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Muscle Memory is Real – This is How it Works

Muscle Memory
Muscle Memory

For decades trainers have repeated the phrase, “Use it or lose it.” When you stop exercising, your muscles shrink. The longer you skip working out, the more your muscles atrophy. At the same time, trainers have also noticed that building muscle back, seemed to be a lot easier for a select few of our clients. The difference was for people that had worked out in the past.

Most of the time it was referred to as muscle memory. Somehow it was thought your body “remembers” the state you were in and that memory can help get you back in shape quicker. People who never exercised in the past, have no muscle memory, and take longer to get stronger. But there wasn't proof that it was real, just unscientific observations. And if it did exist, nobody had an understanding of how it could work... until now.

Several studies now show muscle memory is a real thing. If you worked out and had good muscular development when you were young, you'll have an easier time putting that muscle back on when you're older. In essence, you can “bank” muscle when you're young, to draw on later in life.

Here's how muscle memory works.

Muscle cells are designed to grow. In fact, they can stretch up to 100,000 times larger than a normal cell. The way they do it is by breaking the rules. You see, a typical cell has just one nucleus. But a muscle cell can contain thousands of nuclei.

All those extra nuclei come from cells that surround the muscle, called satellite cells. When you engage in weight training exercises that stress muscle cells, the satellite cells fuse with the muscle cells. When the satellite cells fuse, they give up their nuclei to the muscle cells.

Nuclei are the factories that power the building of more muscle. So when muscle cells gain more nuclei, their ability to build muscle mass increases. The more nuclei you have, the bigger and stronger your muscles can become.

What happens next is what physiologists got wrong. Before these experiments, it was thought each nucleus could support a certain volume of the cell they occupied. If that cell size shrunk because someone quit working out, it was thought the muscle cell would get rid of the extra nuclei.

Turns out, muscle cells hang on to those extra nuclei, very possibly for life. So when we go back to exercising, those muscle cells have all those extra nuclei “factories” pumping out muscle-building proteins.

The lab test.

In a lab test, researchers had two groups of mice. One group built up muscle and the other did not. Then both groups were left alone so their muscles would atrophy.

After three months, the mice went through an intense fitness regimen. The mice with the extra nuclei in their muscles grew 36 percent, while the ones who didn't have muscles previously, only grew 6 percent. And that was just over the course of 6 days.

The tests have been repeated in moths and documented for people who took steroids to increase muscle mass. In every case, subjects that previously had muscle, put it back on significantly faster than anyone trying to build muscle for the first time. Even after the equivalent of 10 years not working out.

The implications of this research are far-reaching. For example, athletes who use steroids to build more muscle, are currently banned for one to four years if they're discovered. But if the benefits of all those extra nuclei in their muscles persist for years after stopping steroid use, bans may have to be extended, possibly for life.

This also shows how important it is to start working out at an early age. If you put on extra muscle in your teens, twenties and thirties when it's easier, you can draw on those extra nuclei as you age to keep muscle mass on. Perhaps the saying should be changed to, “Use it or lose it, until you use it again.”

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