When science starts to conflict with what is actually happening to you in the gym then you might just be about to discover one of the greatest health and fitness breakthroughs of all time. And this is exactly what happened with muscle memory. For years both the scientific and fitness community believed in the use it or lose it philosophy. Put simply, if you were no longer training, for whatever reason, then you will probably never get back the muscles that you have lost. But now we know different.
Muscle memory is one of those things that a lot of us just dismiss as a myth spawned in the most optimistic gyms across the globe. So the way to prove it actually exists is to better understand what is actually going on. Our size and strength is determined by muscular nuclei that control the protein synthesis in our bodies. That bit is quite simple, the more you train, the more nuclei you create, and the more you can synthesise protein to create muscle.
But here is where the confusion came from. We have known for a while that the first thing that happens when you start to train is that more nuclei get created. What we didn’t know was that when we start to favour the sofa over the squat our nuclei don’t simply die out as quickly as they were created. And that is muscle memory. So when you step back in the gym with someone who has never trained in their life, the first thing their body does is create nuclei but you don’t have that same problem. Which, by the way, is why a lot of people don’t think that people found to be doping should be allowed to return to their sport – their muscles remember even if everyone else doesn’t!
That’s the first kind of muscle memory dealt with. And when you look at the science it all seems to make sense. For me, the second sort is far more fascinating but also far harder to understand why it happens. The idea is still fairly simple though. Basically, the more you repeat something, the easier it is to do it consistently over time. So it might be the brain doing the actual remembering here but you can still use it to your benefit.
Most people use the idea of riding a bike here as an example. You can not ride a bike for years and then still be able to get on the saddle and ride off. So if you learn the right thing to do early enough, you should be able to pick it up much quicker than those who have never even attempted it. Well, sort of. Unfortunately it isn’t quite as simple as that. You see, there are probably thousands of ways you could try to ride a bike but only one will actually make it go forward. Once your brain learns that process, it remembers how to do it right.
The same can’t be said of doing a squat or a bicep curl though. There are plenty of ways that you could be doing a bicep curl that isn’t technically right. Do it enough and your brain remembers the wrong way and that is what you will consistently do time after time. So the trick is then to teach your brain to do the right thing, making your ability to build muscle effectively increase dramatically in the future.
So there you go. Of course, it might just be easier to stay in the gym rather than quit for months to test this all out. But if you do find yourself away from the gym you don’t have to go back feeling completely disheartened.