Unlocking the secrets of muscle memory for fitness success

When the term “muscle memory” is mentioned, most people envision muscles memorizing specific movements, such as riding a bike or playing a musical instrument. While muscle memory is indeed a real phenomenon, it’s essential to recognize that it involves two distinct types: neurological and physiological. Understanding how these forms of muscle memory work can significantly benefit those embarking on a new fitness journey or resuming one after a hiatus.

Neurological Muscle Memory:

Neurological muscle memory is commonly associated with the ability of muscles to remember specific movements. However, this is not due to the muscles themselves memorizing these actions. Rather, it is a result of motor learning that occurs in the central nervous system, consisting of the brain and spinal cord.

Through repeated movements, the central nervous system forms strong neural pathways, facilitating efficient signal transmission to the relevant body parts. As Brett Johnson, CEO of SwitchedOn Training Inc., explains, during the cognitive stage of learning, movements are slow and inefficient, requiring high activation in the prefrontal cortex. Progressing through the associative stage, movements become more fluid, ultimately leading to the autonomous stage where performance is smooth and accurate, and the basal ganglia takes over, responsible for automatic functioning.

However, Johnson emphasizes the importance of proper oversight during this learning process to avoid developing bad form. Unchecked, poor technique may increase the risk of overuse injuries. While some experts acknowledge individual variations in movement techniques, conscious awareness of movement patterns is crucial to prevent ingraining detrimental habits over time.

Physiological Muscle Memory:

On the other hand, physiological muscle memory pertains to the body’s ability to regain lost muscle mass quickly. Individuals who take a break from their regular exercise routine often experience a rapid return of muscle when they resume activity. This happens because, when initially building muscle, the body adds new cells to the muscles. These new cells persist even when muscle mass is lost and can be easily reactivated upon returning to regular exercise.

Nick Mitchell, founder and CEO of Ultimate Performance, notes the remarkable speed at which muscle can come back, even after an extended period of inactivity. While there is no consensus on the specific time frame for muscle reactivation, Mitchell suggests that the longer you’ve had muscle mass, the more slowly it disappears during inactivity and the faster it returns with exercise.

Regular Exercise and Muscle Function:

Scientific studies indicate that muscles behave differently in individuals who engage in regular exercise compared to those who do not. However, long-term studies on this topic are limited due to challenges in accurately measuring and tracking individuals’ activity levels over extended periods.

Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health, emphasizes the importance of not staying away from physical activities for too long, as the brain and muscles take time to readjust. While advancements in research have revealed that newly gained muscle cells persist even after cessation of exercise, there is still uncertainty about the threshold of inactivity beyond which these cells may disappear.

Understanding both neurological and physiological aspects of muscle memory is crucial for anyone striving to maintain or enhance their fitness level. Proper technique, conscious movement patterns, and regular exercise contribute not only to neurological muscle memory but also to the rapid reactivation of lost muscle mass. As research continues, individuals are advised not to let prolonged inactivity diminish their muscle and brain’s ability to swiftly return to optimal function. Fitness success is not just about muscle memory but also about maintaining willpower and staying connected to physical activity over time.