Muscle memory: fact or fiction?


We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: consistency is key when it comes to resistance training.

Taking a break from training isn’t the end of the world.

However, just about every trainee will take a break from the gym every now and then. Life gets in the way, work takes priority or you simply lose the spark to workout with the same intensity you once did.

A few things start to happen when you take some time off from training. You gradually start to lose muscle size and - if you don’t change your diet - will probably pack on a few unwanted pounds. You may also experience some rapid strength loss, according to research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, which found that power athletes lost as much as 12 percent of their muscle power within just two weeks of detraining.

This might all sound pretty dire, but the good news is that taking a hiatus from the gym isn’t the end of the world. When you do find the motivation to get back into training, you’ll probably notice that you’re able to quickly regain your strength and size far faster than you did when you were starting from scratch. What’s responsible for this phenomenon?

What is muscle memory?

The term ‘muscle memory’ refers to two concepts:

  • The ability to reproduce a specific movement without consciously thinking about it through repetition (e.g. playing guitar).

  • The ability for gym goers to quickly recover their size and strength after a lapse in training.

We’re going to focus on the second. In this context, muscle memory - despite what the name might imply - has nothing to do with memories or your power of recollection. Rather, it’s all about the building blocks of the body that facilitate growth.

Resistance training results in the creation of nuclei in muscle cells. These nuclei play a critical role in muscular hypertrophy and have a big influence on the size of your muscles. In years gone by, it was thought that pushing pause on your training would cause these nuclei to die - and in connective tissue (the tissue that connects, supports, binds, or separates other tissues or organs), they do - but recent research indicates this probably isn’t true for muscle tissue (the tissue that makes up and allows our muscles to contract).

A number of studies have shown that muscle nuclei stick around for a few months after you stop training (the exact time period is still up for debate). In fact, one investigation from the University of Oslo found evidence that suggests nuclei never die - meaning that resistance training can forever change your muscle fibres and your capacity to build strength and size.

What does muscle memory mean for you?

The longevity of muscle nuclei explains why you can quickly recover your strength and build muscle when returning to the gym after months off. If you need to take a break from training for some reason, take solace in the fact that it won’t take too long to get back to where you left off.

It also serves as a powerful reminder that it’s never too late to commit to resistance training and build up muscle nuclei density while it’s still relatively easy to do so. Having more muscle nuclei may make it easier to build muscle in later years when hypertrophy is a slower process, and also reduce the health risks associated with the natural muscular atrophy caused by ageing.

patty lee