Muscle memory is something most of us have heard mentioned many times.
It often refers to the way in which the brain remembers repetitive movement of the muscles, like with playing a piano song, and instinctively remembering the fingers movements over the keys.
What about the actual muscles themselves?
How is it that when a newbie at the gym dedicates a good 6 months to training, bulks up considerably, then forgets the gym for two years, allowing their muscles to atrophy, can go back and regain their muscle strength and bulk back up in a third of the time?
When we hear of muscle memory in relation to exercise training, it is the strength and mass that is regained quickly, not the movement.
So the ‘memory’ isn’t coming from the brain, it is something inherent in the muscle tissue itself.
This is the other type of muscle memory, and it has nothing to do with the brain remembering, it is all down to those fantastic little myocytes.
What are myocytes?
Myocytes are more commonly referred to as muscle cells, or muscle fibres, and are the type of cells that make up muscle tissue. They are long, tubular shaped cells that are made up from a combination of different protein formed filaments.
These different filaments are also used to store glycogen and oxygen which is utilised for energy and movement.
Muscles fibres are formed from the joining of myoblasts, which are basically unformed muscle cells.
As each of these myoblasts have their own nucleus, when they join to form a muscle cell, the muscle cell then has numerous nuclei.
It is within these nuclei, that the DNA is stored, and it is now believed that it is within these nuclei that the memory of strength and form are stored.
Muscle memory and atrophy
Recent studies have now shown that contrary to what we had believed in the past, these nuclei do not atrophy along with the rest of the muscle fibres.
Instead, as the rest of the fibres whither, they remain within the cell as memories of what they have been capable of in the past.
When your body goes through an extended period of disuse, the muscles will slowly atrophy down to the point of necessity.
The nuclei however store the memory of strength that is required. This means that if and when you resume your training, as long as you are giving your body the nutrients it needs, you should be able to regain that strength and mass in a much shorter period of time.
This is assuming that there wasn’t a specific physical condition that caused you to atrophy in the first place.
So yes, muscles do have memory. Not the kind of memory that we store within our brains, but a special kind of memory that is unique to the myocytes, or muscle fibres themselves.
If you have trained long and hard in the past, and managed to bulk up and strengthen your muscles, then you should be able to achieve this same strength and form again, and slightly quicker than you did the first time round.