Muscle Memory – How Does It Work?

By Shane YoungDecember 19, 2016

Muscle memory is a term that often pops up in the fitness and health industry, and yet its relevance is often disputed amongst different fitness professionals. Even though this term often refers to the way in which our brain remembers repetitive movement, such as learning to play a song on a guitar or to touch type on a keyboard, in the fitness industry it is actually referring to something a little different.

It refers to the ability to regain strength, definition, movement and efficiency at a faster rate in muscles that have been trained in the past.

The term ‘muscle memory’ describes the phenomenon of how a person who has been training for an extended period of time can cease their training, allowing their muscles to atrophy and deteriorate, then gain their muscle fitness back much quicker when they resume their training, than it took to gain it in the first place.

Our muscles don’t actually have memory, not in the way our brain does, so how do our muscles remember what it was like to be bigger and stronger before?

The answer is to this question is actually twofold and quite interesting.

The first answer looks at the actual DNA retained within each and every muscles fiber.

To understand this we need to look at what makes up a muscle fiber. These fibers, or muscles cells, are also known as ‘myocytes’. Myocytes are unique cells for a couple of reasons. Firstly their shape is long and tubular. They are made up of a combination of different protein formed filaments, within which the glycogen and oxygen are stored and utilized to form the energy and movement our muscles need.

These myocytes are actually formed from the joining of numerous ‘myoblasts’, which are like embryonic myocytes, each bringing their own nuclei to the mix. So because of these numerous myoblasts joining and making up each myocyte, the muscles cells essentially have numerous nuclei, which is the second reason why they are such a unique cell type.

It is within the nuclei of a cell that the DNA is stored, which in the case of muscles cells includes all the information it has gained in how to build and repair itself stronger and more resilient than before.

So essentially each muscle fibre contains numerous little ‘brains’, all of which have retained the information needed to regain its current size and strength.

Recent studies have shown that contrary to what we have believed in the past, the nuclei do not atrophy along with the rest of the muscle fibre. Instead, as the rest of the cell withers away due to lack of use, these nuclei remain intact for an extended period.

This means that when you apply the right circumstances, including a healthy protein rich diet coupled with appropriate training, the process of rebuilding your pre-existing lean muscle mass back to its former glory, will occur quicker than it had initially taken to build them.

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.

Then there is the second train of thought that applies to muscle memory and how we are able to regain former strength and ability at a faster rate than which it took to gain it initially.

This train of thought focuses on your neuromuscular system. It looks at how developing your muscles strength and ability through consistent training over a period of time, enhances your motor neuron excitability. Ben Greenfield talks about this in depth in episode 115 of his podcasts, when he says that “[muscles memory is] The ability to recruit motor units, recruit more of them and recruit them more efficiently”

In his podcast he refers to how even though it may take 4-6 weeks for your musculo-skeletal fitness to return through training, after a period of neglect, your ability to return to your previous movement and efficiency will take less time (between 2-4 weeks) because your nerves within you neuromuscular system have learnt to be more efficient in communicating with each other and engaging each of the motor units in the process of muscle movement.

This means that even though your muscle mass might not yet be entirely regained, the ability of your nerves to stimulate the motor neurons within the muscle fibers is re-established quicker, making the process of retraining in a specific exercise seem quicker and easier.

The need to take a break from our regular fitness routines can come about for many different reasons. Perhaps our health demands that we take it easy, or life commitments come into play, or we have simply taken the time out for a relaxing holiday. Whatever the reasons, it can be frustrating returning to the gym, or to our yoga session, only to discover that we have set ourselves back in our progress.

However with a little love and dedication, we can regain our previous health, and even take it further!

In health,



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