Jog Your Muscles' Memory
Five weeks and five days after giving birth, a full nine months since running a single step, WH's Lesley Rotchford, 34, laced up her sneaks and banged out five miles.
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Her muscles groaned a bit from the abrupt reentry, but with 20 years of distance running under their belt, they remembered just what to do.
It's a phenomenon aptly called muscle memory. Simply put, when you teach your body how to do something—ride a bike, surf, run a few miles—it creates a physiological blueprint. So even if you take some time off, you'll get back to where you were faster than it took you to learn the exercise in the first place. "Muscle memory stems from your body's learning not just how to perform a task, but also how to break down muscle tissue and then repair and rebuild it," explains William Kraemer, Ph.D., a professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. "That physiological knowledge lets you come back from injury, surgery, and even pregnancy faster, easier, and often better than before," he says.
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Athletes have taken advantage of muscle memory for decades. Exercise scientists have been studying it just as long. But you don't need to be an Olympian or have a Ph.D. to know how to reap the rewards. Here's how you can tap your muscle memory and enjoy the lifelong body benefits.
How Your Muscles Remember
Not surprisingly, the process of forging muscle memory originates in the brain. When you learn something new, whether it's how to do a split squat or how to snowboard, your brain fires up all the right motor units (nerves that signal muscle fibers to kick in) to help you perform the movements.
Once your muscle fibers get the memo from your brain to move, they start sending messages back. "When you move, you activate sensors (called proprioceptors) in your muscles, tendons, and joints that constantly give feedback to your central nervous system about where your body is in space, so it knows what muscles to fire next," says Adam Knight, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biomechanics at Mississippi State University. It's a continuous feedback loop from your brain to your muscles and back. "Your brain creates pathways through your central nervous system, and movements become automatic," adds Wayne Westcott, Ph.D., fitness research director at Quincy College in Massachusetts. Those well-worn pathways essentially become your muscle memory.
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The more regularly you use these pathways, the more your muscle memory solidifies, even if you slack off for a while. Ohio University researchers put a group of women on a two-days-a-week strength-training program for 20 weeks, then let them lounge around for eight months. When they called them back to the gym along with a group of women who'd never lifted before, they found that the previously trained women had retained most of their muscle fibers. When they started pumping iron again, they made gains more rapidly than the women who had no history of strength training.
The same principle applies to any exercise, says Lee Hong, Ph.D., an assistant professor of kinesiology and neuroscience at Indiana University at Bloomington. "If you lay off an activity for too long, you'll get rusty, but those patterns are locked in," says Hong. "That's why, even after 10 or 20 years, you can get back on a bike and ride."