Study: “Muscle Memory” Will Help Us When the Gyms Open Again

The phrase now has scientific meaning beyond remembering how to play the saxophone or drive a golf ball

Study: “Muscle Memory” Will Help Us When the Gyms Open Again
Victor Freitas
By Tanner Garrity / March 26, 2020 12:45 pm

According to a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the phrase “muscle memory” should no longer just refer to the motor neurons that help us, without thinking too much, remember how to ride a bike, play the right note on a saxophone or drive a golf ball. A team of Swedish researchers found strong evidence that muscles also store memory fo previous strength training sessions, which allow their cells to be more genetically and metabolically ready for growth than muscles that haven’t been worked out in the past.

The scientists had a group of 19 subjects, who had never seriously exercised before, put just one leg (right or left) through difficult presses and extensions for a period of 10 weeks, rest completely for 20 weeks, then return to the lab for an exercise that engaged both legs. At all stages, each leg was measured for size, and tested for muscle biopsies, gene markers and biochemical signals. During the five months of zero exercise — which, we should emphasize, is a really long time to not work out a muscle — the leg that had been worked out for the previous 10 weeks employed a sort of molecular muscle memory, and remained 50% sturdier than the other, lazy leg.

The implications? Muscles will stay sharp at the gene and protein level, even if you take a massive break from putting them through strength training. Studies in the past have suggested that aerobic capacity hangs around long after long-forgotten endurance workouts (up to 10 years, according to a Duke study!) but this is good news for those worrying about atrophy, as they spend the next several weeks or months away from a trusty gym, trying to throw together a passable home workout. Your muscles will indeed honor all the work you put in pre-COVID-19. As for tips on how to keep the gains going even while at home, check out the latest entry to our Workout From Home Diaries column.

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