Have you taken a break from training recently, and then struggled to get back into routine? If so, you’re not alone, and it doesn’t mean that all those months of hard work goes straight out the gym window. Thanks to the magic of muscle memory, you can get back to where you started – and quickly. Our experts share their perspectives below.
Travis is the Founder of 15+ Result Based Training (RBT) Gyms across Australia, and health and fitness tracking app, Keystone Health and Fitness. Jones, who played elite level rugby league as a teenager until his early 20s, has over 15 years of experience in the industry. He has completed his Poliquin Level 3 and FMA Strength
Institute Level 3, and is an AOK Health Corrective Exercise Specialist.
There’s no single, homogeneous answer to how quickly your body detrains, or loses its training-induced adaptations such as muscular strength, endurance and speed, during a break from training. There’s lots of variables to consider. For example, you would have been more prone to muscle loss if you didn’t consume adequate protein or if you were in a severe calorie deficit over the break, and the less quality shut-eye you got, the more likely you are to have regressed.
But here’s the good news.
If you’ve been training multiple times per week for more than a year, your muscle memory is solid. A 2019 study showed that skeletal muscles may stick around even when other muscles shrink, and this is like having a head start once you get back to training – your body can facilitate faster growth of your muscles (hypertrophy) to ensure you bounce back fast.
How long of a break is too long?
A 2017 study showed those who performed resistance training sustained muscle strength even after a two week break from their workouts. Another study found that participants achieved the same results by taking two, three week breaks over the course of a 24 week program, compared to training continuously.
In other words, when you do take short breaks from your workouts – be it due to a holiday, business trip or just life getting busy – it’s likely it won’t do much damage. While you may feel a bit weaker during your first workouts back, that’s probably not due to muscle loss. Instead, it’s because your nervous system has become a little less efficient – something you’ll regain quickly.
Even if you do lose some muscle over your break, you’ll regain that lost progress much faster than it took for you to achieve it in the first place. When you develop muscle, it causes adaptations within that tissue (termed myonuclei addition) that will remain for the rest of your life. These same adaptations are also the reason why you may take years to reach a particular fitness level; you can’t progress until the myonuclei are created. But once you have obtained that level, you should regain it quickly after a detraining period. Essentially, this is ‘muscle memory’.
Here’s what I recommend you do
Don’t feel bad about yourself if you took take some time off training. It’s fine to have a little break once in a while, and it won’t hurt your results when done occasionally. Just try to get back on track as soon as possible.
TRAINER & INDUSTRY EDUCATOR
Sofia holds a Diploma of Fitness and a Post Graduate Diploma of Education, and has been a qualified Personal Trainer for over 10 years.
An avid bikini competitor, Sofia now spends her days educating the wider industry and coaching an intimate group
of sport-specific clients online.
When we learn a new motor pattern or skill, it’s not the muscle that changes but the brain that develops new pathways to send information to the muscle and create the movements.
There are two key areas of the brain that are responsible of ‘muscle memory’: the cerebellum is the area of the brain that controls motor skills, including posture, muscle coordination and voluntary contractions. Its job is to recognise patterns of voluntary movement and make is smooth and balanced, and it will tell a person if a movement doesn’t feel correct.
The basal ganglia is a group of nuclei responsible for initiating and executing movement, including the order in which movements should be performed based on prior learning. It also ensures that the pathway it’s using in the brain is the most efficient one to take.
How do we build muscle memory?
Practicing a movement repetitively over time can start to build new neural pathways. Purkinje cells in the brain are responsible for receiving information from climbing fibres (neurons) that send feedback to and from the muscles. This feedback system allows the Purkinje cells to coordinate movements and identify when a movement feels comfortable or uncomfortable.
The more we review, refine and practice technique, the more efficient the neural pathways become, allowing us to produce the movement smoother, faster and more comfortably, as if on autopilot. This is also why familiar movements can become jilted when new concepts are added – the brain must create a new pathway to cater for the additional instruction.
How long does it take to build ‘muscle memory’?
It takes roughly two to four weeks for a neural adaptation to occur. The time it takes to build muscle memory will depend on how you structure your training – including frequency and quality of concentration. Essentially, the more frequent and focused the practice, the faster the skill is acquired and neural pathways developed.
The effect of music on muscle memory.
While practice is essential, there are a few hacks that can fast track the creation of these pathways, including music. Music activates many areas of the brain required to perform athletic endeavors, including those responsible for procedural learning, such as the cerebellum. Music can heighten focus which allows greater concentration when executing movement patterns, and can also stimulate the secretion of dopamine and natural opioids, our natural painkillers. These block perceptions of fatigue and pain which allows the body to perform and learn movement patterns with less obstacle.
