Most of us in the gym scene have heard of the phenomenon known as muscle memory. It is the occurrence of fast growth in a person who is regaining the lost muscle he / she has allowed to atrophy, due to injury, time off etc. However many believe this process or term to be a myth.
I’ve written this blog to let you know that it is NOT a myth! I will try explain exactly what it is and what causes it to occur, I could baffle you with the science behind it all, but I’m going to try keep this simple and to the point.
Building muscle can be a very difficult thing at times for almost all of us, which is why we are all so reluctant to take even a little time off in case we loose all our hard earned and well deserved muscle. I want to try and teach you to think a little differently about taking the foot off the pedal every now and then to enjoy the other qualities of life and have that perfect balance.
So here are the basics:
Lets say that you busted a gut in the gym and built a huge pair of biceps measuring 20 inches, I wish. Ha ha! Then for one reason or another you stopped training those arms. During the time off, your biceps atrophied (shrunk) down to 18 inches. Determined to regain your loss in mass you decide to hit the gym again with ultimate force and determination. Only this time around you are able to gain back those 2 inches in a matter of weeks, so what happened?
Well firstly I need to talk about a few factors.
1) Connective tissue mainly the fascia
This section relates to the size gains of muscle memory and more specific to advanced trainers. 3 years plus.
Our muscles are made up of 1000s of muscle fibers. All these muscle fibers are individually wrapped with a connective tissue wrapping, or a sheath. This is called the endomysium. These individual muscle fibers are then organised in bundles called fascicles, which are covered by another connective tissue sheath called the perimysium. These bundles or fascicles are then placed together in an orderly arrangement, which determines the shape and functionality of the muscle and are held in place by a layer of connective tissue known as the epimysium. Finally each of these layers are held together by the deep fascia, a courser material.
The important thing to understand is connective tissue wraps tight to its surrounding area, almost constricting it! So this is where muscle memory comes into action. In order for a muscle to hypertrophy (grow), the tissue must stretch and become more pliable creating room to grow! If this did not occur, then muscle growth would be hindered, no room, no growth!
When you increase your muscle mass by building the biceps, from the example above, you also end up stretching and expanding the muscles encasing tissue. Therefore the manipulation of these protective sheathes are a major factor in your ability to stimulate hypertrophy! So this is the most important factor to know, even with time off or time away from training, you still have stretched the connective tissue to a great extent, so when you come back to the gym and train, you are now no longer fighting the restrictions of tight, unpliable fascia, but rather a more elastic and pre-expanded connective tissue! Make sense? So in essence more room to grow enables more mass to be accumulated! This is one of the top theories held today for what we know as ” muscle memory. ”
2) The nerves of your muscle fibers (cells). This section relates to the strength and size of muscle memory and it is more relevant to all levels of those who train.
Another one of the most likely explanations of muscle memory that is being thought of today, involves the neurons (nerve cells) that stimulate your muscles. These neurons tell all the muscle fibers (muscle cells) they innervate to contract. But depending on the amount of weight being lifted, only a small percentage of neurons innervating a particular muscle may be recruited to stimulate their fibers. More weight on the bar – more neurons involved and more fibers stimulated. Make sense?
So what has this got to do with muscle memory? Well, one way your muscles may adapt to the stresses of consistent training is to increase over the long run the total percentage of fibers recruited during maximum and near-maximum lifts.
Think of it like this:
The first time you trained, you recruited a certain percentage of muscle fibers during maximum lifts. As you trained more and more, this percentage increased. You then stopped working out. When making a comeback, this ability to recruit a greater percentage of muscle fibers remains intact. Therefore, you’re starting with a capacity to develop more force within a muscle (since more fibers can be activated), compared to the first time you trained.
So in summary, if you need a break from training please don’t fret about losing muscle – muscle memory is your friend!
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