Turn Your Muscles on Autopilot–How Does Muscle Memory Work?

The dictionary defines muscle memory as “the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.” In other words: it’s a nifty little way to turn your muscles on autopilot!

Getting Groovy: Muscle Memory 101

Imagine walking through a heavily wooded area to get from your house to your friend’s house. You take the same path every day, day-in and day-out. At first, you may get lost or stumble because the path is new and hard to follow. But over time, your footprints make the path clearer and clearer, until eventually the path is so obvious and you remember it so well that you can practically walk it blindfold.

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This is how muscle memory works.

When we first perform a movement (whether that’s a dance move, a bodyweight squat, or a yoga pose), it may feel a little clunky and awkward. We have to think about what we’re doing and listen to what our coach or instructor is telling us in order to perform the movement correctly.

With enough practice, however, the movement begins to get easier. We don’t have to think about what we’re doing–we sort of just do it. This happens not only because we are gaining strength, stamina, and flexibility, but also because we are gaining body awareness, motor control, and neuromuscular efficiency.

You May Also Like: 10 Way to Rev-Up Your Running

Muscle memory is a process of reorganizing and rewiring our nerves to make the brain/body connection stronger, faster and more accurate. When we practice a new movement over and over again, we are literally “grooving” a new neural pathway within our central nervous system. This makes it easier for our brain to tell our body what to do the next time. In geek terms, this is “neuroplasticity”, or the ability of our central nervous system to reshape itself based on the demands we place on our brain and body. Who knew that working out could literally change the shape and strength of your nerves and brain? Pretty darn cool.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

When Muscle Memory Goes Bad

Muscle memory saves you a lot of mental energy, which allows you to work harder and get more out of your workouts. But here’s the thing: muscle memory is learned movement–whether the movement learned is correct or not!

If you “learn” (practice) a movement again and again improperly (e.g., repeatedly squatting with bad form), then you’re “teaching” your muscles and nervous system that this is how you should move–even if the movement itself is potentially unsafe or inefficient.

To go back to the woods analogy, let’s say that the path you made to get to your friend’s house goes around a huge lake and over a super steep hill full of thorny bushes and loose rocks (ouch!). But, as it turns out, there’s a safer and faster way to get to your friend’s house. In order to start using this newer path consistently, you’ll have to break your habit and be willing to step off the “improper” pathway that you’ve already spent so much time and energy “grooving.”

So, to prevent learning bad technique (and avoid the hassle of “unlearning” bad technique), remember this mantra: Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.

Any time you are learning a new skill–whether it’s weight lifting, yoga, swimming, or something else–take the time (and have the patience!) to learn the new skill the right way. Ask your Healthworks coach or trainer for guidance. It’s far easier and safer to learn something correctly the first time rather than having to “unlearn” the bad movement and retrain your muscle memory.

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Muscle Memory Is Real and Here’s How It Helps You Build Muscle Fast

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Key Takeaways

  1. Muscle memory describes the phenomenon of muscle fibers regaining size and strength faster than initially gaining them.
  2. This occurs because weightlifting permanently alters the physiology of muscle cells in a way that primes them for rapid regrowth.
  3. Taking too much time off training will result in muscle loss, but muscle memory helps you regain muscle quickly once you start training again.

Most guys and gals lift weights to look like this:

And think that taking even a short break results in this:

Or maybe this:

In other words, they think of a day without exercise as a step toward getting smaller, fatter, and weaker.

This mindset is particularly common among people who are new to lifting weights or who haven’t gained much muscle or strength to speak of, usually because they’re afraid to lose what little “aesthetics” they have.

Once they get more training time under their belt, though, which inevitably entails periods of less exercise than you’d like, they notice something curious:

Not only is it harder to lose muscle than they thought, they regain whatever they do lose much faster than the first time around.

In most cases, the losses are minimal and it only takes a few weeks to get right back to where they were before taking a break, even an extended break of a few weeks or more. And if they were out for many months, the losses are still limited and the rate of regain is remarkable.

If you’ve experienced this firsthand, you know what I’m talking about, and if you haven’t, you’re probably skeptical. And that’s okay. I’ve been there myself.

The good news, however, is your body, like mine, is hardwired to hold onto muscle, not lose it, and regain it quickly when it actually is lost.

In other words, “muscle memory” is a fundamental aspect of human physiology, not a perk for the genetic elite or #dedicated steroid users.

And in this article, you’re going to learn why, including how muscle memory works and how to use it to your advantage.

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What Is Muscle Memory?

Muscle memory describes the phenomenon of muscle fibers regaining size and strength faster than initially gaining them.

For instance, for an intermediate or advanced weightlifter, a few pounds of muscle gain per year is the norm, and eventually it slows to an almost imperceptible crawl. If they stop lifting for a bit and lose, let’s say, five pounds of muscle, however, it might only take a month or two to gain it right back.

The same principle of “hard to gain, easier to regain” holds true for many other skills and physical processes. For instance . . .

  • Regaining your aerobic capacity after a layoff is much easier than initially building it up.
  • Relearning to ride a bike is much easier than learning it newly, even decades later.
  • Relearning to play a song on the piano is significantly easier than the first time.

You can think of muscle memory as a lifelong reward for the hard work you put into building muscle and strength. Do it once and it’ll always be easier to do again.

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How Muscle Memory Helps You Regain Muscle Faster

Muscle cells are unique in that they can contain multiple nuclei—known as myonuclei—which carry the DNA that orchestrates the construction of new muscle proteins.

The nucleus of a cell is responsible for increasing or decreasing the production of various cellular chemicals and activities, regulating cellular replication and repair, and starting and stopping other vital functions.

