If you were a gym regular, this COVID-19 situation probably hit your fitness lifestyle hard. Gyms were unavailable for most of 2020, and now in 2021, the situation is slightly better, but not back to where it used to be.
If you were jacked and strong, you have probably lost both size and strength during your time off. Fortunately, life is going back to normal, and gyms are moving back to their regular working hours, and now is your chance to get all those gains back. The good news is that it will take you much less time to regain the lost muscle than it initially took to build it, thanks to muscle memory.
This article will talk about muscle memory in bodybuilding. We will explain is muscle memory real, talk about the science of regaining muscle, how long will it take to regain lost muscle and strength, and more! By the time you finish reading it, you will feel much better, knowing that all those gains you worked hard for are not lost if you apply yourself again. Let's go!
- 1 What Is Muscle Memory?
- 2 Use It Or Lose It - But Not Forever - Regaining Lost Muscle Mass
- 3 Muscle Memory In Bodybuilding - Not Just About Motor Skills
- 4 Frequently Asked Questions About Muscle Memory
- 5 Muscle Memory Is Not An Excuse To Procrastinate
What Is Muscle Memory?
Motor Memory - Not (Only) Related To Bodybuilding
This article focuses on muscle memory in bodybuilding, but this is a much broader concept. In fact, when they talk about muscle memory, people usually think about motor learning, tying muscle memory to permanently retaining skills once you learn them for the first time.
Bicycle riding is the go-to example for explaining motor learning, muscle memory, and skill development. Even if you haven't ridden a bicycle for 20 years, you will still be able to do it well almost instantaneously once you try it again. The same goes for playing instruments - you will not have to relearn how to play the piano from scratch; all it will take is just reminding yourself and getting back into the feel.
Muscle memory in sports is a real thing too. If you trained swimming as a kid, you will retain most of your technique and will be a much better swimmer for the rest of your life than someone who never trained. The same goes for dribbling a basketball between your legs or shooting three-pointers.
In other words, by going through the same movements repeatedly, your cerebellum permanently learns the pattern. The result is the capability to restore the ability or skill you haven't used in years or decades to (nearly) the same level in far less time.
How Does Motor Muscle Memory Work?
Repeating the same movement over and over again when learning new motor skills uses the same neural networks in our nervous system. By repeating the task, the network becomes more efficient, which is why you get better as you learn the skill. This is very noticeable when you learn to play the guitar, for example. At first, your fingers feel awkward, and it feels weird and annoying to hold them that way. But, with practice, you stop noticing it, and you solely focus on learning to play the tune.
Not only that the neural network becomes efficient, but it also retains the same level of efficiency for good. Your neural network gets "rewired" permanently. Next time you take that guitar, it might feel awkward initially, but it will only take you minutes to get back into the feeling, even if you haven't played for years.
For the same reason, you need to learn to ride a bicycle, jump rope, or type only once. Later, it will only take you a fraction of time to get to the previous performance level. When compared to the time it took you to learn the skill, and years of not using it, the amount of time you will need to spend to regain the same performance level is meaningless - and that is the true power of muscle memory.
Use It Or Lose It - But Not Forever - Regaining Lost Muscle Mass
Never forgetting how to ride a bicycle is one thing, but how to regain lost muscle is an entirely different story, right?
After all, you worked hard, slept well, and ate clean for years to build that body, and now you have lost it. You are literally smaller in size and noticeably visually different. Your muscle tissue atrophied, and it makes sense that you will need to do the same thing you did to build it and that it will take the same amount of time and effort to get where you were before. Well, thankfully, that isn't the case.
Muscle memory in bodybuilding is real, and you will regain lost muscle in a fraction of the time it took you to build it. Below, we expain how and why this happens, and how you can benefit from muscle memory.
Lifting Weights - A Repetitive Motor Skill
Even though lifting weights might seem trivial and straightforward to people who never touched a barbell, all lifters know that is not the case. In fact, mastering movements such as squats, deadlifts, and presses takes a long time. Some would even say it is something you perfect for the rest of your life. But, when you compare the movement to riding a bicycle, for example, it has one thing in common - repetitiveness.
Going to the gym regularly means you are going through the same movements over and over again, multiple times per week. In other words, your body adapts, and you start learning the most effective way to manipulate heavy loads, both consciously and unconsciously. That is the same type of motor learning you develop when riding a bicycle or when playing instruments.
