People have argued for years that our muscles remember the actions we perform, such as riding a bike and running, without requiring any conscious thought. Muscle memory can even affect how easily we are able to start heading back to the gym. People have debated whether this is true or not for years—that’s why we’ve put together some muscle memory facts we think you should know about.
It’s All in Your Head
According to author C Stuart Hardwick, there is no actual memory in your muscles. However, muscle memory does exist—just not in the way you might think. Hardwick believes it has more to do with what is going on in your brain than in your actual muscles. “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.” But this is just one conjecture.
It’s Easier to Regrow Muscle
How often you exercise may have an effect on muscle memory. As additional research is conducted, we may confirm or rule out whether there exists a “muscle memory” or an ‘epi’ memory — as one study calls it. There may not be actual memory in your muscle tissue, but when you consistently workout, you’re less likely to have trouble re-building muscle mass. Functionally, it’s as if muscle remembers how to rebuild muscle efficiently, after it’s been allowed to “get out of shape.” Studies [PDF] have shown that the myonuclei in satellite cells you grew when you built muscle years ago never really go away. So, if you want to get back in shape, you already have a good starting point since you have worked your muscles before; you could say your muscles are familiar with putting on mass. They’re like reservists ready to be called back into action.
It’s Doesn’t Happen Unless You Trained Regularly
The thing about muscle memory is, it doesn’t work unless you have performed that activity many times before. For example, if you used to play a sport in high school, chances are you could pick it up again years later and not be as bad you thought.
There are plenty of muscle memory facts out there which support the claims that your mind and body can recognize certain actions you performed on a regular basis in the past. The term “muscle memory” is not as literal as many people think—but it is real. While it will take time to get back into shape, it is possible to get back to where you once were without as much effort as you may think.
In summary, the concept of the existence of Muscle Memory might depend on how we want to define memory. Do we restrict it as related to command and control inside the brain? Or do we include more peripheral ancillary functions involving physiological communications and adapted functional structures. Also, new research might find evidence of memory type functions in muscle fibers and cells.
There is the type of muscle memory that is discussed in the research literature that relates to muscle size and regaining size and strength, as explained above. In other words the research asks and answers, does muscle that has atrophied (weakened and diminished) from lack of use, have a “memory” that causes it to regain strength and size (hypertrophy) faster to a previous state of greater hypertrophy — compared to the time it would take to obtain the same level of hypertrophy had there never been a previous greater hypertrophy? The answer is ‘Yes.’
The model or thinking goes something like this … Previously untrained muscle fibers (naive muscle fibers) recruit myonuclei from activated satellite cells before hypertrophic growth. Even if subsequently subjected to grave atrophy (apparently from starvation or severe illness), the higher number of myonuclei is retained, and the myonuclei seem to be protected against the other elevated pre-apoptotic activity (pre-cell death type activity) observed in atrophying muscle tissue. The muscle fibers that have acquired a higher number of myonuclei grow faster when subjected to overload exercise, thus the nuclei represent a functionally important ‘memory’ of previous strength.
This model doesn’t pay attention to coordination or coordinated activities involving ‘memory’ of muscles, but it does beg the question: Are extra myonuclei — staying relatively inactive for lack of dancing, pitching a baseball, performing a jump shot, playing a piano, etc. — ready for action once a person returns to a specific activity? Does it all depend on the brain’s command, or is there something to the way structures have previously adapted to training? Are these myonuclei essential to support the memory outside the brain model, or at least supportive of a central brain memory model in an auxiliary manner. It seems so.
Consider how nerve fibers may have developed to activate specific muscle fibers, ready to be activated when a person returns to a specific sport activity. The classification of memory outside the brain or “muscle memory” might depend on the boundaries that we decide to classify as memory. That concept opens the door to how we define memory involving teamwork with other people, animals, robotic devices, and cybernetics — the science of control and communication involving humans, animals, electronic computational devices (computers, smartphones, tablets), and machines (automobiles, wheelchairs, industrial mass production machines). Cybernetics is relevant to mechanical, physical, physiological, biological, cognitive, and social systems. So where do we put the boundaries of a memory system?
The command and control of memory in a variety of coordinated systems is crucial to achieving desired results in sports, business, industry, government-regulated systems (e.g., motor vehicle traffic), the aging human being, and every day life.
Gundersen K. Muscle memory and a new cellular model for muscle atrophy and hypertrophy. J Exp Biol. 2016 Jan;219(Pt 2):235-42.
Sharples AP, Stewart CE, Seaborne RA. Does skeletal muscle have an ‘epi’-memory? The role of epigenetics in nutritional programming, metabolic disease, aging and exercise. Aging Cell. 2016 Aug;15(4):603-16.
Bruusgaard JC1, Johansen IB, Egner IM, Rana ZA, Gundersen K. Myonuclei acquired by overload exercise precede hypertrophy and are not lost on detraining. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Aug 24;107(34):15111-6