You can think of the nucleus of a cell like its brain. This little brain can only handle so much information, though, and its limited computing capacity limits a cell’s ability to grow larger (and thus engage in more activities).

As muscle cells have multiple “brains,” they can grow significantly larger than most other cells in the body.

Each myonuclei can only manage so much cell, however, and this amount is referred to as its myonuclear domain. To continue getting bigger, then, a muscle cell must add more myonuclei.

The catch is muscle cells can’t produce myonuclei—they must take them from another kind of cell called a stem cell. Stem cells are special cells that can be developed into many different types of cells in the body.

There are many different kinds of stem cells in the body, but the kind most involved in muscle growth are referred to as satellite cells. These cells lie dormant near muscle cells and are recruited as needed to help heal and repair damaged muscle fibers.

Once called upon, satellite cells attach themselves to damaged muscle cells and donate their nuclei, which not only aids in repair but also increases the cells’ potential for more size and strength.

This is the body’s fundamental adaptation to resistance training that results in bigger and stronger muscles. It also helps explain why you have to progressively overload your muscles to get fitter:

The more you train, the more myonuclei your muscle cells accumulate, and this makes them more resistant to muscle damage, which means you have to work harder and harder to stimulate more satellite cell recruitment.

In other words, your body won’t fire up its muscle-building machinery unless it has to—unless you force it to.

And here’s where muscle memory enters the picture: Once a satellite cell has donated a nucleus to a muscle cell, it stays there for good.

While scientists aren’t sure exactly how long myonuclei remain in muscle cells once donated, estimates range from several months to forever, with most evidence supporting the latter conclusion.

Now, it’s important to remember that satellite cell activation is just one mechanism that contributes to muscle growth. Muscle fibers can grow to a point before requiring additional myonuclei, but once they reach that limit, the only way to keep growing is to add myonuclei.

So, if you’ve built a significant amount of muscle—20 or more pounds as a man and 10 or more pounds as a woman—your muscles contain a lot more myonuclei than when you started training them.

Furthermore, if you stop training your muscles for at least a few weeks, you’ll lose strength and eventually muscle size, but the additional myonuclei you worked so hard for will remain in your muscle cells for some time (and maybe forever).

This is why you can regain muscle you’ve lost much quicker than you can gain muscle you never had—your muscle cells don’t need to recruit new satellite cells to grow back to their former glory and instead can simply work with the hardware they’ve already got, which is mechanically simpler and more efficient.

So, to recap what we just covered, here’s how muscle memory works:

  1. When you lift weights, you damage muscle fibers.
  2. This causes nearby satellite cells to flock to damaged muscle cells and donate nuclei for repair and recovery.
  3. These additional myonuclei increase the muscle cells’ ability to grow bigger and stronger.
  4. Once inside a muscle cell, myonuclei stick around for a very long time, possibly forever.
  5. If you’ve gained a considerable amount of muscle and then lose a considerable amount for whatever reason, your body is primed for rapid muscle regrowth when you start training again.

So, that describes how muscle memory helps you regain muscle faster.

Some people believe you can use muscle memory accelerate new muscle growth as well. Let’s review this theory and see how it holds up to scientific scrutiny.

Can Muscle Memory Help You Build New Muscle Faster?

Part of the reason people new to weightlifting build muscle so quickly (“newbie gains”) is their bodies are highly highly sensitive to muscle damage.

Specifically, during the first six to twelve months of lifting, satellite cells are easily activated after workouts, resulting in large infusions of myonuclei into muscle cells.

The more muscle you gain, however, and the closer you approach your genetic potential for muscle growth, the more difficult it is to keep adding new nuclei to muscle cells.

The reason for this basically boils down to a phenomenon known as the repeated bout effect, which states that the more you do a certain kind of exercise, the more your body becomes accustomed to it and the less adaptation is stimulated by it.

In other words, as you accumulate more training experience, you get less and less muscle and strength gain per unit of training effort.

The mechanism of satellite cell activation is the primary culprit behind this unfortunate reality. As you build more muscle. . .

  1. The total amount of satellite cells available for recruitment decreases.
  2. You must do harder and harder workouts to produce enough muscle damage to convince satellite cells to donate their nuclei to muscle cells.
  3. The muscle damage that does occur results in less satellite cell activity.

Some people believe there’s a way to “hack” this system, though.

It takes around three to four weeks without training for a muscle to begin atrophying, but as you know, the additional myonuclei gained through training stick around significantly longer (possibly forever).

Additionally, the bigger and more trained your muscles are, the less satellite cells are recruited in response to training and the less muscle you build over time.

The sixty-four thousand-dollar question, then, is this:

What if you included training breaks in your plan that were long enough to “resensitize” satellite cells to muscle damage but not so long as to result in muscle loss?

Could that allow you to build muscle faster?

Maybe.

While there’s little research looking at how this strategy might influence satellite cell activity per se, there is some information on how it might influence your overall rate of muscle growth.

For instance, a study conducted by scientists at the University of Tokyo divided 14 young men into two groups:

  1. Group one lifted weights every week for 24 weeks.
  2. Group two lifted weights for six weeks, stopped lifting weights for three weeks, and then repeated this cycle twice more for a total of 24 weeks.

Both groups followed a weightlifting routine that involved bench pressing three days per week for 3 sets of 10 reps at 75% of their one-rep max.

Strangely, both groups gained almost the same amount of muscle and strength at the end of the study, despite group two doing 25% less training.

The researchers didn’t measure satellite cell activity, so it’s impossible to say if that might have contributed to the surprisingly positive results in group two, but it’s possible.

