The Power of Muscle Memory
Building up the muscles brings many benefits and one of these is a benefit most people are largely unaware of. That's the benefit of muscle memory.
Your muscles actually do have memory. Your muscles are a moving, living element and part of their capabilities is a memory function.
Your muscle memory is more than just a memory function like a computer memory stick. Your muscles both receive input and then physically react to that input. And the way the muscles react to it can actually seriously benefit your body.
The training process of the muscles builds both more size and muscle nuclei. Included in that building process is a type of memory that remembers how to move the muscles in a particular path. When the body is "detrained" or loses conditioning, the muscle mass shrinks back to a certain extent. However, the muscles themselves retain the nuclei and retain the memory of how to lift and how to put that muscle back on.
Quick Bounce Back
The main result of muscle memory is the ability to bounce back or return to a previous state quickly. Your muscles can come back from a detrained state much quicker than you might imagine.
What this means is that muscle which was previously trained will make gains twice as fast as muscle that has never been trained before. The muscle nuclei act as a supercharger compared to those who haven't developed it yet. That is, if you have trained in the past, you will spring back into shape and size much more quickly than someone who has never trained their muscles in the past because your muscle nuclei are acting as little muscle nuclear reactors, re-firing the muscles at an incredible rate due to previous preparation.
The muscle actually seems to remember its previous strength, and gravitates toward that once training begins. University of Oslo physiologist Kristian Gundersen points to studies that indicate that muscles actually have a memory of their previous strength - and that memory may last indefinitely. "Our findings suggest that there are permanent structural changes in the muscle," says Gundersen in a National Public Radio interview on the subject. "We don't know if they're really permanent, but they're very long-lasting."
That "long-lasting" capability of muscle memory lets you spring back to previous strength levels at a fast pace. The muscle memory function accelerates the process. It is as if your inner workings have a map for rebuilding really fast.
Memory that is Multi-functional
Muscle memory has a primary result of allowing the body to bounce back quicker, but the muscle memory is not a one-trick pony. It is not just the strength that the muscle remembers, but also the muscle recruitment patterns for specific exercises or even simple events such as walking. And this holds true for sports as well, where the body has to learn specific action sequences.
Once the muscle learns how to do something, it stores that memory for the long-term. That's why someone who has surfed or rode a bike in the past can pick up the basics of the sport again in short order. Muscle memory gives them a strong re-start and they zoom past anyone who has not trained or participated in that particular event before.
Get Started Young
Starting training at a young age is a benefit when it comes to muscle memory. Gundersen's research group found (in the article "Myonuclei acquired by overload exercise precede hypertrophy and are not lost on detraining" - Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 2010) that because the ability to create myonuclei is impaired in the elderly, individuals may benefit from strength training at an early age.
This translates into a goal for a trainer to get those young trainees creating more myonuclei - as much as possible. And middle age people can also benefit from pushing the envelope, getting in as much memory built in before they become elderly.
Training to maximize muscle memory
You can help trainees take advantage of muscle memory in a couple of ways. One is to push strength gains as far as possible. The stronger you can help them become, the better for their future. If they have to quit training for a period of time, the stronger they were in the past powerfully influences how quickly they regain that strength.
The other aspect is to broaden their training horizon as much as possible. Instead of getting them stuck in a rut of a few exercises, give them an expanded group to work with. This includes different styles of training - pylometrics, Olympic style training, free-hand non-bodyweight training, powerlifting, sprinting, jumping and more. A broader horizon of training input trains their body for a wider range of muscle recruitment and more memory storage.
It doesn't all have to be gym training either. A broad involvement in sports, recreation and fitness activities translates into gaining a host of memory for use further down the road.