Muscle Memory a Myth?

June 13th, 2008 by Paul Johnson

Bodybuilders spend years building up their muscle mass. That is why most bodybuilders hate cutting because they know in the process they will lose some of their hard earned muscle while they lose fat. Most bodybuilders think that if you take off a few months from lifting or you get injured or sick, you will have to start all over again taking many months or years to build muscle back. However, this is not true. Instead you will experience a much easier time gaining muscle often called “Muscle memory”.

I’ve had personal experience with muscle memory. As a hardgainer, it took years and tons of effort to put on a lot of weight. When I got off my diet for a couple years, I lost a ton of weight. When I got back on a higher calorie and higher protein diet again, I immediately started gaining weight and muscle back quickly. Muscle memory doesn't mean the muscle just flys on with no effort, what it means is that you will get there a lot quicker with the same effort as before.

What causes muscle memory?

There is no research studies on what causes muscle memory. I don't think there could even be a way to measure how to even find the cause. However, I think the cause of muscle memory can be pinned down to some possibilities. Your first guess for the cause of muscle memory, maybe might with hormones, like Testosterone and Growth hormone. This can't be the cause because studies have shown when you raise calories, these hormones goes up for about a couple weeks, but it drops again after that. Muscle memory can last months, not just a couple weeks. It wouldn't make sense anyways, since anytime you start back on a new diet, your anabolic hormones are going to go high anyways in the beginning, regardless of what your muscle base was in the past.

Another theory could be hyperplasia. Hypertrophy is the growing of the diameter of the muscle fibers, by sythesizing new protein. Hyperplasia is the division of muscle fibers to make new fibers. Many have argued that hyerplasia doesn't exist in humans, but from my research I believe it does. I believe muscle gains are from both hypertrophy and from a little bit of hyperplasia. Heavy weight training can help induce hyperplasia. Therefore, it could be easier to gain the muscle back in the future because you now have more muscle fibers to work with, that have potential to grow.

The most common theory I've seen bodybuilders explain for muscle fascia tissue is fascia stretching. There is a connective tissue that tightly hugs around muscles, called the fascia. Some theorize that fascia helps slow down muscle building because muscles can't grow with it binding. Once you stretch the fascia, it tends not to shrink back. Some have incorporated fascia tissue stretches with weights into their weight training routine, including pro-bodybuilders Jay Cutler. These deep stretches help permanently stretch the fascia tissue. From my research I'm also a firm believer in fascia stretching to help muscle gains, so I often incorporate it into my workouts.

I personally believe muscle memory is caused by a combination of hyperplasia, fascia stretching, and maybe some other unknown factors. It may be caused by hyperplasia alone, or fascia stretching alone, we don't know. Muscle memory is a fascinating thing and it's good to know that if we hit a rough time and can't follow diet and training, we can get our gains back much easier in the future thanks to muscle memory.

  1. adam on April 3rd, 2009

    This is completely wrong. The reason we have muscle memory is that when we build muscle, there are satellite cells on the muscle that turn into nuclei. These new nuclei never go away, so when we do lose muscle mass it is easier to rebuild it later. Also, our bodies are completely done dividing new muscle cells. Muscle hyperplasia is finished before we even reach the age of ONE, believe it or not. The cells themselves actually grow and stretch and develop more satellite cells, which help contract the muscle more forcefully.

  2. admin on April 3rd, 2009

    I have heard that theory adam. I believe there is evidence it might happen in steroid users. I’m not sure if it happens in those who don’t take steroids. Regardless, I’m not sure it’s been 100% proven it really does happen in anyone. If you have more info, please share us.

  3. dave on July 19th, 2010

    I think it quite likely that a lot of the central nervous system adaptions you create when lifting heavy weights remain when you stop, both allowing you to train harder (because you can activate more of the muscle you currently have correctly) and increasing your gains due to not needing those specific adaptions. Seems to me this is a good explaination for the incredible soreness many people get when they resume lifting after a break, where they can lift heavier than they would otherwise be capable of. I have no other evidence to support this however 🙂

  4. david on May 12th, 2011

    I’m not natural, always have been and I have first hand seen muscle memory at work with my self.. I would be down out of the gym for whatever reason, slack on my diet, or cut to quick and lose size, only to bulk and regain it all quickly. I’ve literally seen my arms shoot up half inch or so in a week and gain 5-10lbs. Eating clean too. So something to it. It also works on strength too.

    Just ran across this and thought I would add my two cents in haha

  5. John McIntosh on June 12th, 2011

    I have been training for 30 years, and won the Mr. Tampa Bay hvwt class in 2000. I believe the concept of muscle memory is mis-named. A muscle cant “Remember anything” because it doesnt have cells that are able to remember-like our brains do.
    The reason for muscle memory is the “Super-structure” grows with years of training. The bones get more dense, the tendons get thicker & stronger. the cartilage in the knees gets thicker & stronger. The muscles themselves have achieved a maximum state of size. The digestive system is able to grow and process more butrients. The pancreas & liver & left ventricle all grow. The liver of a 250lb bodybuilder MUST be larger than it was when the same athlete weighed 160 pounds. The intestines grow-everything in the body grows. Our grips get stronger. After the lifter takes a layoff, and returns to training, the ENTIRE body is primed for rapid muscle recovery because the entire body had grown to accomodate the athlete at 250 pound. Its that simple. I do agree with the concept of fascia stretching stated in the original article.