What Actually Is Muscle Memory?
Muscle memory is a fascinating topic that’s essential to understanding what’s going on with your musculoskeletal system. And it’s for more reasons than simply making your muscles look good now that summer’s finally arrived (although I’m plenty aware that that’s important to my patients too).
But what is it? First, let’s make the distinction between two types of muscle memory.
Two Types of Muscle Memory
There’s 1.) the type of muscle memory that refers to the fact that a given muscle has a shape, size and tone that it’s ‘used to’. This type of muscle memory helps lapsed gym-goers recover muscle more quickly. It’s also the reason that correcting chronic problems in your body isn’t just a one-time appointment at our office.
The term muscle memory can also refer to 2.) the neurological changes caused by repetitive motor learning that means you’ll never really forget how to ride a bike.
We’re going to talk about the first type. If you’ve ever spent any time in the gym and then taken time off you know that it’s much easier to regain lost muscle mass than it is to put on new muscle mass in the first place. Muscle that you took years to build the first time around – and lost because you took time off from the gym – might only take a few months to get back. Muscles have a certain size, shape and tone that’s ‘normal’ for them, and changing that ‘normal’ doesn’t come easy.
At Ascent Chiropractic, we see a similar phenomenon when trying to correct musculoskeletal problems. Muscles that have been in the same position, shape and tone for years or decades resist change. So no matter how much stretching or soft tissue work we do on a muscle group during a single appointment, there will always be some degree of “two steps forward, one step backward” as we retrain a muscle group to work differently.
Muscle Cell Nuclei: Your Power Source
The key to muscle size and strength lies in the myonuclei – the control centers of the muscle cells that are responsible for sythesizing protein into muscle. Every cell in your body has a nucleus, but muscle cells are a little different. Instead of just having one nucleus, like most of our cells, muscle cells can have many nuclei. The catch is that each nucleus can only support a certain amount of cell area, so once you start to grow a muscle you quickly max out the amount of area that a given nucleus can oversee.
So what happens? When you lift weights, repair cells floating around called satellite cells fuse with muscle cells and donate their nuclei. More nuclei mean more cell area that can be supported, so muscles can grow again.
It used to be thought that once you stopped exercising then these nuclei simply died off. The reason? In previous studies researchers analyzed nuclei found in connective tissue, which do die after you stop training, and it was assumed the same was true of muscles. However, on further investigation, it seems muscles hate change.
In a groundbreaking study published in 2010, researchers at the University of Oslo found that these newly-acquired nuclei actually stick around, even when your muscles atrophy. So then when you start lifting again it’s much easier to get back to your ‘normal size’ because you not only skip that first step of satellite cell fusion and nuclear donation but you also have the benefit of increased numbers of nuclei ramping up muscle protein synthesis.
It’s Ok To Take Time Off From The Gym
Losing muscle is a fear every gym goer faces (a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found you lose as much as 12% of your muscle power with just 14 days of inactivity – scary stuff). It’s also one of the main reasons people don’t start training in the first place – if your hard work is going to go to waste the first time you take a vacation, why even start, right?
But if you do take a few weeks off from the gym you probably don’t have all that much to worry about. In fact, a 2012 study found that followed athletes over a period of 6 months found they had essentially the same amount of muscle hypertrophy (growth) whether they worked out continuously or took 3-week breaks every 6 weeks, so the occasional lapse in training isn’t going to make or break your progress over the long run.
The Big Picture
The bigger takeaway is that changing the way your muscles have worked your entire life takes time, whether it’s in the gym or at your chiropractor’s office. “Muscle memory” goes both ways, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t see permanent results immediately.
Whether you’re a pro athlete, weekend warrior or just looking to tone up, study after study shows that regular chiropractic care is an essential part of correcting problems, reducing pain and reaching your full potential.
We want to be part of your team! To make an appointment at Ascent Chiropractic, call 262-345-4166 or schedule an appointment with our online scheduling app.