Muscle Memory: the Only Refuge After a Layoff
For some people, working out is the most unforgiving sport in the world. We suffer for months and years to achieve a well-built, lean and muscular body with strenuous workouts and an even more strenuous nutrition plan, but when we are unable to work out, we lose the precious gains we had in the blink of an eye.
Muscle breakdown is much, much faster than the process of muscle building (even faster if you're older), and maintaining a muscular physique can be harder than achieving it. Therefore, working out or bodybuilding is not just a sport, it's also a lifestyle because you can never stop it if you want results.
The only thing that can serve as a refuge if you have to stop working out for weeks, months, or years, is:
Let's say you suffer an injury or you can't afford everything that is a must for this
sport lifestyle (including gym membership, healthy and good quality foods, supplements such as whey protein powder, vitamins, etc.), and you don't train at all for 6 months.
If you can't, or just don't want to eat right (whereas "right" means getting enough protein – 2 grams per kg of bodyweight – because this is the hardest thing to do), and you just sit in front of the TV all day, you will lose a significant amount of muscle (up to 1 kg per muscle per WEEK!). You lose years of hard work in months.
When experiencing these devastating results, most people feel just like this meme, thinking they won't train ever again, since working out is this unthankful. But let us assure you that you don't have to feel this way.
Because if you don't give up and you start to train again after the 6 months layoff, fate will compensate you. Gaining back the muscle mass you once had is almost as fast as the speed of muscle breakdown. Not quite, but almost, and that's really great news!
This is all because of muscle memory.
But how does this so-called muscle memory work?
Can muscles really remember how big and strong they were before? And if they can, how is this helping them to re-build easier and faster than when you trained them for the very first time?
Just like "muscle memory", the expression "meathead" is well-known as well, but the muscles don't have a brain, obviously. Therefore they cannot have memory. Can they?
However, in the central nervous system, something interesting happens when we learn a motor skill just like cycling and squatting. The information is stored in the cerebellum, that's why we don't have to re-learn cycling (and squatting too) from the beginning.
The more you perform the given motor skill, the better and more effective you'll be in it. "Practice makes perfect". But that's not all!
When you work out for the first time, muscles adapt to the increased workload, and the number of myonuclei increases inside the muscle cells, the muscle (cell) becomes bigger and stronger. This is called hypertrophy. When you stop working out, apoptosis (cell death) occurs, the muscle cells shrink, BUT the myonuclei (the small "flecks" on the picture above) stay, even after long layoffs*.
When you restart your training program, however, the body doesn't have to re-build the "old" myonuclei, it can skip this process, therefore the rate of hypertrophy will be faster.
If there was no muscle memory, we'd be in big big trouble. A lot of people would never train again, unless, of course, you are a bodybuilding fanatic like ourselves, and this is really an enjoyable lifestyle for you.
All in all, don't worry if you've lost all your gains. You can gain them back quickly if you start training again!
Side note: while there are researchers that dispute the theory described above, they all agree in one thing: there is muscle memory.
*Myonuclei acquired by overload exercise precede hypertrophy and are not lost on detraining
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