Another similar study conducted by the same team of scientists produced almost identical results. In this case, the researchers divided 15 young men into the following two groups:

  1. Group one lifted weights continuously for 15 weeks.
  2. Group two lifted weights for 6 weeks, stopped lifting for 3 weeks, then lifted weights for another 6 weeks for a total of 15 weeks.

Both groups gained the same amount of strength and muscle, but there was an interesting disparity in the rates of strength and muscle gain.

Group one’s strength and muscle gains started to slow down in the last 6 weeks of the study, which is to be expected due to the repeated bout effect.

In group two, however, although they didn’t gain any muscle during their 3-week break (natch), they gained muscle quickly and consistently enough during their two 6-week bouts of training that they ended up gaining the same amount of strength and muscle after 15 weeks as group one.

As interesting is all that is, it doesn’t necessarily mean inserting longer breaks into your training is going to help you get jacked faster.

First of all, it’s possible that in both of these studies the people who took training breaks were simply benefitting from feeling more rested and enthusiastic for their workouts, which can make a huge difference in muscle and strength gain.

Second, the people in these studies were beginners, so you’d expect them to gain muscle quickly and easily regardless of whether they took breaks. More advanced lifters have to work much harder to make gains, however, so you wouldn’t necessarily expect training breaks to produce the same results for them.

Third, in both studies the people who took breaks didn’t build more muscle than those who trained continuously—they just built the same amount of muscle with fewer workouts. This doesn’t indicate that taking breaks increases muscle gain, then, just that it can be equally effective as continuous training.

Finally, neither of these studies tells us how things might play out over time.

Sure, both groups gained about the same amount of muscle over four to six months, but how would this strategy work if continued for several years?

Considering that volume and intensity are the two most important training factors in muscle growth, common sense dictates that dramatically reducing these (by taking several-week breaks every so often) over longer periods of time would result in less muscle gain, not more.

And while taking breaks now and then can increase your enthusiasm for training and make it more enjoyable, you can accomplish the same thing with regular deloads.

So, a more plausible yet still comforting conclusion from this research is you can be out of the gym for weeks at a time without having to worry much about losing gains.

That means you can enjoy that vacation with a guilt-free conscience. Or recover from that injury patiently. Or play some sports for a bit instead of lifting. Don’t worry. Your muscles will be ready for a quick and triumphant return.

The Bottom Line on Muscle Memory

Muscle memory describes the phenomenon of muscle fibers regaining size and strength faster than initially gaining them.

And it’s true: you’ll regain muscle in less time than it took to gain it initially.

This is largely thanks to two facts:

  1. The rate at which you gain muscle and the amount you gain are largely governed by the amount of new nuclei that are added to muscle cells.
  2. Intense and frequent resistance training appears to more or less permanently increase the amount of nuclei in muscle cells.

In other words, when you train your muscles hard enough, you’re not only increasing their size and strength, you’re also upgrading their muscle-building machinery for the long-term, possibly forever.

If you then stop training for whatever reason, you eventually start to lose size and strength but not the upgrades to the machinery.

Thus, when you start training again, the enhanced muscle cells regain muscle and strength quicker than the first time around, when they were powered by lower-horsepower equipment.

While this phenomenon allows you to quickly regain muscle you’ve lost, it doesn’t help you build muscle you’ve never had before faster.

There’s no shortcut for that, there’s just lots of heavy, compound weightlifting, high-protein dieting, and thoughtful management of your calories and macros.

If you want to learn more about how to set up a weightlifting and diet plan for gaining muscle and strength, check out these articles:

Training

The Definitive Guide on How to Build a Workout Routine

The 12 Best Science-Based Strength Training Programs for Gaining Muscle and Strength

How to Create the Ultimate Muscle Building Workout

Diet

The Ultimate Guide to Bulking Up (Without Just Getting Fat)

How Much Protein You Should Eat to Build Muscle

This Is the Best TDEE Calculator on the Web (2019)

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Picture this… After 20 years away from home, you find your old bicycle in the basement, old and rusted and forgotten. For old times’ sake, you bring it out, hop on, and pray that you don’t fall off and damage those old bones! Miraculously, you manage to keep your balance as you pedal, slowly at first and then faster as you grow more confident. It’s as though you never stopped cycling!

It’s a common belief that once you learn how to ride a bike, you can never forget how to do it. Even if you haven’t been within a 20-mile radius of a cycle for decades, you still won’t forget the skill. It’s an ability chalked up to muscle memory.

Once you learn how to ride a bicycle, you never forget (Photo Credit: )

Procedural Memory

Any discussion about muscle memory would be incomplete—and quite frankly, hard to follow—without some basic knowledge of procedural memory. Our memory can be divided into 2 major classes – procedural and declarative. Declarative memory can be recalled consciously, and involves facts and events. Procedural memory, on the other hand, cannot be consciously recalled. It usually consists of skills, routines or actions that you may perform on a regular basis. For instance, think about riding a bike: it involves many different actions like maintaining balance, pushing the pedals, maintaining the position of the handle, etc. If asked to explain, you won’t be able to put all that into words, but you will still be able to ride the bike. This is because the act of riding a bike has become set in your procedural memory.

Procedural memory is a form of long-term memory. It takes time for an action or routine to become embedded in your long-term memory, but once it does, that act can be performed without consciously giving it much attention. Another example is learning to drive. Especially in a manual-driven car, or even an automatic one, when you first learn how to drive, it takes up all of your attention and focus. However, once you get the hang of it and with enough practice, you can multitask while driving, like having a conversation, singing along to your favorite song, etc.