EXERCISE SCIENTIST & NUTRITIONIST
Tom is a Nutritionist and Exercise Scientist based in Kingscliff, NSW. Specialising in general population body recomposition clients, Tom now runs his own coaching business, Integrated Fitness Nutrition. On top of his Sport Coaching and Exercise Science and Human Nutrition degrees, he’s also a certified Sports Nutritionist through the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
‘Muscle memory’ is a slightly deceptive term because your muscles don’t actually remember how to perform a movement – it’s your brain that recalls how to recruit the right muscles to move in the right way.
Try to think back to the first time you performed a bodyweight squat in the gym. Your legs were shaking as you lowered yourself halfway down and you extended your back, instead of driving from the hips on the way up; now you can do full-depth barbell back squats with added weight and there’s no shaking at all.
As you did more repetitions of the squat over time, your brain became more effective at recruiting muscles in the correct sequence to execute the movement. Your movement became more coordinated, you could generate more force and the increased efficiency of the movement allowed you to do more repetitions.
Advantages for fitness, strength and body composition
Muscle memory has fantastic benefits to your strength, fitness and body composition, as it allows you to consolidate your progress between sessions. It also means that if you take a bit of a break from training, you don’t go back to square one. Once you choose to get back into the gym, you will quickly be lifting similar weight and training just as hard as the past 12 months.
Muscle memory is also important for maintaining your fitness, as your technique remains steady after a break. For example, if you haven’t run for a few months (or years), you might find that you struggle to maintain rhythm. A few weeks later, your body is suddenly recruiting the right muscles in the correct sequence to give you an efficient running stride with a nice rhythm.
How long does it take to create muscle memory?
You always have some level of muscle memory – even when you have the shaky bodyweight squat, that is what your body will remember – but we tend to be more interested in retaining good habits and movement patters. To do this, you must spend time developing a solid technique and then continuing to practice and refine it. The more repetitions you do with a similar technique, the stronger your muscle memory will become. However, you can also have consistent poor technique – such as not squatting deep enough or shifting your hips sideways on the way up.
How long does it last?
Muscle memory fades as the duration between use increases. The more proficient and well-practiced you are, the slower and longer it will take to fold. If you have done thousands of high-quality reps, a month off will not hurt your technique. But if you have only just hit a couple of high-quality reps under your belt, it might take a couple of weeks to get back up to scratch.
Lizzy has been in the health and fitness industry since 2008: first as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor, before moving online in 2014 as Co-Director of coaching business Flex Success. She is accredited through Beck Health & Nutrition, is a qualified Master Trainer, holds a Bachelor of Social Science degree, and broke an Australian record in
Strongman in 2017.
What is muscle memory?
It refers to the idea that it’s much easier to regain lost muscle mass, than it is to gain new muscle from scratch.
How does it work?
We used to think that neurological factors were solely responsible for muscle memory, making it easier to relearn a task previously undertaken. Like ‘riding a bike’, it’s easier to do even after months with feet off the pedals, than it is when riding a bike for the very first time.
A 2010 University of Oslo study expanded this understanding. Researchers used imaging techniques to determine what happened to myonuclei during periods of detraining. Myonuclei are the numerous nuclei (control centres of the cell) that populate muscle cells. This differs from other cells in the body that only have a single nuclei or powerhouse.
Myonuclei oversee a specific area and amount of muscle, and they can only oversee a finite amount, limiting muscle from growing infinitely… shame, I know! The only way to continue growing more muscle tissue is to lay down more myonuclei and this takes time.
This same study out of the University of Olso found that resistance training causes satellite cells (repair cells) to fuse with muscle cells, and these repair cells have nuclei which get donated to the muscle cell during the fusion.These extra nuclei expand the size that the muscle is capable of.
When you stop training, you experience muscle atrophy or shrinking of the muscle. But this study also found that myonuclei in muscle tissue are protected from apoptosis, which is a form of programmed cell death that occurs on other tissue of the body. This means that the new nuclei collected by the muscle from previous training stick around when atrophy occurs. These ‘extra’ myonuclei contribute to the accelerated rate of muscle regain after a period of detraining – if you’re a trained, you don’t need to create new myonuclei, unlike a total beginner. You can essentially bypass that step. However, it’s important to note that this study was undertaken on mice.
A more recent 2019 study on humans showed that the changes that occurred at the level of DNA during a training period of seven weeks persisted during a rest period of seven weeks that followed. These changes to gene activity and expression produce new muscle proteins and, in this way, it’s fair to say that ‘muscle memory’ is written into the DNA of your muscle cells.
How long does muscle memory last?
The duration of muscle memory has not yet been fully explored, so it can’t be claimed with anything other than anecdote that it is any longer than the studied seven weeks. Speaking from personal experience, however, I’ve seen accelerated muscle hypertrophy in clients who have been detrained for months at a time.
What might this mean for you?
Muscle memory means that if your muscles have deflated a little due to time off from the gym, you should experience an accelerated rate of growth once you get back in there. My advice? Don’t wait until Monday and remember to set yourself up for success by creating a plan that is realistic and sustainable. Consistency is key!