Is Muscle Memory Real? Yes, But it Doesn’t Work The Way You Think
Yes, muscle memory is real, but doesn’t work in quite the way you think. Here’s what I mean.
When most people talk of muscle memory, they use it to infer that muscles will actually “come back” faster on an experienced trainee after a hiatus, than non-trainees starting a new program. But the truth is that it has nothing to do with your muscle size and shape, but rather your brain’s ability to focus.
Whether you realize it or not, exercise is like riding a bike or anything else that requires coordination – at first it requires a conscious effort and close attention needs to be paid to balancing, pedaling, leaning and turning – all in synchronicity, but after a while you get the hang of it and it becomes subconscious, or secondary to your nature. You can then ride a bike with no thought at all.
The same is true with exercise. So muscle memory refers to the fact that you are able to exercise better because your experience has made you efficient at the movements. You’ve learned to control your body, how to flex muscles and how to recruit maximum muscle fibers. It’s called procedural memory and is basically the “storing” of a specific motor task into memory through repetition. Like riding a bike, your body never forgets it.
As an example when I had next surgery a few years ago, I was out of the gym for nearly 12 months. To my surprise, within weeks I was back to lifting nearly the same weights as a year prior! Of course I didn’t look the same, but I knew how to use my body, or I should say my brain did, and I could perform most exercises as I had previously. See my point? Like riding a bike, but with big weights!
You therefore could assume that if you’re better able to flex your muscles and have better coordination, your workouts will also be better and quicker and you’ll see results faster. If you held a one-mile bike race between someone who’s never ridden a bike and someone who hadn’t been in the saddle for years, the newbie would almost certainly lose. So I guess you can draw the conclusion that you WOULD see definition in your arms, calves and thighs sooner than it took you to originally gain the muscle and faster than someone just starting out. But I need to make clear that muscle memory isn’t about your body growing muscles back faster, wanting to be a certain size or carry a specific amount of muscle. It’s purely brain and neurological driven – firing the synapses off and using available muscle.
It actually is pretty cool when you think about. Your body can remember how to do something you taught it years ago by committing coordinated movements to memory. I always say – the human body is truly an amazing machine.