Types of memory (Photo Credit : Garethlines/Wikimedia Commons)

Muscle Memory

Muscle memory is a type of procedural memory. However, the name of this particular phenomenon is a bit of a misnomer. Although it includes the word ‘muscle’, the memory center actually lies in the brain, not in the muscles. When we repeat an action over and over again, it gets transferred from our short-term memory to our long-term storage. In the beginning, our brain is more actively working to perform the task, but as we practice or repeat it, over time, our brain needs to pay less attention to successfully perform that task.

Another way that some people express the concept of muscle memory is with the term ‘zombie agents’. Some researchers use this term to refer to agents in our brain that can carry out a particular task without us being aware of it, and without any application of judgement. For instance, imagine that you drive to your workplace every day. One evening, you need to go out for a social commitment and take your car, but something is on your mind, keeping you distracted. By the time you realize what you’ve done, you have started to drive your car on the usual route to work! Keep in mind that the muscle memory at play here is not just about remembering the route, but also the act of driving the car. You will honk when necessary, change lanes, speed up and slow down, but you still may not realize that you’re going to the wrong place. This example aptly shows just how efficient muscle memory can be.

This form of memory doesn’t only develop for tasks that we actively practice. Studies have shown that even by simply seeing the same task being performed, it can trigger the formation of muscle memory. Obviously, the longer you practice or repeat an action, the more firmly it can become embedded in your memory.

Over time, driving a car also engages your muscle memory (Photo Credit: pxhere)

Benefits of Muscle Memory

Needless to say, this feature of our memory system has some amazing benefits and applications. Muscle memory is employed by us in such seemingly common tasks that we may fail to even realize it. For instance, a person’s written signature quickly becomes a part of their muscle memory. This is helpful for people who experience amnesia as the result of any type of trauma. Procedural memory is stored in the deeper parts of the brain, which are less susceptible to damage. Therefore, most amnesiacs tend to retain their procedural memories.

Muscle memory is used while driving, walking, swimming, playing an instrument, etc. Walking requires a complex number of muscle movements and coordination between the sense organs, the brain and the muscles. It may not be possible for a person to even begin to explain how we can walk, but even when we’re preoccupied and thinking about a hundred other things, we don’t stumble through our steps.

Muscle memory is also a critical part of playing an instrument. When you start playing, the main focus is on learning the various notes and chords and transitioning between them. As a person practices, they can become more adept at that and will pay attention to the main tune of the song. Once this part has been mastered, a person may even be able to sing along while playing the instrument.

Playing any musical instrument requires muscle memory (Photo Credit : )

One research study measured the brain activity of a professional pianist and a new piano student playing the same piece of music. Results revealed that there was a much higher amount of brain activity in the learner, as compared to the professional pianist. This also proves that, once an action becomes a part of our muscle memory, we can spend less focus on it and invest our attention elsewhere.

Muscle memory starts to develop from a very young age, and the younger we start an action, the more firmly it is embedded in our brain. This is because our brain is more active at a young age, meaning that more neural connections can be established. As we can clearly see, this is an essential part of living, coming into play in countless moments when we don’t even realize it. Without muscle memory, multitasking would be impossible, and in today’s fast-paced world, we’d probably get left behind!

  1. McGill University
  2. Indiana University Bloomington
  3. Oxford-University
  4. Forbes Magazine
  5. Psychology Today

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Muscle tissue does not have a “memory” of past exercise training, new research suggests.

Muscles that have trained hard in the past and those that have not trained show similar changes in the genes that they turn on or off in response to exercise, the research found.

That may be both good news and bad news for people, said study co-author Malene Lindholm, a molecular exercise physiologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

“It’s encouraging for people who haven’t trained when they’re young because you don’t have a disadvantage,” Lindholm told Live Science. When you start exercising, “you can adapt just as well as people who have trained,” she said.

On the flip side, the findings also suggest that being a past tennis pro is no guarantee that you could quickly pick up the sport again at the same elite level, she added.

Muscle memory

Exactly how long exercise training lasts has been up for debate. On the one hand, studies have demonstrated that immediately after exercise, the body ramps up the action of many genes. These effects persist for hours to a day after exercise.

And, over the longer term, if people continue to work out, the body starts making more proteins and that leads to more long-term adaptations.

But on the other hand, it’s also pretty clear that these adaptations tend to dissipate quickly if a person stops exercising regularly.

“As soon as you stop training — especially if you do something as dramatic as breaking a leg, so you stop moving completely — you lose muscle mass and endurance-training effects very quickly,” Lindholm said.

To see whether any adaptations at the genetic level lingered once people stopped exercising, Lindholm and her colleagues asked 23 very sedentary people to come into the lab and kick one leg 60 times a minute for 45 minutes. The participants repeated this exercise four times a week over three months.

They took nine months off, then returned to repeat the training, but this time with both legs.

The team took muscle biopsies (which involves anesthetizing the skin and using a needle to extract muscle cells) both before and after both exercise training periods, and analyzed which genes were active in the muscle tissue in each leg. (They alternated whether people initially trained their dominant or non-dominant leg to remove the effects of handedness from the study.)

Results showed that gene expression between the two legs did not differ, even though one leg had previously trained hard for three months, the researchers reported today (Sept. 22) in the journal PLOS Genetics.

A few hints suggested that training may have induced some lasting epigenetic changes, or changes in chemical markers on the genes that affect how they are expressed, but the results were too tentative to say for sure.

The findings suggest that people’s muscles don’t hang on to the metabolic changes associated with exercise for very long.

That makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, Lindholm said. Maintaining muscles takes a lot of calories.

