Muscle memory is one of those terms that is thrown around a lot, but it is not really understood; it has been butchered on TV shows and used in the same sentences as muscle confusion. The problem with the term “memory” is that it implies that your muscles have brains in them. This article will take a look at what muscle memory is, and what it is NOT.
It is well-known that as individuals begin strength training, the movements in each session get progressively easier to repeat. Even though the load is increasing, an athletes motor skills are adapting to these new movements. As the muscle fibers are exposed to new challenges in the environment, they adapt. However, unlike the term “memory” implies, there is not a brain inside of our muscles that remember intricate movements we have engaged in previously. (For more information on this, please read my previous article on “Muscle Confusion“)
Muscle adaptation is a form of motor learning which involves “consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition”. Individuals who begin strength training with no prior experience are often clumsy, forget steps of the movements, or complete the movement in an incorrect order (think about the first time someone does a thruster, or a power clean). This is simply because the neural pathways have not been created in their brain yet. As they practice the movements more and more, the movements become almost automatic with little thinking needed to complete the task. The memories are stored in our brains, not our muscle fibers, and the brain commands our actions and responses.
An interesting facet of muscle memory is the special relationship it has to strength training. Strength training is known to create a higher number of nuclei in muscle fibers, and they are even retained during periods of non-use. We have all heard the phrase “if you don’t use it, you lose it”. While this may apply to the muscle tissue itself, it certainly does not apply to the nuclei of the muscle fibers.
This means that even if an individual takes years off of training, their protein synthesis will occur at an accelerated rate.
This would also explain why my training partner, David Chow(hound), after taking 15+ years off of Olympic lifting, can clean & jerk 250lbs+ his first time being back in a gym.
Even after years away from the barbell, motor skills will be stored in an individuals brain for later use, and nuclei in the muscle fibers will be retained so that muscle growth can occur at an accelerated rate. Since motor learning and muscle nuclei have a special relationship with strength training, I petition that the phrase “just like riding a bicycle” should be changed to “just like doing a clean & jerk”.
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Bruusgaard JC, Johansen IB, Egner IM, Rana ZA & Gundersen K. (2010). Myonuclei acquired by overload exercise precede hypertrophy and are not lost on detraining. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 107, 15111-15116.