Muscle memory: how to get back into shape faster

Torn ligaments, the gym is closed or you have so much on your plate that you don’t have time to train: Many athletes worry about losing the muscle mass they’ve worked so hard to build up when they take a break. (Also: Tips from the doctor: This helps with joint pain – and this is the best way to prevent it)

With a break of about two weeks, this fear is unfounded: Looking in the mirror, you might get the impression that your body looks flabbier than usual. But in fact you hardly lose any muscle in this short period of time. It is possible that the glycogen stores in the muscles lose water, whereby the muscle volume seems to shrink. But this effect is quickly reversed as soon as you start training again.

When does the body start to lose muscle?

It is more difficult if you take a longer break from strength training: After about two to three weeks, the body actually breaks down muscle mass. This is physiologically logical, because muscles consume a lot of energy and are unnecessary ballast for the body if they are not used.

The exciting question now is: What happens when you start training again after a longer period of time?? There have long been indications that there is a kind of muscle memory, i.e. that the muscles build up again more quickly after a break than when you start training from scratch as a beginner. (Read also: Lose fat fast and build muscle mass: Here’s how to do it with the U.S. Marines’ workout plan)

Breaks do not destroy the training success

Studies show that people who train continuously achieve the same muscle growth at the end of a longer period as people who take a break of several weeks in between. Scientists investigated this, for example, in Japan in 2012 in a study. For this purpose, they observed the muscle gains in two groups of men for 24 weeks.

One group trained continuously, while the other took a three-week break every six weeks. After these three weeks, the muscle mass had continued to grow in the training group, while it had decreased somewhat in the pausing group. But: After 24 weeks, both groups had built up almost the same amount of muscle, so it seemed to be irrelevant for the result that one of the two groups had taken two breaks in between. (Also: Fit at any age: Our Crossfit expert reveals the best training for every age group)

The body does not forget to perform certain movements

Also other studies came to comparable results. The effect has been observed many times – but for a long time it was not clear what actually explains it. Scientists have long assumed that the phenomenon is neuronal: Our movement memory is anchored in the brain, which ensures, for example, that we do not forget how to swim or ride a bicycle.

This memory, according to previous theory, also ensures that we remember the movements during strength training better and perform them more effectively than beginners – and thus also build up muscle mass again more quickly. In fact, this memory plays a role, because of course it also depends on how you perform the respective movements. (Study: With these kinds of sport one lives longer)

How exactly does muscle memory work??

But a far greater role seems to be played by a phenomenon that is rooted in the muscles themselves. Norwegian scientists investigated epigenetic changes in muscles in a study. They found that muscle memory is related to the cell nuclei in the muscle fibers.

Muscle cells are among the largest cells in the human body and have the unusual property of having multiple nuclei. If a muscle is untrained, it has comparatively few cell nuclei. But when stimulated by intense exercise, more nuclei form to build the muscle.

Nuclei in muscle cells remain intact for a long time

If one pauses, muscle breakdown occurs, which is also called atrophy. The muscle shrinks and loses volume. However, the number of cell nuclei in the muscle remains the same. If you start training again after a longer period of time, the body does not have to build new cell nuclei, but can use the existing ones. According to scientists, this explains why it doesn’t take as much time to build up muscle mass after a long break as it does when you first start exercising.

It is unclear how long this muscle memory lasts, i.e. what is the maximum time one may pause for the muscles to grow stronger and faster than in beginners. It is considered certain that it lasts for several weeks. Some scientists even assume that the cell nuclei remain intact for a lifetime. (Lose weight faster: Cardio exercise on an empty stomach or better not?

Start training with a low load

If you start training again after a longer break, you should not overdo it: Even if muscle memory is present, the body needs time to adapt to the load. As a rule of thumb, one should start with about 50 percent of the previous load. Here it is important not to overdo it: If one injures oneself through false ambition, otherwise a new break is imminent.

In addition to muscle memory, of course, other factors play a role in muscle building. This includes an adapted diet as well as rest phases and sufficient sleep.

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