“It’s a cost to keep up really metabolically active muscles or a big muscle mass, and there is no reason for the body to expend energy on that if we don’t need to use the muscle,” Lindholm said.

In fact, in times when food was scarce, keeping bulky muscles that weren’t needed might have led people to starve, she said.

True muscle memory

Although new results suggest that the muscle cells themselves do not retain a “memory” from exercise, the same is not true for the nerves that thread through the muscles, or the brain regions that control movement, Lindholm said.

“Your nerves have learned in which order to activate your muscles in order to perform a certain movement,” she said.

Riding a bike, serving a tennis ball and learning how to walk when you’re a really small child, are things that you can’t really forget, Lindholm said.

So tennis player Venus Williams or gymnast Simone Biles likely retain an almost instinctive memory of how to activate their muscles just right for a killer serve or a double-twisting double backflip.

But the same is not true for the muscle power needed to execute a perfect jump or a serve, Lindholm said.

“If you don’t train your muscles won’t be able to produce the force necessary to do it, even though your nerves know exactly which order to activate,” Lindholm said.

Original article on Live Science.

Muscles Have Memory of their Fitness

Fitness is the outcome of many different factors that work together to achieve it. Nothing quite shows that complexity more clearly than “muscle memory”.

Because the term “muscle memory” is used in two different types of context it is worth looking at each one in turn to better understand what is going on and what it is we are actually describing. In the first instance it implies that muscles have a kind of memory when it comes to fitness and can snap back into it after people have let themselves go a little or if they have lost their level of fitness from a layoff due to injury. In the second it is used to suggest that muscles have some kind of on-board memory regarding the way they move, for example when you learn to throw a ball or duck a punch or, even, learn to ride a bicycle which allows them to perform it again at a much later date even if we have not been practicing the move for a while.

How right are they? Until recently all we had to go by was some anecdotal information on the first context and some poorly understood studies from the 70s regarding the second. Those who were heavily involved in fitness felt that intuitively they were right in both cases but they had no real theory to support their personal experience and those who were studying human physiology and muscle growth were looking, as it turned out, at the wrong things which led them to create the wrong theory.

Let’s unpack all this a little by looking at each of them separately and then both together so we can see where the overlaps occur and how we can best benefit from the current state of understanding of how muscle memory works.

The idea that muscles have some kind of memory arose from anecdotal reports that trained athletes who had come back from a long lay-off due to injury or a break from training and were therefore starting again from a detrained level, got fitter faster than those who did not have the same fitness background as they did.

Everyone who, for some reason, is forced to stop training knows how quickly the body reacts to the layoff. There is very fast reduction in muscle mass and endurance drops off dramatically, very quickly. From an evolutionary point of view this makes sense. Muscle is metabolically expensive as it requires large amounts of energy to maintain. The moment the body feels it doesn’t need it any more it begins the reduction process which allows it to conserve energy.

As recently as 2016 a study carried out by Malene Lindholm, a molecular exercise physiologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm showed that muscle tissue does not have a “memory” of past exercise training. In that study the researchers asked 23 very sedentary people to come into the lab and kick one leg 60 times a minute for 45 minutes. The participants repeated this exercise four times a week over three months. They then took nine months off and returned to repeat the training but this time with both legs.

The research team then took muscle biopsies both before and after both exercise training periods, and analyzed which genes were active in the muscle tissue in each leg. Their findings showed that both trained an untrained muscle tissue exhibited the exact same physiological changes.

When muscle is trained the very first change that happens to it is an increase in the number of nuclei. Nuclei are responsible for the production of protein that is required for the growth and repair of the muscle itself. Proteins, alongside other chemical messengers produced by each nucleus in a muscle cell are necessary for the healthy function of muscle tissue when it is exercising. The more nuclei a muscle has the better it can respond to the rigor of exercise and the stronger and more durable it is. There is also the suggestion that the number of nuclei, multiplying, play an eventual role in the increase of the muscle size itself.

When the Karolinska Institute 2016 research study took place it looked at exactly the same changes sustained by detrained muscle tissue as every other study before it had:

  • Connective tissue size
  • Muscle fiber size
  • Gene expression during exercise
  • Strength output of trained and untrained leg

The findings were that despite the fact that one leg had been through a three-month long training program earlier, there were no major differences in its gene expression and output from the untrained leg. The researchers, in their paper, mentioned that there were some indications of some small differences but nothing conclusive enough to change their opinion that muscles do not have a muscle memory.

As it happens, by looking at performance during exercise and biopsying the muscles the researchers were focusing on the wrong part of the mechanism governing muscle memory. Detrained and untrained muscles do not, indeed, exhibit differences in gene expression during exercise as they build up their muscle strength. But that doesn’t mean that changes have not taken place at a much deeper, and therefore harder to spot level.

Just two years after the Karolinska Institute study researchers at Keele University carried out a much deeper, follow-up that looked specifically for changes of detrained and untrained muscles, during exercise, at a cellular level.

“The study examined eight untrained male subjects over a 22-week period. Each subject participated in a period of targeted resistance exercise, followed by a period of inactivity, and then another stretch of exercise. Muscle biopsies were taken at several points across the study and over 850,000 genomic sites were analyzed for epigenetic alterations.”

What it revealed was what every athlete and sports coach has anecdotally known for a long time now: Muscles that have been trained before, find it easier to get back to a trained state than untrained muscles building up for the first time. The reason for this lies in epigenetic changes that happen at the level of each individual cell. Specific sites on each cell are responsible for muscle growth and an increase in strength. When muscles stop training there is a slow at first and then faster decline of muscle size and strength but the genes responsible for muscle growth do not go away.

