Training
The key to using muscle memory to your advantage is consistency. If you take too long of a break, your satellite cells will start to atrophy and it will be harder to build muscle mass (8). So, make sure you’re sticking to a regular training routine.
Get Enough Rest
Muscles build themselves up during rest, not during exercise (2). So, make sure you’re getting enough sleep and taking days off from training to let your muscles recover.
Structure your routine in such a way that allows for adequate recovery, and you’ll be able to take advantage of muscle memory to make gains more quickly.
Sleep is an essential part of muscle recovery, so make sure you’re getting enough shut-eye (9).
How Long Does Muscle Memory Last?
There’s no definitive answer to this question since it depends on a number of factors, including how long you took a break from training, how consistently you trained before, and your age.
However, research suggests that muscle memory can last for at least several months, and possibly even years (11). So, if you’ve built up muscle mass before, you can use muscle memory to your advantage to help you build it back more quickly.
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What Are The Best Muscle Memory Exercises?
The best exercise to activate muscle memory will depend on your previous training history. If you’ve built up muscle mass before, try using a similar training program to the one you used before.
If you’re starting from scratch, any type of resistance training will help you build muscle mass and activate muscle memory. Here are a few exercises you can do to target each major muscle group:
The muscles in the chest include the pectoralis major and minor.
Exercises that target the chest include:
- Bench press
- Dumbbell fly
The muscles in the back include the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and erector spinae.
Exercises that target the back include:
- Bent-over row
- Lat pulldown
The muscles in the shoulders include the deltoids, rotator cuff muscles, and trapezius.
Exercises that target the shoulders include:
- Shoulder press
- Lateral raise
- Front raise
The muscles in the arms include the biceps and triceps.
Exercises that target the arms include:
- Bicep curl
- Tricep extension
The muscles in the legs include the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.
Exercises that target the legs include:
- Calf raise
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The Bottom Line
Muscle memory is the ability of your muscles to remember how to grow larger and stronger. It’s thought to be caused by changes in the genes of your muscle cells.
If you’ve built up your muscles before, you can use muscle memory to your advantage by sticking to a familiar training program and gradually increasing your training volume. Just make sure you’re being consistent with your training and getting enough rest to let your muscles recover.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- A cellular mechanism of muscle memory facilitates mitochondrial remodelling following resistance training (2018, onlinelibrary.wiley.com)
- An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis (2018, frontiersin.org)
- Building Muscle: Molecular Regulation of Myogenesis (2012, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods (2019, mdpi.com)
- Muscle memory: virtues of your youth? (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Satellite Cells and the Muscle Stem Cell Niche (2013, journals.physiology.org)
- Satellite cells in human skeletal muscle plasticity (2015, frontiersin.org)
- Skeletal muscle wasting with disuse atrophy is multi-dimensional: the response and interaction of myonuclei, satellite cells and signaling pathways (2014, frontiersin.org)
- Sleep and muscle recovery: endocrinological and molecular basis for a new and promising hypothesis (2011, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Stem cell activation in skeletal muscle regeneration (2015, link.springer.com)
- The concept of skeletal muscle memory: Evidence from animal and human studies (2020, onlinelibrary.wiley.com)
- Turning on Myogenin in Muscle: A Paradigm for Understanding Mechanisms of Tissue-Specific Gene Expression (2012, hindawi.com)