Here’s a great article by Ed Lane from ‘Mens Health’ mag. Well worth a read:
Get back in the gym and gains will return fast – thanks to muscle memory!
In a bid to answer the Men’s Health questions that matter we’ve asked the guys at Google to unhook from the Matrix (just for a moment) and use their search trends to help us help you. While classic queries about muscle size and six-pack abs were inevitably up there, one question you guys have been Googling stood out: how does muscle memory work?
Really we shouldn’t have been that surprised; it’s a fascinating topic that, while classic MH subject matter, runs a little deeper than simply making your muscles look good at the beach (although that’s important too). But where to start? Well, the most important distinction to make is there are two types of muscle memory. Firstly, the kind that helps lapsed gym-goers recover muscle more quickly and, secondly, the kind that means you can still ride a bike after years out of the saddle.
This is everything you need to know about both.
After spending weeks lifting heavy and sucking down protein shakes you’ve finally filled out your shirtsleeves and the urge to hit the gym is beginning to waiver. We get that. But what happens when you stop? Does it all just disappear? Shrinking muscle is a fear every gym goer faces (a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found you lose as much as 12% of your muscle power with just 14 days of detraining – scary stuff) and it’s also one of the main reasons people don’t start training in the first place. The gym needs to be a life long habit to be worth it, right? Well, not necessarily.
“Many years ago we used to think that once your muscles atrophy, whether from disuse or injury, then you’ll never get them back,” says Dr Michael Callaghan, Clinical Specialist Physiotherapist at Manchester University. “We thought muscles just died and that’s the end of it, but now we realise we were wrong all along.” It turns out researchers were simply looking in the wrong place.
Your power source
The key to muscle size and strength lies in their nuclei. Nuclei control protein synthesis and the more you have, the more protein you are able to turn into muscle. The first effect training has on your muscles is not actually growth; it’s to create more nuclei, which eventually facilitate the development of more tissue and build the biceps you keep flexing to no avail. Muscles are big and one or two nuclei aren’t enough, which is why you need to wait to see those beginner’s #gains – your nuclei are playing catch up.
For years it was thought that once your determination lapsed and you began choosing the sofa over the squat rack, then these nuclei simply died, never to be seen again. The reason? In previous studies researchers analysed nuclei found in connective tissue, which do die after you stop training, and it was assumed the same was true of muscles. However, on further investigation, it seems your bis and tris want to stick around.
Researchers at the University of Oslo have recently shown these newly acquired nuclei are retained during muscle atrophy, caused by inactivity. The debate surrounding how long they stick around remains undecided: one PNAS study reported a period of 3 months, while the Journal of Physiology found evidence to suggest these new nuclei are never lost; resistance training induces permanent physiological changes to your muscle fibres.
This is why training is easier for the guy toting a dadbod, not the skinny-fat guy who’s never touched a dumbbell. When training is resumed muscles are able to grow rapidly in size because the initial stage of adding nuclei is skipped and, once the nuclei have woken up, they can set about synthesising protein pretty sharpish.
However, it’s also the reason sports fans continue to oppose the return of Dwain Chambers to UK athletics. And why Justin Gatlin’s potential success at the upcoming world championships in Beijing has got a lot of backs up. “They’ve still been training, these fellas. They’ve not exactly been lying on the couch eating crisps,” says Callaghan. “If you completely detrain, the possible timespan to benefit from muscle memory is about two months – a comparatively short space of time – but the sprinters won’t be doing that.” The extra nuclei these guys gained while doping remain and they’ll continue to run the same record-breaking times, despite being “clean”.
The benefits do extend to more than disgraced sprinters, though. Muscle memory is also why physiologists recommend filling your muscles with as many nuclei as you can while you’re young. “You’re still able to run a marathon, just not as quick. You’re still able to lift weights, just not the heavy ones,” says Callaghan. “The type 1 fibres dominate when you get older, and the type 2 fibres – the fast-twitch fibres – tend to ease off, but they’re still there.” Building muscle gets harder as you age, whereas maintenance is easy. Worried about forking out for a gym membership? Commit to it today and you can consider it a life long investment.
And, when you do eventually return to the gym, it’s the other kind of muscle memory that’ll make the road back to brilliance even easier. European Journal of Applied Physiology research found training increases your coordination of different muscle groups, helping you to remember muscle movement patterns, lift heavier weights and re-build strength more quickly. But how?
It’s all in your head
This is not a memory of the muscle but a memory in the brain of a certain muscle movement. They’re stored in the Perkinje cells of the cerebellum, where the brain encodes information and records whether certain movements are right or wrong. The brain then gradually focuses more energy on the correct action and stores it in your long-term memory. Once it’s been stored then you need to use less of the brain to repeat it. Which is when the movement starts to feel natural.
When you move you activate sensors called proprioceptors in your muscles, tendons, and joints that feed back to your central nervous system. “The body is learning to interpret all of these movements and senses,” says Dr Jim Richards, professor of biomechanics at the University of Central Lancashire. “From either the mechanoreceptors within the joint or the skin receptors as the skin stretches, all the information is being fed back to the brain in relation to success.” Catch a ball with one hand and you’ll subconsciously remember; catch it with your face and you won’t – thankfully.
To investigate the phenomenon of muscle memory, researchers at the University of Manchester asked test subjects to repeat movements inside an MRI. “What they found while people tried to reproduce these movement tasks is that brain activity changes,” say Richards. “You get much greater activity in the areas of the brain that control unconscious aspects of movement and proprioception.” You might not realize it, but the brain is constantly creating muscle memories, one movement at a time.
The amount of repetitions it takes to create a muscle memory is still up for discussion. While some say it can be as low as 300-500, Malcolm Gladwell states in his book, Outliers, that 10,000 hours is the magic number needed to make someone an expert. Time to start practicing, gentleman.
Forget about it
But just because movements feel natural and you’ve successfully logged a muscle memory to your subconscious, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it right. The best example to explain this distinction is riding a bike. There is only really one technique to get it right – not including stabilisers – and so the muscle patterns ingrained in your cerebellum are correct. But what about swinging a golf club? There are so many variables and ways to do it wrong (that fade on your drive was intentional, right?) that an hour spent at the driving range can actually work to ingrain bad muscle memories. And, sadly, the only way to correct it is with hours spent doing it right.
Sure, this is annoying when you’ve just forked out for a new set of clubs, but this evidence of flexibility within the system is what makes the science behind muscle memory even more interesting. Unlike the memory of you trying to chat up girls at the bar on Friday, muscle memories can actually be changed. Or at least adapted. “If all we learn is one particular pattern, then if something new happens we will not have the adaptability to do anything about it,” says Richards. “We would become machine-like.” Balancing permanence and variability is critical to our ability to learn new skills and it’s something the human body can do extremely well.
Despite it being locked into our subconscious, muscle memory is also something we can consciously harness and has implications for the future of injury prevention. Back in 2005 Professor Richards began investigating ways to externally influence proprioception. “We found that by putting a bit of tape on athletes’ knees, their control of joint position massively improved,” says Richards. The tape’s contact with the skin increased proprioception and made it easier to repeat movements with proper form. This new knowledge of proprioception and muscle memory could mean an end to knock-kneed squatting or arch-backed deadlifts – protecting your joints and your wallets from expensive physio bills.
So what is muscle memory? It’s the ability to build super strength and never lose it, to hone skills on the sports field and to injury-proof every exercise – all without ever having to think about it. Get to gym and start making the most of yours. It’s a no-brainer.