In the last post I talked about losing muscle while not training and how you can best maintain the muscle that you have built. If you have not yet read that post, check it out here: (link).
This post will talk about the ability of our bodies to regain strength and muscle after a break from training as well as my personal experience with this.
What is this “Muscle Memory” phenomenon?
Part of muscle memory being the ability to remember how to throw a ball, ride a bike, or perform a clean for example. This is an amazing phenomenon that we can automatically remember how to do things we have practiced before. in this post let's talk about a specific application related to Muscle Memory, the ability to quickly regain lost muscle mass and strength after a break from training. So, technically, we are not talking about true muscle memory here in the sense programming our bodies how to do certain tests without thinking about it. Today we are talking about reversing the detraining response to significant time off from intentional exercise or weight training.
Researchers know that muscle memory was in large part due to the training that you also did to your Central Nervous System (CNS) while lifting weights. After a break from training your CNS will not need to be retrained as much and therefore you would be able to regain muscle mass more quickly than you originally did because your CNS already knows how to recruit and use all of your individual muscle fibers in each muscle. If you already know how to use your muscles, then it will be easier than before to increase there size (hypertrophy).
Amazing! Our CNS keeps the muscle memory highways maintained, even if your muscles shrink. This is why many people can actually lift just as much weight or even sometimes hit a PR when they get back to the gym sometimes. This means that once our body and our brain make the connections for how to recruit muscle fibers to perform an exercise, it is not easily forgotten. When you took that time off, your individual muscle fibers may have shrunk (atrophied), but your brain still knows how to recruit all of them. You may have lost a lot of stamina, but you can get strength back quickly thanks to this. But the more technical the exercise, the faster that highway breaks down, and the more you will have to practice to get it back.
Some research more recently has suggested that another phenomenon that gives you another upper hand.
Muscle nuclei are developed during training. These are added to your muscle as it needs to increase your muscle size (cross sectional area) through hypertrophy. Previously it was thought that these nuclei would disappear after lack of training, research if finding that these are retained, even after significant decrease in muscle size. Retaining these nuclei allows you to increase back to your previous muscle size and strength more quickly than it took you previously.
This addition of muscle nuclei is not to be confused with adding actual muscle fibers (hyperplasia) as this only contributes to 5% or less of muscle growth.
So, how fast can I get it all back?
With muscle atrophy (shrinking) this really depends on the person. Some people lose muscle mass really fast, while others do not. This can be body type, nutrition, and even stress related. But for the most part, if you maintained a certain size and fitness level for a long time and only lost it for a little while, you will gain it back quickly. If you just recently gained all that muscle, then it will take less time to get back, but it will likely take a relatively similar timeline because your body didn't learn to maintain that for a while.
A number of things have to come into play in order to help get your size and full strength back. While the nuclei do remain, you will still have to put in the time and effort and workout volume along with the proper nutrition to support muscle gain. A properly balanced program with sufficient volume and intensity is necessary to increase your muscle size again.
It is possible that your diet changed while having time off from exercise and it may take some time to phase back into exercise. But once you get into a consistent workout regimen, you can get back to what you were previously relatively quickly compared to how long it took you to get there before.
My personal experience
I have absolutely benefitted from the ability to regain strength quickly. Let’s look specifically at my results on the Bench press (this was chosen because it has been the most consistent major lift for me because I have one in my home).
In June of 2019 I set out to increase my bench-press 1RM (1 rep max). It had not gone up in at least a year, even though I had been consistently exercising and using the bench press for the last eight years. In September after working diligently toward that goal for several months I decided I was ready to try for a max lift. My previous 1RM was 230 lbs. or about 104kg. My goal was to go as high above that as possible. As I warmed up in my parents’ slightly cold basement, I felt prepared and ready, to beat my personal best. After hitting 225 (102) I decided to go for 235 to break my record. I was able to make that lift and make another at 240 lbs. (108.8 kg).
About a month after this PR (personal record) I joined a CrossFit box and was focusing more on learning as much as I could about all the new movements being introduced to me, and bench press was being emphasized less and less in my training.
Fast forward to February 2020 during a workout I bench pressed 165 lbs. (about 75 kg) for 8 reps. Using an online 1RM calculator it gives an estimated 1RM of around 205 lbs. (about 93 kg). A far cry from where I was about five months before.
After traveling home at the end of March I was left once again with minimal equipment aside from the bench. On March 27th I was able to bench press 170lbs. (77 kg) for two sets of six reps each. I even wrote in my workout log: “Felt so tough because of time off.” Now after doing bench press more consistently again, on May 15th I was able to lift 235lbs (106.5 kg) easily and lift 245 lbs. (111 kg) a few moments later.
I do not include this story to brag or boast in my success, I am by no means the strongest or fittest person. But to hopefully encourage you that you will be able to bounce back after a break in training. It took me over eight years to increase my bench press to 240 lbs. (108.8 kg), but after losing much of that strength it took me only 7 weeks to increase my PR by another 5 lbs. You can do it too!
I think an important note on this subject is the role of training during an injury. If an injury forces you to take time off please be sure to recover well and not reinjure yourself by returning too soon. You will be able to regain any muscle or progress you lose, but a further injury could delay that progress.