This means that muscles that were once strong can quickly ramp up production in proteins necessary for muscle building. There are three things to take away from this and one small but important detail the study did not stress enough.

The takeaways first:

AMuscles do have a memory of their former fitness and strength encoded in their genes and it allows them to rebuild that strength faster when they lose it.

BSustained exercise creates epigenetic changes at a cellular level that essentially allow us to modify our DNA (within specific parameters).

CExercise, over time, builds a new version of us that remains even after we stop exercising. We are, essentially, the architects of our physical self.

The detail that was not stressed enough is that although retraining muscle is easier if we have trained before, as we age, the ability of muscle to remember its strength-building capabilities wanes. Which means it is probably better to sustain our exercise regime than to rely on past glories and let ourselves go thinking we can pick up where we left off at any time.

There is More than One Kind of Muscle Memory

This leads us to the second kind of “memory” associated with muscles, which is their ability to remember specific, complex motor patterns. Riding a bicycle is probably the easiest example here because it shows the exact extent of this ability as well as its limitations.

Get on a bike after a really long layoff and although you will not need to relearn the skill you will find that you have somehow grown “rusty”. You’re a little wobbly in some of the movements and find you have to really concentrate on some others.

Martial artists, boxers, dancers and gymnasts know well that this type of muscle memory begins in the brain and extends to the body via its central nervous system and the complex neural connections formed in the brain.

This kind of muscle memory is not a true memory of the muscle but a memory in the brain of a certain muscle movement that is controlled via a network of neurons. What happens when we learn and then repeat a particular movement is that the connections that govern it strengthen over time so that signals get through fast with less hesitation.

To explain this in more detail, consider that this type of muscle memory is 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 we need to use less of the brain to repeat it. Which is when the movement starts to feel natural.

Faster reflexes, complex motor skills and the ability to move our body in three-dimensional space with speed, accuracy and precision are all part of this mechanism that goes on all the time. It is how we learn to walk in the first instance, it helps us refine our running technique and it requires patience and perseverance when it comes to learning complex dance or athletic movements.

There are two things to take away from this one and they are both important: First, everything we do, from catching a ball to reaching out with one hand, while driving to turn on the AC in the car activate sensors called proprioceptors in our muscles, tendons, and joints that feed back to our central nervous system. The body then learns to interpret all that data feeding it back to the brain in relation to how successful we have been. A set of dance movements or a complex series of martial arts steps that result in the outcome we want are sent to the brain to encode and remember. If they don’t however, if we trip over our own feet while dancing or forget which way to kick or punch in a martial arts choreography the information is discarded. The brain never even gets to encode what was wrong.

This is why repetition at something gets us closer to getting good at it. Each time we are successful our brain receives signals it encodes so we can remember them as “muscle memory” and each time fail it doesn’t so that data is simply lost.

The good news in all this is that once our brain has formed specific neural networks to govern a movement and encoded all the associated memories around it we can still carry it out even if we don’t practice it for a long time. But again, there will be a little ‘rustiness’ in our capability as the neural connections in our brain that govern it will have become weakened with disuse.

The Practical Takeaways

There are several practical takeaways here that directly affect fitness, motivation and health and both types of muscle memory are key to them.

For cellular muscle memory:

  • Sustained training over a minimum three-month period is necessary for changes at a cellular level to take place. That is also the minimum length of time for those who train three times a week to begin to feel first and then see some change in their performance and musculature.
  • The younger we start to train the better it is for the type of cellular muscle memory we develop.
  • Trained muscles that have been detrained respond faster to training.
  • A variety of training programs that constantly challenge the muscles deliver faster cellular adaptations. So adding variation to our training routine while keeping the challenge to the muscles high delivers faster results.

For neural muscle memory:

  • Repetition of complex moves are essential for enhanced neural and motor skill development.
  • Dance and combat moves deliver some of the best neural adaptations.
  • The development of complex neural muscle memory helps improve cognitive functions.
  • Neural muscle memory, once formed, requires reinforcement to keep the strength of the connections up so practice is important.

Both types of muscle memory are now better understood and they form a picture where the mind and the body are closely intertwined, one feeding into the other and both changing from the connection.

The amazing phenomenon of muscle memory

The changes in the brain that allow you to learn new skills

Oxford UniversityFollow Dec 14, 2017 · 9 min read

If you live in Oxford, cycling is difficult to avoid. But as anyone new to the city can attest, hopping back on a saddle for the first time in years to weave through the narrow busy streets can be a daunting prospect. Luckily, the old saying holds true: it really is like learning to ride a bike. Many people will have experienced this phenomenon before, the amazing and long-lasting memory for skills that is often known as muscle memory.

We received lots of questions as part of the Big Brain Competition about muscle memory in all kinds of different skills, from knitting, to dancing, to gaming. What is muscle memory? Does it involve changes in to brain structure? What is happening in the brain when we learn something new?

Questions submitted by members of the public as part of The Big Brain Competition.

What is muscle memory?

Even the simplest everyday actions involve a complex sequence of tensing and relaxing many different muscles. For most of these actions we have had repeated practice over our lifetime, meaning that these actions can be performed faster, more smoothly and more accurately. Over time, with continual practice, actions as complicated as riding a bike, knitting, or even playing a tune on a musical instrument, can be performed almost automatically and without thought.

We often talk about these skills as being held in muscle memory, but this term is really a bit of a misnomer. Although certain skills, like cycling or perfecting a tennis serve, might require the strengthening of certain muscles, the processes that are important for learning and memory of new skills occur mainly in the brain, not in the muscles. Changes that occur in the brain during skill learning and memory alter the information that the brain sends out to the muscles, thereby changing the movements that are produced.

