Has it been a while since your last workout? Don’t sweat it. Thanks to a lesser-known fitness phenomenon called ‘muscle memory’, your former fit self might not be too many burpees away.
The idea is that once you’ve learnt to build a certain amount of strength and muscle, your body ‘remembers’ it, allowing you to quickly bounce back into shape after a period of neglecting your gym pass.
It explains why actors can put on a lot of weight for a role, only to shed the pounds again quickly, and return to their usual ripped physique for their next role. Here, a personal trainer reveals your secret weapon for staying for fit for life…
What is muscle memory?
First up, it’s worth noting that muscle memory is a bit of a misnomer, as the learning happens in your brain – not your muscles.
“In simple terms, muscle memory is the neurological message system between your muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments,” says Marvin Burton, head of fitness at Anytime Fitness UK (anytimefitness.co.uk).
While your muscles themselves can’t actually remember information, Burton explains that our biceps and other muscles contain neurons that are attached to the nervous system, which are connected to motor learning.
Whether it’s a squat or push up, any movement of the body relies on the brain, and repeating an exercise enough times triggers patterns in the brain regions responsible for your motor skills.
“Muscle memory is essentially created through repetition,” says Burton. “If a movement is repeated consistently over time, it can be performed with less effort and more efficiency.”
As well as fitness-based activities such as cycling or running, muscle memory is applicable to everyday tasks, such as driving or even typing on your keyboard at work.
How can understanding muscle memory help you see better results at the gym?
Muscle memory isn’t just your body learning a task; it’s also learning how to repair and rebuild tissue more rapidly, says Burton.
“Muscle memory is improved by moving through the same patterns on a consistent basis,” he continues. “Understanding how this works is incredibly useful for your physical activity, as it allows you to learn the strengths and weaknesses of your body, and improve your overall health.”
Repeating the same exercises means these actions can be performed faster, more smoothly and more accurately – it’s essentially why even after 10 years of not riding a bike, you can still remember how to do it.
Burton continues: “While repetition and allowing your body to become familiar with certain movements is important, it’s even more significant for you to create new patterns which will allow you to further improve your health and fitness levels.
“In simple terms, use your knowledge of muscle memory to train in varied ways, try new things and apply progressive overload.” A couple of ideas could be switching up your usual run for a pilates class or your weights session for boxing.
“New movements and workouts will undoubtedly feel challenging at first, but don’t be tempted to give up; the more you train that movement, the more your body becomes familiar with it. As well as improving your muscle memory, you’ll see yourself able to increase weight, range of motion and repetitions.”
There’s a raft of other benefits to having a go at new classes and disciplines too. “You’ll find a person with varied muscle memory will reduce their chances of injury, increase their joint strength, have faster reaction times and quicker recovery times, with less delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS),” says Burton.
How can you regain muscle strength if you’ve been skipping your workouts?
“Many people will have unfortunately found themselves in this position, due to the enforced closures of gyms, but don’t be disheartened – thanks to your muscle memory, it won’t take as long as you think to return to your previous levels of strength,” says Burton.
Initially, he suggests focusing on compound exercises, which are movements that work out multiple muscle groups. According to Burton, these give you the greatest return.
Examples of good compound exercises include deadlifts, squats and push-ups. “These movements utilise lots of different muscles at once, which can help muscle memory and strength return quicker.”
“You can also increase strength by adding isometric exercises, to increase the time under tension for your muscles,” he continues. Popular examples are planks, wall sits and deep squats. “If you’re returning to the gym, try to follow a structured programme which focuses on primary movement patterns, like push, pull, rotation, press, squat, lunge and carrying movements.”
Above all, ensure you’ve re-established the basics before you give in to temptation to lift heavy. Too much, too soon can result in injury, says Burton, so you should start with higher repetitions and mix in some bodyweight training to lay the foundations.