Technique Lasts Forever
When beginners first start lifting, they notice a very sudden increase in size, but especially strength. These are frequently called "beginner gains," and they are particularly noticeable for the first 6-9 months after starting to lift weights regularly.
This strength increase is tied to technique improvements and the body getting used to handling the load. Weights will stop shaking through the lift; the lifter will learn to stiffen the muscles to prevent energy loss; the bar will travel in a straight line for maximal efficiency; the mind-muscle connection will improve, etc. Also, the lifter will start gaining confidence, feeling better under the weight, which will improve the numbers. Of course, muscles will grow in size and strength too, but the rapid rise in lifting stats is primarily due to technique improvement and acclimatization to new skills.
But, once you develop the skill, it is yours for good. Yes, you will lose size and strength, but your CNS will remember the movement patterns. Once you start lifting again, you will not have to relearn the technique from scratch. That means you will be able to lift efficiently, something it took you a long time to learn. The optimal technique will also hit your muscles the right way, triggering growth in less time, helping you get your strength and size back.
Muscle Memory In Bodybuilding - Not Just About Motor Skills
This article so far focused on muscle memory in terms of learning motor skills, which used to be the only acceptable way of describing the concept from a scientific perspective.
However, anecdotal evidence from the world of lifting weights showed that muscle memory for bodybuilding is a real thing. Many bodybuilders returned to the stage after taking breaks, with Kevin Levrone being a perfect example. Sure, anabolic steroids play a massive role, but that isn't the only factor. If it was, you would see 50-year-olds who just started lifting competing in Mr. Olympia just because they take steroids.
Still, from a scientific perspective, up until recently, muscle memory related to hypertrophy was a complete unknown. Today, we have some ideas about it, which we will discuss below, but it is still not fully understood. Yet, there are proofs all around us that it does exist.
Myonuclei Are Here To Stay
When lifting weights, muscles get damaged and later get repaired, becoming stronger and bigger in the process of muscle protein synthesis. But, that doesn't explain muscle memory.
In that repair process, something also happens - new cellular nuclei form. Muscle cell nuclei, also known as myonuclei, improve the efficacy of the muscle, as each of those controls a particular area of the (growing) muscle tissue. But, what is incredibly interesting and backed up in studies, is that those newly formed myonuclei don't decay once you start losing muscles due to inactivity.
You do lose muscle tissue, which is visually obvious. But because the myonuclei are preserved within the cell, the muscle will start growing faster once you start activating it again. That is because you already have those old nuclei ready for use, and the body will not "waste time" building them from scratch, putting them to use immediately. That will result in regaining size much faster than it took the first time, proving muscle memory does exist.
Changes Happen On A Genetic Level Too
Studies also show that muscle memory happens on a genetic level too. If a muscle reaches a certain size and strength level, the information gets stored in the DNA of muscle cells. It seems that the information stays there permanently (or at least for a very long time), which results in the muscle being able to reach its former size and strength faster.
Experience In Other Areas Of Fitness Helps Too
Even though this article focuses on muscle memory for bodybuilders in terms of lifting weights, we all know that the actual pumping iron is just a fraction of the whole thing. Growing muscles involves lifting, but it also involves nutrition, recovery, stress management, supplementation, and cardio (for revealing those abs).
If you have built a great-looking body once, that means you didn't only do the inside the gym part right. You ate properly, slept well, stayed injury-free, did cardio appropriately, and probably took supplements. In other words, you now have the know-how beginners don't.
That know-how will be crucial for gaining back lost muscle in a fraction of the time it will take someone to get there for the first time. Combined with motor memory, technique, and muscle memory, that know-how will get you where you want to be fast. You will be able to pull off an impressive 12 week body transformation going from slim to muscular or from fat to fit, leaving everyone amazed.
Frequently Asked Questions About Muscle Memory
How Long Does Muscle Memory Last?
You can expect to obtain lost muscle after being sick very fast, so don't even worry about that. But, what happens if you haven't trained for years. Muscle memory after 5 years, does that exist? What about a decade after you stopped lifting?
A 2016 study showed that muscle memory lasts for at least 15 years and might even be permanent! This does not mean you should use this information as an excuse to stop working out for the next 15 years. It just means that you will be able to build muscles faster than it initially took, but that doesn't mean it will require no effort.
