Muscles are smarter than you think, at least in one sense. They have memory, which is a good thing if you’re an avid weight lifter and have to take a break from training for a few months. Because of the ability of your muscles to “remember,” getting strength and muscle definition back won’t take as long the second time around if you have to take a break.
Are Some Strength Adaptations Permanent?
It was previously thought that the adaptations muscles make in response to strength training were completely lost over a period of several weeks because the muscle fibers were no longer being stimulated through strength training. Muscles grow in size primarily through an increase in the size of individual muscle fibers. Hormonal and neural adaptations also occur in response to training. The end result is a stronger muscle that’s larger in size and able to handle a heavier load. When the muscle is no longer challenged, muscle fibers decrease in size, and overall muscle size becomes smaller.
So do you completely lose all of your gains when you stop strength training? All isn’t lost when you take an extended break from the gym. During the process of building new muscle, new muscle nuclei are laid down too. In one study, researchers put mice through a lower body strength training workout. The mice developed more muscle fibers and muscle nuclei as a result of training. But when they took them off of their training regimen, and they returned to a sedentary lifestyle, the additional muscle nuclei remained even though they gradually lost muscle mass over time. These extra nuclei are capable of quickly restarting protein synthesis to build more muscle once muscles are challenged again through strength training.
No one knows whether the extra muscle nuclei built through strength training are permanent, but they seem to stick around for a long period of time after strength training is stopped. This may partially explain the concept of muscle memory and why it’s easier to get into shape the second time around.
The Concept of Muscle Memory
Muscle memory is a well-described phenomenon. When you first begin to strength train, it takes months of hard work to make gains in strength and muscle definition. But if you stop training, you’ll regain strength and muscle mass much more quickly the second time due to muscle memory. The gains that may have taken nine months to achieve the first time, you can recover in half the time because the blueprint for rebuilding muscle is already there. That’s good news if you’re injured and have to take an extended break from weight training. You’ve built the foundation and recouping your strength gains will be faster the second time around.
The Bottom Line?
Building a stronger, more defined body takes lots of hard work, focus and dedication. If you stop training, you’ll lose some of those gains, but getting them back won’t be as slow the second time around. Your muscles remember
NPR. “No More Gym? Don’t Worry, Your Muscle Remember”
Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 107, 15111-15116.
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