You must have heard of muscle memory during music, art or sports training. Muscle memory seems to be the scientific equivalent of “practice makes perfect” and you probably have some questions about it. After all, unlike octopuses, our neurons are not scattered all over our arms or legs. So what exactly is this so-called memory? Is it scientifically real? Or is it just a marketing strategy like so many other things?
What is Muscle Memory?
Muscle memory means different things depending on who you ask. For many people, muscle memory is the ability to learn a motor task very well and then perform it without conscious effort. But biologists and neuroscientists will explain it to you differently. They will probably tell you that muscle memory is the cellular memory of muscle cells. The term refers to the changes in muscle cells caused by exercise. Even if you no longer exercise regularly, the muscles seem to remember the effects of exercise.
If you have never lifted a barbell in your life, you will either fail at the first attempt or you will have to work with very low weights. To get to a certain stage, you need to train consistently. However, if you take a break and come back months later, you almost have to start all over again.
The good thing is that this time the time required to reach your previous skill will be much less. The same is true no matter what your preferred exercise is. It’s always easier to replace lost muscles.
Muscle Memory Examples
Although the fact that you know how to ride a bike and will probably never forget it requires strengthening certain muscles, the processes that are important for learning new skills occur mainly in the brain, not in the muscles. When you practice a skill like cycling, swimming, learning choreography, you force your brain to coordinate between many different muscle movements.
The brain is made up of neurons and these neurons connect with each other to make pathways. Along these neuronal pathways, the brain receives and sends information from various parts of the body. However, these neuronal pathways are not well laid out in the beginning. It takes practice and constant use for these pathways to become smoother and allow information to pass through more efficiently.
As a result, even though we have not evolved to remember phone numbers, we are very good at remembering things we do with our hands or our body. And we don’t need to use an additional mnemonic for this. We just need to practice. But this is not exactly muscle memory.
Our Muscles Also Have a Different Muscle Memory
Our muscles are made of muscle fibers and each muscle fiber is made of muscle cells. Normally, a cell has only one nucleus. However, muscle cells are one of the few types of cells that have many nuclei inside them, called myonuclei.
Exercising puts strain on muscles. This strain results in tired and damaged muscles, which the body must then repair. During this repair process, the muscles add new cells and myonuclei to the existing cells. This, in turn, increases muscle mass. In the end, it makes the muscles, and therefore you, stronger.
This increase in muscle mass due to intense exercise is called hypertrophy. When you stop exercising, your muscles lose the extra muscle mass (atrophy), but the newly added myonuclei remain. The loss of muscle mass is actually a loss of proteins in the muscle. When you return to exercise, you are likely to regain your strength faster because of the previously gained myonuclei.
In fact, research on muscle memory is new and how it happens is still in the hypothesis stage. The process is thought to occur through a protein synthesis and other cellular changes. This whole process is known to work more efficiently during youth.
As a result, your muscles make it easier for you to remember the time you spend in the gym and your brain makes it easier for you to remember the sequence of movements you make in the gym. So when you play a sport, when you play an instrument, when you take a break, you should thank your muscle memory for not making you start all over again.