Also, this process becomes harder as you age due to hormonal changes and natural testosterone decrease. That is another reason why you should work on preventing muscle loss and why you shouldn't take overly long breaks from lifting if they aren't necessary.
How To Regain Lost Muscle And Strength?
By reading this article, you must be thinking about how to activate muscle memory for max muscle growth in the shortest time. But, there is no magic answer here - to regain lost muscle and strength, you need to do the same things that helped you get it in the first place. The only difference is that you won't have to do it as long. Here are some tips that will help you in the process:
Mind Your Nutrition
Besides training regularly, you will also need to have balanced, protein-rich nutrition. Proteins are an essential component of building muscles, which is why you should try to have protein in every meal. If you want to optimize your protein intake, 1.6-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight should be your goal. Try to get this from real food, but if that isn't possible or convenient, protein powders can help.
Also, because you are trying to build size again, avoid a caloric deficit. If you restrict your calories, you will inhibit muscle protein synthesis, making it hard to build back those muscles. You should at least be in maintenance, or maybe even a slight caloric surplus. Just don't take it too far, as you don't want to get fat in the process.
Train Smart And Rest
Don't push yourself too far as you haven't trained in a long time. You want to avoid injuries, so make sure you are warmed up and don't go too hard on the weights at first. Let your joints, tendons, and ligaments get familiar with weights again.
Next, make sure you are resting adequately. Eight hours of sleep every night is an absolute must. Also, don't lift as frequently as you used to, at least not in the beginning. Once you start, three days per week will be enough until you get used to the weights. Again, staying healthy and avoiding injuries should be your priority, so don't rush.
How Quickly Can You Regain Lost Muscle?
This is a tricky question, as many factors contribute to the answer. Your genetics, prior fitness level, and experience, the amount of time you spent away from the gym, your age, life situations, current training regimen, nutrition, and lifestyle, all of those will determine how quickly you can regain lost muscle.
But, one thing is for certain - it will take far less time to get it back than it took to build it. Your muscles just need to be "reminded" and don't have to learn the whole process again. But, a general rule is this - what took you years to build will only take you a few months, not years, to get back.
How To Develop Muscle Memory?
The only way to develop muscle memory when it comes to bodybuilding is to get big and strong first. Once you do that, your muscles will learn how it's done, and the information will stay there for a long time, if not forever.
But, getting big and strong is anything but easy, on the contrary. This will take years of dedication in and outside the gym. You will need to do things right and do them that way every single day. That is why seeing extremely fit individuals is so rare, and that is the exact reason why everyone would want to look like that and be that strong.
If you do get that fit, muscle memory will be like a reward for your effort - if something unpredictable happens, you will know that your size and strength are not lost forever. Once you get back in the gym, you will be able to get it back much quicker. But, the bottom line is that you can't hack your way and take shortcuts to develop muscle memory - you need to get big first.
Muscle Memory Is Not An Excuse To Procrastinate
Even though muscle memory is a real thing, which this article clearly showed, you shouldn't use it as an excuse. Yes, you will regain your size, but only if you start training hard again. Plus, we know muscle memory lasts a long time, but we are not exactly sure if it's permanent. Therefore, it is better to be safe than sorry and start reactivating those muscles sooner.
Also, the more time you take off the gym, the harder it will be to get your former form back. If you lifted for the last time when you were 25 and start doing it again at age 50, it would be very unwise to think that you will look the same as you used to ever, let alone after a few months. Age plays a huge role, especially when it comes to testosterone production, and regularly exercising is one of the best ways to preserve muscle mass, which is why you should continue doing it throughout your lifetime.
COVID-19 will soon end, and hopefully, we will not have to deal with anything like this ever again. But, other things can interfere with going to the gym regularly.
Some are unpleasant, like health issues, injuries, or being overworked. But some are great, such as vacations, pregnancy, or having a baby.
That's why muscle memory as a concept is very valuable, as you know your effort doesn't get wasted forever the moment you stop exercising.
However, don't use it as an excuse to stop exercising, as there are many things you can do to preserve the most muscle gained even if gyms are unavailable.
We know that you will stay jacked and fit forever and that you will never need muscle memory. In fact, we don't know why you read this useless article in the first place, but thanks for doing it anyway, and make sure to check other articles on our blog too! 🙂