Muscle memory: Can muscles recall training habits?

“You will lose all that muscle mass when you quit lifting.” (Bro-science alert) – Isn’t this one of the most overheard statements for every newbie when he/she takes up weight training?

Who comes to your mind when I say, ‘someone who went out of shape, lost all his gains and got back in shape and regained muscle mass pretty quick?’ A friend or relative? Or celebrities like Christian Bale with his transformations throughout the years, Randeep Hooda’s bounce back after his transformation for the movie Sarabjeet or one of the most famous actors, Vin Diesel who was brought into limelight after relaxing and going out of shape for a while, or perhaps even the most recent and controversial transformation in Bollywood of the actor Aamir Khan for the movie Dangal?

What is muscle memory?

Muscle memory is the term used to describe an activity your body adapts to perform easily after it has been attempted various number of times. Just like when you see a hater commenting on your post and you can get back at them without even looking at your keyboard (we all have been there).

Muscle memory has an effect on strength training as well. Before going into the nitty gritty, we’ll get acquainted with the basics:

  1. One muscle fiber is made up of several myofibrils just like a like one rope is made up multiple joints of threads
  2. These single muscle fibers are bound together to form a fascicle which is further bound together to make muscle organs like small ropes are bound together to make a thick rope.
  3. At the base of these muscle fibers are textures called myonuclei.
  4. When we perform weight training, we increase the size of our muscle fibers which also leads to fusion of muscle fibers and activation of satellite cells (which is a different story altogether)
  5. These satellite cells reward muscle fibers with myonuclei as single myonuclei can only support a limited domain of the cytoplasm and with increased muscle fiber volume the myonuclei is increased.
  6. The myonuclei carry your DNA and RNA and help in growing muscle fibers by increasing protein synthesis.


Why is it easier to build muscle the second time around?

For someone who has trained previously, these myonuclei are still in the same number even if the size of the muscle fiber is reduced. Even with years of detraining and losing muscle mass, these myonuclei are still at large. They have been shown to be active throughout our lifespan to most extents even if we are not training. When we restart training say after a gap of a few months or a few years, these myonuclei help us regenerate our muscle fibers at an increased rate as compared to someone who is starting a fresh.

For someone who has trained for years and took a gap from training for a few months can achieve his previous muscle size and strength in matter or weeks, he won’t have to start from the scratch, isn’t that absolutely brilliant?

As is known that as we get old, we start losing muscle mass and growing muscle fiber is decreased due to reduced function of satellite cells as well as reduced number of satellite cell. Therefore, increasing myonuclei after a certain age is slowed down and at times comes to a halt. But people who have trained previously are at an advantage as they will face the issue at a slower pace as compared to someone who didn’t perform strength training thanks to our beloved friend – myonuclei. Even at an older age, a person suffering from losing muscle mass due to ageing can retain quite an extent of his muscle mass if they have trained in their young years. The same cannot be said for endurance training athletes, another reason to stick to weight training and not focus on endurance training. We know that we would prefer to be jacked granddads and grandmas.



Author credits – Mukund Dawra