Whether it’s riding a bike, playing the piano, or hitting a hole in one, there are just a few things you’ll never forget how to do. And the reason for this phenomenon is thanks to something called muscle memory.
Muscle memory applies to a wide range of physical activities, from playing an instrument to playing sports. But while we need to repeatedly practice a movement to develop muscle memory, the term doesn’t really refer to the muscles’ ability to remember movements. Rather, this memory occurs in our central nervous system, which explains why many of us can retain the skills we learned in childhood, even if we haven’t used them in years.
But muscle memory doesn’t just apply to physical skills and movements. It turns out that muscle memory can help us in the gym especially if you’re trying to get in shape after your free time.
Types of muscle memory
There are two types of muscle memory.
The first type refers to our ability to perform physical tasks automatically and easily. By repeatedly practicing a movement, it allows you to perform those movements more automatically, without having to think much about doing it. This is why athletes will repeatedly practice a specific move or shot, so they can execute it quickly and accurately during the pressure of competition.
At a basic level, this type of muscle memory involves the development of neural pathways that help our brains communicate with our muscles more effectively. This happens through a process called myelination, in which the myelin sheath (an insulating layer that surrounds nerve fibers) becomes thicker and more efficient at conducting electrical signals in both the body and the brain.
Studies show that myelination is improved through repeated physical activity. Even relatively short periods of practice can lead to significant changes in the brain and body that support the development of muscle memory.
But it’s important to note that not all reps lead to muscle memory. It only happens when you engage in deliberate practice, which means you perform specific movements or activities with focused attention and effort.
Get back in shape
The second type of muscle memory applies to our ability to get fit.
Let’s say you were someone who, until recently, had never lifted heavy weights at the gym. You probably remember how uncomfortable and difficult these exercises felt when you started out and how it took a lot of gradual work to work your way up to lifting heavier weights.
Now let’s say you took a break from training and came back many months later. You may have found that, despite the time off, it was easy enough to get back to the weights you were lifting before.
This is due to muscle memory. It applies to any exercise you perform and can make it easier to regain lost muscle mass than it was when you were building muscle the first time around.
The mechanisms behind this type of muscle memory are not fully understood. But our current theory is that even if the muscles shrink, the muscle cells remain.
To build muscles, they must be subjected to stress, such as when performing exercises such as weight lifting. This stress stimulates the growth of muscle cells, helping us get stronger.
For a long time it was believed that if you didn’t use your muscles, these new cells would die. But research suggests that may not be the case, with a 2016 study finding that myonuclei (a part of the muscle cell that contains genetic information and also serves as a key indicator of muscle growth) actually only shrink when they’re inactive not they disappear. at all. While more research is needed to help us fully understand this process, it at least suggests that our bodies use myonuclei to build up our fitness capacity, which would explain why it’s faster to get fit the second time around.
But if you’re wondering how long it will take to get back in shape after a break from training, unfortunately it’s not that easy to answer and will vary from person to person.
How quickly your muscles are recovered can also depend on the level of inactivity you had during your break from exercising. For example, it may take longer to get back into shape if you’ve been bedridden for months than if you’ve simply stopped resistance training but continued with your normal daily activities.
In the latter case, a study of women showed that even after more than six months off, participants were able to regain pre-breakdown strength and muscle size during six weeks of retraining compared to 20 weeks of retraining. strength training needed. to get back in shape initially. Another study found that men and women who trained for ten weeks and then took 20 weeks off were slightly stronger and slightly more muscular after five weeks of retraining than after the first ten weeks of training.
While there’s still a lot we don’t know about muscle memory, the good news is that it’s never too late to get back into the gym even if it’s been a long time. While it may feel like starting from scratch at first, the earnings will come back in no time. But while it can be tempting to get back to what you were doing before you took a break, it’s important to listen to your body and reintroduce yourself to the gym gradually to avoid injury.
Jack McNamara, professor of Clinical Exercise Physiology, University of East London
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