‘Muscle Memory’ – Fact or Fiction?

Oct 22, 2021 | Uncategorized

Are you returning to Pilates in a studio after a break, and wondering whether you will still remember half of the movements you used to be able to do (almost!) with your eyes closed? We often hear of the concept of ‘muscle memory’ getting thrown around, but what might it actually relate to? Well, we’ve done some research to find out.

The idea of ‘muscle memory’ is that if we have trained our bodies and therefore muscles at a certain level in the past, then later on or after a break from this exercise, the memory of the movement remains, to some extent, in our muscles.

A study (Seaborne et al., 2018) set out to investigate whether skeletal muscle ‘possesses an epigenetic memory of hypertrophy.’ Basically what this means, is that the study wanted to find out if past training was somehow imprinted in our system to positively impact future similar muscle recruitment. 

Before we go on, let’s clarify that this isn’t about our genetics, it’s about how our epigenetics – and epigenetic relates to modifications of gene expression, not an alteration of the genetic code itself. So, we’re looking at how our genes express themselves, based on our environment in the form of our training.

In order to test the idea of muscle memory, the study looked at epigenetic memory in adult human skeletal muscles by assessing genome wide DNA methylation (basically a change in the activity of the DNA segment, without actually changing its sequence), after resistance exercise induced muscle growth (from loading) followed by a break from the exercise, and then follow up with a later period of resistance exercise muscle reloading.

The purpose of this was to see if there was a memory link evident from previous encounters with muscle loading.

The outcome of the study was that the skeletal muscle mass increased after loading, returned to base line during unloading, and further increased after reloading – and interestingly, the largest ‘DNA hypomethylation’ across the genome was found to occur following reloading, even after a break!

This study has demonstrated that there can actually be greater muscle growth when making a return to exercise after a break such as due to an injury, or in later life, with appropriate training.

It’s still important of course upon any return to exercise after an extended break, to ensure a steady and graduated return under the guidance of a relevant exercise or health professional if need be. There are also, of course other body systems that are no doubt linked to recalling previously learnt movement patterns, such as the brain and memory, itself. 

However, it is a promising thought to acknowledge that the hard work, and incredible fitness or movement based skills we may have developed in the past, are still stored, and not completely forgotten, don’t you think?

Our body systems are incredible. As Part of your PEA Pilates 100hour Mat Teacher Training course, we cover all relevant musculoskeletal anatomy in order to help you understand the background of movement, and how it relates to your teaching as up and coming instructor.

Feel free to reach out to the team at info@peapilates.com.au with any queries you have. We look forward to being a part of your teacher training journey on one of our upcoming courses.

References: 

1. Sharples, A. P., Stewart, C. E. & Seaborne, R. A. Does skeletal muscle have an ‘epi’-memory? The role of epigenetics in nutritional programming, metabolic disease, aging and exercise. Aging cell 15, 603–616, https://doi.org/10.1111/acel.12486 (2016)

2. Robert A. Seaborne, Juliette Strauss, Matthew Cocks, Sam Shepherd, Thomas D. O’Brien, Ken A. van Someren, Phillip G. Bell, Christopher Murgatroyd, James P. Morton, Claire E. Stewart, Adam P. Sharples. Human Skeletal Muscle Possesses an Epigenetic Memory of HypertrophyScientific Reports, 2018; 8 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-20287-3

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