Is Muscle Memory in Athletes Real?

Muscle memory

If you have spent any time in a gym setting, then you would have heard people refer to the concept of muscle memory – and then, no doubt, you would have heard people referring to it as a complete and utter load of rubbish.

A myth, if you will.

But this has just been flipped on its head.

See, over the last couple of years we have seen some very interesting research come out suggesting the muscle memory may in fact be a real thing – which could have huge implications for training.

What is muscle memory?

When you hear people talking about muscle memory, they are essentially referring to the phenomenon where, after an extended period of detraining, your muscle size and strength return faster than it took to build them up in the first place (Gundersen, 2018).

This means that it might have taken you 6 months of hard training to build some muscle and increase strength. Then, after 6 months off, it might only take you three months of training to get back to your best.

I am sure you have probably experienced something similar before.

But is it real, or is it in our head?

Is muscle memory real?

This is where things start getting really interesting.

See, over the last couple of years we have seen some research demonstrating that there is actually a form of memory in your muscle fibres (Psilander, 2019).

Each of your muscle fibres contain what is known as myonuclei. These are a structure within the muscle cell that act as the ‘brain’ of the cell – in this manner, they are what tells the muscle fibre to grow in response to strength training.

Interestingly, when you undergo a period of strength training, you see an increase in the number of myonuclei within your muscle fibres.

And this increase is permanent.

Research has shown that even after a heavy period of detraining, you will never lose these myonuclei – indicating that muscle memory is in fact a very real thing.

What is the importance of muscle memory?

woman lifting weights

What is the importance of muscle memory – I mean, why does it matter?

Well, to give you some explanation, I want to highlight a rather famous study from the 1990s (Staron, 1991).

In this study, a group of researchers put a bunch of women through a heavy strength training regime that lasted 20 weeks in duration. Over this time period, they saw huge increases in both muscle strength and muscle size.

Then they got them to stop training completely for 32 weeks.

As I am sure you can imagine, they lost all the strength and muscle that they had gained during the training period.

But wait, there’s more.

After doing 32 weeks of nothing, the researchers put the women back on the same strength training regime they started the entire study with – and amazingly, they regained all their strength and size in a mere 6 weeks.

Muscle memory and muscle growth

All this research essentially demonstrates that if you have trained hard in the past, you will have better capacity to grow muscle in the future – even after a lengthy period of detraining.

This means that people who have trained hard in the past (say, college athletes for example) will be able to put on muscle mass much faster than someone who has never been in a gym setting – even if they currently look exactly the same.

Pretty cool, right?

Related Article: Muscle Growth and Loss

Muscle memory and surgery

One of the most interesting things I like to consider when talking about this concept relates to muscle memory after surgery.

We know that surgery (and often the immobilization that follows) can lead to a huge loss of muscle size and strength. This can lead to a loss of function, which can even increase injury risk and reduce quality of life.

However, if you choose to train hard before having surgery, then you can use the concept of muscle memory to your advantage.

By training specific muscle groups and movement before going into surgery, you will increase your number of myonuclei. Then, after surgery during the rehabilitation period, you will gain strength and size back much quicker.

This can essentially mitigate the negative effects associated with surgery, getting you back and functioning your best in no time.

Related Article: The Importance of Maintaining Mobility during Hospitalization

Muscle memory in athletes

And finally, let’s talk about athletes.

In short, athletes who train during their younger years will see a huge increase in the number of myonuclei within their muscle cells. As they get older, this will have a direct impact on their overall capacity to develop strength and size.

This suggests that adolescent athletes enrolled in a high-quality strength and conditioning program may hold an advantage over the rest of the competition – an advantage that will last them a lifetime.

Tips for athletes to build muscle memory

male athlete nutrition

Lastly, I wanted to outline some tips for aspiring athletes who want to use muscle memory to their advantage:

  • Start strength training early: as I alluded to above, starting strength training early in your career will cause a huge increase in the number of myonuclei within your muscle cells. This will allow you to build muscle faster after the off-season – even if you have stopped training completely.
  • Spend dedicated training blocks focused on muscle growth: during the off-season, using higher volume blocks of training (8-12 weeks in duration) will allow you to increase your muscle size significantly. As previously discussed, it is this type of training that can contribute to muscle memory – which will make the rest of your in-season training more effective.
  • Prioritise nutrition: finally, when you are training to improve muscle size (especially early on in your career), you need to eat enough to optimise muscle growth. This means consuming adequate protein while making sure that your total energy intake exceeds your energy demands. It is this that unlocks your potential to produce new myonuclei.

And boom, there you have it – three simply tips to boosting your training potential indefinitely.

Take Home Message

It is hard to believe that only a decade ago muscle memory was considered a myth – however, research has made it apparent that this is not the case at all.

In fact, training hard and building muscle in your early years may give you a lifetime advantage on the field.

What are you waiting for? Get training.

References

Gundersen, Kristian, et al. “Muscle memory: virtues of your youth?.” The Journal of physiology 596.18 (2018): 4289.

Psilander, Niklas, et al. “Effects of training, detraining, and retraining on strength, hypertrophy, and myonuclear number in human skeletal muscle.” Journal of applied physiology 126.6 (2019): 1636-1645.

Staron, Robert S., et al. “Strength and skeletal muscle adaptations in heavy-resistance-trained women after detraining and retraining.” Journal of Applied Physiology 70.2 (1991): 631-640.

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