You’ve been training hard, whether it’s doing some great home workouts or heading to the gym, and then you had some time off.
Maybe it was a vacation, lack of time, or you were injured.
For whatever reason, people tend to stress about their muscle and strength and losing what they’ve worked so hard for. However, there’s no need to stress as the concept of muscle memory will help you progress quicker than before.
What is muscle memory? Muscle memory is what helps you regain your strength and muscle mass faster than when you first tried to grow them. It’s what makes it easier for you to relearn old skills that you may have stopped, like bodybuilding, lifting weights and building strength and size, even after weeks of inactivity.
Thanks to muscle memory, you’ll be able to regain old muscle and strength in no time. Let’s learn about how muscle memory works, how long it lasts, and how you can use muscle memory to build mass and strength.
What is Muscle Memory?
Have you ever taken time away from training, only to go back and find that you were able to get back to where you were before a lot faster than the first time it took to reach that point?
That’s your muscle memory at work, also called “muscle memory bodybuilding”.
It’s thanks to muscle memory that you’re able to regain what you’ve lost a lot quicker than the first time you gained them.
Lifting gives you more benefits than just what you see on the outside. It also actually alters the physiology of your muscles. You improve your neuromuscular efficiency and strengthen that brain and body connection.
The short version is: you create new neural pathways within your CNS (Central Nervous System) when you lift weights and train. When you come back to it after some time off, these pathways help you relearn these movements faster than when you created them. You’re not creating new ones again; you’re actually re-activating old pathways that you’ve already made, even though they’ve lain dormant for a while.
Sounds too good to be true?
Just think back to when you were learning to ride a bike. It might have taken days or weeks to stop falling over and to progress from training wheels to two wheels and to be confident in your balance and coordination. Let’s say, you stopped riding a bike for a while and one day, you decide to get back on it. While the first few cycles may be a bit wobbly, you’ll get back in your groove pretty quickly.
This is muscle memory and the same concept applied to bodybuilding.
How Does Muscle Memory Work?
And now, here comes the long version…
When you lift, whether it’s for bodybuilding or just training in general, your muscle cells and their nuclei split and then grow, and repeat.
The more stress you place on them, aka weights and resistance, the more they will multiply to meet the demand. Hence, the increase in muscle mass.
Now, let’s say that you stop training. What happens then? Well, your nuclei don’t need any reason to split and grow anymore so they stop. In other words, unfortunately, you don’t get bigger or stronger doing nothing.
However, while the existing ones do shrink (muscle atrophy) and get smaller in size-here’s the good part: they don’t disappear. They are retained in the body. When you start to lift weights again and bodybuild, your body uses the same nuclei that you’ve already made to respond.
How Long Does Muscle Memory Last For?
There isn’t a single answer that we can give to you how long muscle memory lasts for.
However, according to this study by Gundersen (2016), it is strongly believed that muscle memory can last for a very long time in humans, up to 15 years and possibly even permanently.
Others estimate a more modest 3-6 months.
However, the general consensus in the scientific community is that muscle memory does last for at least a few months.
How Fast Will I Lose Muscle?
Just as you can’t grow muscle overnight, you actually can’t lose muscle that quickly either.
Let me explain how long muscle memory takes to kick in.
One week or two weeks off training will not make a noticeable difference in your size. However, you may notice a slight decrease in strength.
When it comes to muscle size however, it takes approximately 4-6 weeks of not bodybuilding for your muscle mass to decrease.
Most people tend to think that they lose mass much earlier than this though and that their muscles look visually smaller than they did before detraining. This is not muscle mass that you’re losing. It’s actually due to the decreased water retention and glycogen stores in your muscles that make it seem as though you’ve lost muscle size fast but it’s really not.
Other factors that contribute to how fast you’ll lose muscle are your age and activity levels.
Those who were much more active beforehand, such as hitting weights 4-5 times a week, may hold onto their strength and muscle for a little while longer than those who were less active or didn’t go to the gym as often.
As we mentioned earlier, your age can make a significant difference to the muscle you maintain while detraining. The older you are, the more likely you’ll lose muscle faster.
According to Havard Health Publishing, people over the age of 30 will begin to experience age-related muscle loss, known as sarcopenia. This means that you can lose between 3-5% of your muscle per decade. Harvard Health Publishing also stipulates that for most men, this could mean 30% of their muscle mass during their lifetime.
For the younger ones, this is great news!
This study by Enis et al. (2019), showed that after four weeks of detraining, children aged between 10 and 13 years old were able to maintain their muscles. So the younger you are, the better your body is at maintaining the muscle you built without training, for longer periods of time.
Hence, starting early is also really ideal in health benefits but that’s not all. It also gives you muscle memory advantages.
Even though muscle memory is a great thing, the ability for nuclei to develop does weaken over time. It’s not impossible, but it is harder to gain muscle as you age. Your testosterone and growth hormone production slows down which means that it’ll take you longer to build muscle as you would have if you were younger.
Maintaining muscle at an older age though is easier. This is why it is advised to start training early when you’re younger. You’ll find it easier to build muscle and be able to reap more benefits of muscle memory in the future.
In terms of how much muscle you’ll lose, well, it depends on how much muscle you had to begin with. The bigger your muscles, the more you’ll have to potentially lose once you’re inactive. The up-side to this though is that the fitter and more active you were before your inactive period, the faster you can gain this back.
How Can I Regain My Muscle and Strength?
If you want to regain your muscle size and strength after a period of detraining, then here are some tips on how to do so.
1. START LIFTING
The first step to regaining your muscle and strength is to start lifting.
Pick up the weights or get out your resistance bands and start training again.
However, if you’ve had significant time off, then don’t just jump in headfirst as your body needs to re-adapt to your strength workout. It’s a good idea to only use weights that are approximately 60% of your 1RM. And don’t worry if it feels much harder than it should.
Remember, thanks to muscle memory, you’ll respond much faster to this stimuli and be able to regain that muscle size and strength quickly.
Check out FitBod to get started on bodybuilding and strength training.
2. EAT IN A CALORIC SURPLUS
If you want to build those muscles and improve your strength, then you need to put in the work in the kitchen as well.
Eating in a caloric surplus, that is, eating more calories than your body burns, means that you’ll be providing plenty of fuel for your muscles to repair, recover and grow.
Just make sure to include protein in there as well. As the building blocks of muscle, protein is the most important macronutrient to help get you to where you want to be.
Check out this article on calories for muscle building to learn exactly how many calories you need to be eating, including a breakdown of carbs, protein, and fat.
3. ACTIVE RECOVERY
We all get excited when we decide to get back into a great training regime.
However, it’s important not to make sure that you’re treating your body well with some active recovery.
After months of inactivity, you’re going to feel the effects the next day. Once your body adapts again, this will lessen but you’ll find that you’ll need the recovery time a lot more.
Foam roll, stretch, get that blood flow moving so that you can minimize the soreness.
Is muscle memory real? Yes.
Muscle loss is something that can occur if you detrain or experience a long period of inactivity.
Fortunately, our bodies are well equipped to manage this and this is where muscle memory gains comes in. You’ll find that you’ll be able to respond better to bodybuilding than the first time and will be able to get back on track in no time.
About The Author
As a health and fitness writer, Emily combines her two passions—powerlifting and writing. With a creative writing degree under her belt, she spends her mornings lifting weights, her nights putting pen to paper, and eating too many snacks in between.