Despite this, skill learning and memory is clearly quite different from other forms of memory. It is thought that human memory is made up of multiple different systems that can all operate almost independently of each other. For example we can have memories for facts, like the fact that Paris is the capital of France, but may not be able to remember when or where we originally learned this fact. Likewise, you might remember having a conversation with a friend, but not remember what the conversation was about. This is because the memory for facts, known as declarative memory, is thought to be a different system, controlled by different brain mechanisms, than the one used for memory of life events, known as episodic memory.

Memory for skills can be thought of as another distinct system. For example, you may be able to ride a bike perfectly, but that doesn’t mean you could explain to someone the exact sequence of movements needed in order to cycle. You may not even remember when or where you learned this skill. Experiments on patients with amnesia and other memory disorders have demonstrated how these different memory systems can operate separately. One patient, known as H.M., who suffered severe amnesia after surgery to cure epilepsy, and was unable to form new memories for life events or facts, had normal learning and memory for skills such as mirror drawing. In this task H.M. would be asked to draw a simple image, like a star, while only seeing the image and his hand in a mirror, meaning his actions had to be made in the opposite direction to how they appeared to him. Amazingly, despite becoming highly skilled at mirror drawing, H.M. could never recognise the task equipment or remember any of the training sessions. This finding points out an important aspect of skill memory, that it can be stored without any conscious awareness, and the skilled actions can be performed almost automatically.

These different types of memory are controlled by different brain regions, with declarative and episodic memories mainly being produced and stored in the temporal lobe and hippocampus. Quite a large range of brain areas seem to be responsible for skill memories, including: areas in motor cortex, the part of the brain which sends signals to the muscle of the body and is responsible for planning and executing movements; the basal ganglia, a structure deep inside the brain which is associated with movement initiation; and the cerebellum, an area at the back of the brain which deals with adaptation.

But what happens to these regions when we learn something new? And what is it about these changes that allow improvement and memory for skills?

How does brain structure change when we make a skill memory?

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers can study the many different types of changes that allow us to learn and remember a motor skill. One of these changes involves increasing the connections between the different areas of the brain that are required for a particular skill. In one study, performed in Oxford, healthy adults had MRI scans before and after six weeks of juggling training. These scans could detect white matter, the long fibres that connect different parts of the brain together. The researchers found that after the juggling training there was an increase in the white matter connections between regions of the brain responsible for vision and regions responsible for making movements. The increased connections between visual and movement areas results in faster and easier sharing of information, perhaps allowing for greater hand-eye coordination.

It is not just white matter that can change with training: studies have shown that there are changes in grey matter as well. Grey matter is made up of the brain cell (neuron) bodies, and is where information processing in the brain occurs. Another juggling study showed that after training there were increases in grey matter in parts of the brain that are involved in the processing of visual information about moving objects, perhaps allowing the visual information about the moving juggling balls to be processed more accurately.

Learning of new skills also results in changes in the primary motor cortex, the area of the brain responsible for causing actions. Cells in this area make connections with other neurons that travel down the spinal cord to contact the muscles of the body and cause them to contract. Parts of the body that are close to each other, such as the fingers, are controlled by areas that are close to each other in the motor cortex. We can safely and easily study how different parts of the motor cortex connect to muscles in healthy humans using a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). We use TMS to apply small magnetic pulses to the surface of the scalp in different places and record twitches in the muscles of the body.

Research using TMS and other techniques has discovered that ‘representations’ of the muscles of the body in the motor cortex vary between individuals depending on their use. For example, professional players of stringed instruments tend to have larger areas representing their left hand . Having a larger representation, and so a greater number of connections from the brain to the muscles of the hand, perhaps allows for finer movement control. Although these changes are probably the result of years of intensive practice, small changes in representation can also occur over much shorter periods. One study asked healthy volunteers to learn a short hand and foot movement task. Results showed that the area of the motor cortex representing the hand muscles spread temporarily towards the area representing the foot. Changing how the brain connects to the muscles is likely to be another way of improving skills, and if these changes are permanent then the skill will be preserved.

Changes in white matter, grey matter and in motor cortex representation all appear to be important for skill learning and memory. The brain of a person who is very good at a particular skill, such as lindy-hop dancing or playing a certain video game, might have stronger white matter connections between the different brain areas needed for each task, more grey matter in some of these regions, and might have larger motor cortex representations of the muscles needed. However, there are probably many other types of structural changes that occur when we learn a new motor skill that are yet to be discovered.

What about changes in brain function?

As well as measuring changes in brain structure, MRI scanners can also be used to look at brain function when performing different tasks. MRI can tell us about how brain activation changes as we learn new motor skills. Studies have shown that at the very beginning of learning a new movement there is a large amount of activity across the brain, but particularly in an area known as the pre-motor cortex, which lies just in front of the primary motor cortex, and is normally associated with movement planning. High levels of activity are also seen in the basal ganglia which is an area normally active during movement initiation . The high levels of activity in these areas are probably related to the fact that, in order to learn a new skill, each action has to be planned and thought through. After repeated practice of the action, as it becomes an effortless almost automatic skill, the activity in the pre-motor cortex and basal ganglia decreases.

Other areas such as the motor cortex and the cerebellum remain active even when the action has become automatic, but activity here becomes more focussed. These findings have been interpreted as the brain learning the most efficient way to perform the action. If we were to scan a knitter while they were learning a new stitch, or a gamer playing a new video game we would probably see roughly this pattern of activity.

