What is muscle memory and how to use it to rebuild strength

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You couldn’t get your hands on a set of dumbbells for love nor money during lockdown so it’s likely you’ve lost some gains. But don’t worry because Hayley Madigan, online coach at WithU, tells us how we can get our strength back fast thanks to muscle memory…

How to use muscle memory to get stronger

What is muscle memory?

Muscle memory is your ability to bounce back relatively quickly after a period of inactivity, like most of us will have experienced during lockdown. Essentially, it is the muscle fibres regaining size and strength faster than it took to gain them initially.

How does it work?

When you work out, your muscle fibres become damaged and need to be repaired. This microtrauma activates the body’s self-repairing mechanisms and, as a result, specific cells called satellite cells, fuse with the damaged muscle fibres to repair them.

Satellite cells are fast-acting strategically situated cells on the outside of mature muscle fibres, on permanent standby in the event of microtrauma. A regular occurrence during training. When signalled, these relatively dormant cells wake up, engage, and rise to the occasion by proliferating at the site of muscle damage.

In addition to the waking up of the dormant cells, due to the repetition of exercises completed pre-time off, an element of motor learning is present. This means you can perform the exercises more efficiently and without as much conscious effort.

muscle memory

How can muscle memory help to rebuild muscle we may have lost during lockdown?

These newly activated cells aid the muscle in gaining size and strength and hang around for several weeks, potentially several months, enhancing our ability to realise our forgotten gains when we revisit training. So, when you’re ready to resume working out, your body is also prepared for muscle regrowth at a relatively rapid rate.

Depending on the amount of work put in prior to your time off, the motor learning aspect of muscle memory will mean that you will complete exercises more effectively and thus stress the muscle more and stimulate a greater response.

This is why I try not to stress too much about reducing training. I have been that person who was completely committed and for me, there is so much more to life. Although, that’s not a licence to slack off! I encourage people to train for the right reasons, personal to them. I train for health, to get strong, and because I enjoy it – not to punish my body.

The mental and physical refreshment you get from taking time out of training can be positive and is unlikely to affect performance long term. Let’s be kind to ourselves.

muscle memory
Photo: Hayley Madigan

Top tips for easing ourselves back into the gym

1. Drop intensity

Since your training could have either shifted gear slightly or stopped completely over the last few months, then starting with a lower intensity can provide a foundation to avoid overtraining in the first few weeks back, preventing injury, training deflation and slow recovery.

2. Take your time

Your performance will return with consistency. Training smart will always be better than rushing the process. Patience is key!

3. Be prepared

Schedule your workouts into your day. Visit your gym if you’re comfortable and assess the space, equipment available and booking systems. This is why I love WithU because it allows you to be prepared and you can join a programme or any workout of your choice. It provides support and guidance to try something new whether you’re at home or in the gym without impacting the time you have to train.

4. Focus on recovery

Pay a little closer attention to your nutrition. Are you fuelling your body correctly to promote rapid regrowth? And SLEEP. The holy grail. When in doubt, be conservative with your training. Give your body time to adjust and to work on recovery to your best ability, especially in those first four weeks back to training. Remember, we’re all in this together.

Main image: Shutterstock

By Sam

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