Muscle Memory: What Is It, How Does It Work, And How Long Does It Last

Muscle memory is essential in the field of sport, and helps us to control our body.

Muscle memory

If you have been physically fit in the past, will it be easier for you to be fit again in the future?

According to those who defend the existence of muscle memory, yes. But what does this concept consist of? It is a type of memory “located” in our muscles, which allows us to more easily do exercises that we have already practiced in the past.

In this article we turn to scientific research and different experts in the field to shed a little light on the different aspects that surround this issue: does muscle memory really exist?

How does it work? What does it depend on? What factors determine that it appears before or after? How long does it last? We will answer these and other questions in this article.

Muscle memory: what is it?

Many years ago, there was a tendency to think that muscles that atrophied, either as a result of their disuse, or as a result of an injury, would never recover. However, today it is known that this is not the case, thanks to the concept of muscle memory.

But what is muscle memory? It is about the memory that our muscles “have”, that is, the capacity that allows us to repeat movements more easily when we have already performed them previously.

In this way, our muscles can “retain” the memory of certain exercises, and even of our previous muscle growth, as stated by Robert Seaborne, one of the researchers in a study developed by the University of Keele (United Kingdom) on muscle memory, and which we will discuss later.

Muscle memory can be appreciated especially in athletes who, although they temporarily abandon sport, regain their physical shape more easily, and have more facility than other people who have never done sports when it comes to doing certain exercises again.

Thus, this type of memory helps us when we abandon our sports routines and return to the load, since it allows us to regain physical form more easily. But does muscle memory really exist? What does science say about it?

Neuroscience and muscle memory

Science has tried to answer the question of whether muscle memory really exists and, if so, how it works. One of these answers, according to recent research, would be found in genetics (that is, the origin of muscle memory would be found here).

Along these lines, research published in Nature’s Scientific Reports journal and developed by a team from Keele University (United Kingdom), suggests that human skeletal muscle has an epigenetic memory that is determined by earlier growth, which allows our body to recover more quickly.

However, the results of this research “collided” with what other theories say in relation to muscle memory. One of these theories is that developed by the biologist Kristian Gundersen, according to which there is an increase in myonuclei (the nuclei found within muscle fibers) in the cells of our muscle fibers, which would explain (roughly ) how muscle memory works.

Returning to the subject of genetics, experts have found specific genes related to muscle memory and, therefore, with a better return to the physical shape of our body.

These genes could potentially improve certain rehabilitation treatments that professional athletes undergo when they are injured, for example. It has also been seen how these genes could also lengthen the effects of certain drugs that some athletes take to improve their muscle building.

Other investigations

Another study in the line of genetics, this time developed by Moberg et al. (2020), revealed that various regulatory genes, as well as some proteins involved in the adaptation that muscles make to resistance exercises, are related to muscle memory (that is, they are influenced by the previous training history of each person).

One of the outstanding results of this study is that the cells of the leg exercised by the participants, after 10 weeks of training and 20 weeks of rest, were more prepared to develop volume and strength, at a genetic and metabolic level.

Specifically, the researchers found a wide range of genetic markers, as well as biochemical signals, within the muscle cells of the participants, related to the proper functioning of the muscles and their growth.

According to research, muscle memory clearly does exist, and it appears as a consequence of sports training. However, the researchers note that more research is needed in this regard.

Beyond genetics

However, it’s not just believed that muscle memory is due to genetics. Francisco Ozores, anthropometric technician and physical education teacher, explains that muscle memory is a broad concept that encompasses (or is explained by) three essential aspects: the organic, the psychological and the physiological.

According to him, people who are used to doing sports (especially professional athletes, or high performance), have different capacities from people “on foot” as a result of their work, beyond the physical.

These capacities have to do, for example, with a “strong” mind capable of training to the limit, or with the fact of being able to develop new capillaries for that muscle mass that once had the assimilation of proteins.

Thus, according to Ozores, muscle memory would be that capacity that allows us to develop past physical exercises much more easily (which is an advantage for athletes compared to non-athletes); later, according to him, genetics would also act, but for athletes and non-athletes alike.

How long does muscle memory last and what factors does it depend on?

According to experts, this depends on various factors, such as the age at which sports were stopped, the age at which the body was exercised again, the time elapsed between one moment and another, the type of diet, the own activity, genetic and metabolic factors, etc.

Ana Chezzi, a nutritionist specializing in anthropometry, explains that muscle memory lasts approximately 72 hours ; This means that the ideal would be that if we do sports on Monday, we should do it again on Thursday, since if not, all the preparation that our body has done (and therefore, our muscles) is deteriorating and even losing.

The importance of sport (and youth)

It is not a novelty that sport is so healthy for our body (and mind, also for our mind!). Thus, experts agree on the importance of staying active and training our muscles as much as we can throughout life, but especially when we are young. This is so because, as our body ages (just like our muscles), muscle building becomes increasingly difficult.

In this way, although muscle memory seems to exist and that it can help us a lot in this regard (in our physical recovery, for example, or in simply being fit), we can always “make things easier” for them by doing our part. Also, let’s not forget that without training, muscle memory does not exist.

Bibliographic references:

  • Joanisse, S., Gillen, JB, Bellamy, LM, McKay, BR, Tarnopolsky, MA, Gibala, MJ, & Parise, G. (2013). Evidence for the contribution of muscle stem cells to non hypertrophic skeletal muscle remodeling in humans. The FASEB Journal, 27 (11): 4596-4605.
  • Martin, D., Carl, K. & Lehnertz, K. (2007). Sports training methodology manual. Editorial Paidotribo. Barcelona.
  • Moberg, M., Lindholm, ME, Reitzner, SM, Ekblom, B., Sundberg, CJ & Psilander, N. (2020). Exercise induces different molecular responses in trained and untrained human muscle. Med Sci Sports Exerc.

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