What if we compared a novice knitter and a professional knitter while they leant this new stitch? Well, one study scanned both professional and amateur violinists while they performed the movements that would be required in order to play a section of a Mozart concerto. While there were many similarities in the activation, with both groups showing activation of the motor cortex, there was more focussed activation in the professional group, indicating their improved efficiency in preforming these movements. There were also fewer other brain areas, such as the basal ganglia, showing activation in the professional group, indicating that they performed the task more automatically than the amateur group.

So whether you’re a cyclist, a knitter, a dancer or a gamer you can thank similar changes in your brain structure and function for allowing you to improve and remember these skills. Without the amazing phenomenon of muscle or skill memory, none of this would be ‘as easy as learning to ride a bike’.

Written by

Ainslie Johnstone, DPhil Student in the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging.

4. Draganski, B. et al. Changes in grey matter induced by training. Nature 427, 311 (2004).

6. Hashimoto, I. et al. Is there training-dependent reorganization of digit representations in area 3b of string players? Clin. Neurophysiol. 115, 435–447

12. Karni, A. et al. Functional MRI evidence for adult motor cortex plasticity during motor skill learning. Nature 377, 155 (1995).

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Riding a bike, swimming a stroke, even doing zumba – if you do any activity over a period of time, the chances are you are performing without conscious effort – your body knows exactly what it has to do and performs it unconsciously. But is this ‘memory’ in the muscles or in our brain?

Researchers can’t agree where in our bodies muscle memory resides. That’s because there are actually two distinct systems of memory at play: one about muscles, the other about coordinated movements.

Neuroscientist Alan Pearce believes unconscious movement comes from the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). When you learn a movement and / or action, you are retaining motor skills and your brain memorises the skills. He believes the term ‘motor memory’ is a better term.

On the other hand, exercise physiologist Craig Goodman believes muscle memory is the right term. He uses the example of bodybuilders and athletes to describe muscle memory. Dr Goodman gives the example of when bodybuilders and athletes stop training, they lose muscle mass however, when they start to train again, they “muscle memory” kicks again and they regain muscle even faster than the first time.

“Imagine if you’re in, say, the summer months, doing tasks that require a lot of strength and muscle size, then you went into a period of relative inactivity during the winter. It would make sense that, when you come back to the warmer months and you need to get going again, you regain your strength and muscle size relatively quickly. You don’t have to spend the rest of the summer trying to increase your strength” Dr Goodman says.

Besides, some research suggests if people undertake strength training, in their early life (teens and 20s) and then they become inactivity for a long period, they keep a physical advantage by ‘ muscle memory’, over those who never trained.

Experts are still debating different muscle memory theories, but regardless, giving your clients a general understanding of muscle memory may help them understand more about how their bodies work and respond to exercise.

Reference:
Is muscle memory in your body or in your mind? The experts disagree,
Anna Kelsey-Sugg, ABC News, 29/3/19.

Is There Really Such Thing As ‘Muscle Memory’?

Is there really such a thing as ‘muscle memory’? For example, in the sense of your fingers remembering where the keys of the keyboard are?C Stuart Hardwick:

Yes and no. There is no literal memory in the muscles, but the thing people call “muscle memory” exists, though the name is a misnomer.

A better name might be “subconscious memory,” as the information is stored in the brain, but is most readily accessible—or only accessible—by non-conscious means.

What “non-conscious” refers to here is the brain’s enormous capacity to train up what might almost be called “subroutines,” that exist outside our conscious experience. I like the term for this that at least one researcher in the field uses: “zombie agency.”

Zombie agents are non-conscious, or sub-conscious (in the literal, not the Freudian sense) that can do essentially everything you can do except make value judgments. So, for example, you don’t consciously know how to control your muscles in order to walk —in all likelihood, you wouldn’t know where to begin—but your zombie agents do, and they’ll take you wherever you want to go, dodging curbs and puppies, and “waking you” when appropriate to decide which babies to stop and kiss.

Zombie agents can be rather startling things. When you suddenly become aware that you’ve driven halfway across town in the direction of the office instead of going to the shoe store Saturday morning, you have zombie agents to thank. You “wake” as if from slumber, and with the frightening realization that you’ve been flying down the highway at prodigious speed while your mind was on other things. You feel as if you’ve been asleep, and in a way you have—but a very funny kind of sleep in which it is only the uppermost layer of abstract reason that is disassociated from the rest of conscious experience. Your zombie agents have been driving to work, responding to traffic, adjusting the radio, noting the check engine light, all the things you think of as “you, driving the car,” except the big one: deciding where to go. That part was on automatic pilot (which is another good way to think of this).

This is at the advanced end of the spectrum. Typing your friend’s phone number using “muscle memory” is at the other, but it’s the same phenomenon.

We didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers, so we aren’t very good at it. In fact, we are so bad at it, we invent all sorts of mnemonic devices (memory aids) to help us relating numbers to words or spacial memory, either of which are closer to the hunting and gathering we are evolved for. The illusion of “muscle memory” arises because we are supremely well adapted to manual manipulation and tool-making. We don’t need to invent a memory aid to help us remember what we do with our hands, we only have to practice.

So the conscious mind says “dial Tabby’s number,” and our fingers—or more correctly, the zombie agent which learned that task—do it. Similarly, after sufficient training, we can do the same thing with tasks like “play a major fifth,” “drive to work,” or “pull an Airbus A380 up for a go-around.”

It feels like muscle memory because the conscious mind—the part you experience as being you—is acting like a coach driver, steering the efforts of a team of zombie agents, all harnesses to collective action. But it isn’t muscle memory, it’s just memory—though it may be stored (or at least some of it) in the deeper, motor cortex parts of the brain.

This post originally appeared on Quora. .

What is muscle memory

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