How I learned about muscle memory
Let me tell you how I learned about muscle memory, or the absence of it. A couple of years back, with my cousin, we ended up at the beach. When he took off his T-shirt I was blown away. He had been exercising and his upper torso was just huge. I mean really humongous. It looked as if he had just stepped out of the ‘300’ film, where all these Spartans have over-trained upper-bodies. Yes, I was jealous. And I didn’t like how my wife was looking at his chest…
Anyway, this summer I told him half-jokingly that he shouldn’t take off his shirt again. He laughed and told me I didn’t have to worry, because it was ‘all gone’. “What do you mean, all gone?” I replied, “Those muscles didn’t just leave, did they?”. Then he started explaining to me how working out is probably the most ungrateful thing in the world, because as soon as you stop doing it for a couple of months, you’re basically back to square one. His wife confirmed, and I couldn’t help but see some nostalgia in her eyes.
New Research confirms: there is no such thing as muscle memory
Now earlier this month, new research came out in Stockholm, Sweden, that reminded me of this whole episode. Turns out, ‘muscle memory’ doesn’t seem to exist. When you stop working out, as my cousin did, his muscles do not ‘remember’ that they worked out before. They won’t develop faster or smoother than a muscle that hasn’t been trained before. So basically, if we both hit the gym starting tomorrow, it won’t be easier for him to develop his muscles again, than for me who never did.
Except it will. You see, this research, as fascinating as it is, is only looking at one part of the equation: the muscle tissue. A muscle is no more than an executive organ, a piece of machinery. the one calling the shots is our brain, connected to our muscles through our nervous system. And our brain does remember, consciously or unconsciously, it knows. It knows what it took to develop those muscles the first time around. It knows the drill, the discipline needed. It knows how to push oneself. It remembers both the pain and the satisfaction. It knows how to find motivation. It knows how to put itself on auto-pilot and just go for the result.
Neuroplasticity and the Cerebellum
You see, our brain remembers everything. Thanks to neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to create new connections, it is constantly storing information and adapting to new situations. Especially when it comes to movement and muscle coordination, we have this dedicated area in the lower back of our brain called the Cerebellum, which is extremely efficient. It learns fast and hardly forgets. Millions of years ago, when we were still hanging in African Trees, we already had this Cerebellum. If it’s still there today, that makes it an evolutionary champion, a must have.
And so it is. It is thanks to this Cerebellum that when I bought myself a bike, I was still able to ride it even though it had been over 10 years since the last time I used one. It is the Cerebellum again which helps me learning to play piano, when suddenly I don’t need to watch my hands anymore, but somehow they find the right position on the keyboard to hit the right notes. And again, it’s the cerebellum, my cousin’s cerebellum, which would be responsible for giving him a huge advantage over me, would we be to hit the gym together in pursuit of a perfect torso.
Muscle memory or not, if we learn something, our brain remembers. Imagine for a moment if that weren’t the case. If each time we stop practicing a skill, just like with muscle memory, we would have to start again from scratch. A foreign language we don’t speak for a couple of months? Gone! Winter sports? Unless we live somewhere with eternal snow, we would have to learn it every single year all over again. What about dancing? drawing? Swimming! Imagine that: “Can you swim?”. “Well, I’m not sure… I could two months ago. Let me jump in the water to check. (jumps in the water) darn, nope, can’t swim. where’s the life guard?!”.
So, sure, our muscles don’t remember that we trained before. But our brain does. We will still know how to execute the right moves. Maybe not perfectly, but close enough to do reasonably well. After that, it’s just a matter of practicing again, and here too our brain remembers the routine and discipline needed. The only thing where the lack of muscle memory really has an impact is in the muscle strength needed to sustain an effort, and not in our ability to execute certain moves.