This post was last updated on October 5th, 2016
Today I’m going to write about the marvelous and magical thing that is – muscle memory.
A typical example of muscle memory: a person loses muscle from taking a lengthy time away from the gym, sometimes being several months or years.
Then they start going to the gym again and rebuild all the muscle they had before, but very quickly (usually within a few weeks).
Thus appearing like their muscles ‘remembered’ their previous size, hence how they can gain it back so fast.
Losing muscle is a bodybuilder’s worst nightmare.
You spend years working your ass off in the gym, chugging down protein shakes until you’re almost gagging.
Counting calories, making you more anal than your girlfriend.
Calculating your macronutrient ratio’s, practically making you a scientist.
And as a result you actually build some quality muscle.
It’s all taken away from you. You are officially kicked out of Gainzville.
When this happens, you can be forgiven for losing your shit. I’m sure many tears have been shed from those who’ve experienced a significant amount of muscle loss.
The common causes of muscle loss are:
- Not going to the gym (possibly due to injury… or just being lazy shit!)
- Whilst cutting/dieting
- Coming off steroids
- Excessive cortisol
Then you start thinking of ways to solve this terrible tragedy:
“…oh wait, that muscle memory thing?! Does that work? God please make me big again!!!”
Don’t worry friends, I’m going to soothe all your muscle loss related anxieties in this very post. Read now, thank me later 😉
History of Muscle Memory
Many years ago, scientists used to believe that once your muscles started to shrink, then that was it. There was no magic way to get them back, this was permanent and you’d have to start all over again.
The scientific analysis for this was that your ‘muscles had died’ (1).
Now with us having more advanced knowledge on muscle memory, you’d be forgiven for thinking this scientific analysis was made by a monkey.
In recent times it’s become clear that muscle memory does actually exist (2), and therefore is no longer a controversial or highly debated topic.
…Unlike, say, overtraining. Boy was that a brave post!
So How Does Muscle Memory Work Exactly?
As you know, when you lift weights you build strength and muscle.
This is due to the body increasing the amount of nuclei stored within your muscle cells.
When you build muscle your body recruits more nuclei.
So what happens when you stop lifting and you lose muscle?
You know, the moment when your muscles shrivel up making all of your clothes seem baggy and everyone in the universe comments on how much smaller you look (Wow is that annoying).
Well, research has now found that nuclei count is permanent (3).
Meaning if you were to lose muscle, you’ll be able to regain it all back quickly because your muscles will ‘remember’ the maximum size you were originally.
And there are some people who are waiting for muscle memory to kick in, but are failing to see the gains they once had.
In this case, it may seem like you’re suffering from ‘muscle amnesia’ !
I’m going to list a few different scenarios causing people to lose muscle. Then I’m going to give step-by-step instructions on how to get your muscle back, using muscle memory.
Example #1 Stopped Lifting Weights
So this is the most popular example of where someone has lost muscle simply because they’ve stopped the stimulus that made their muscles grow in the first place.
Solution: Start lifting weights again.
How long for your gains to return?
This all depends on your training volume.
If you do 1 hour per body part 2x per week, then expect for all your gains to come back within about 2-3 weeks.
However if you only do 30 mins per muscle group 1x per week, it could take 4+ weeks.
These time spans are based on my own experience and others such as Anoop from ExerciseBiology.com, who has a masters degree in exercise physiology.
He also concurs that muscle memory will be restored within just ‘a few weeks‘.
Example #2: Muscle Loss via Cutting
Just like bulking can help you build muscle, cutting can make you lose it (if done incorrectly).
It’s easily done. If your calories go too low you’ll enter too much of a calorie deficit, causing muscle loss.
The confusing part to this is: you’re still lifting weights, yet you’ve lost muscle size.
So how do you get it back?
Solution: Once you start eating in a calorie surplus you’ll regain ALL of the muscle you lost during your cut.
So say you lost 5lbs of muscle during your cut. You’d get your muscle back by overeating and gaining 5lbs of weight.
In my experience I’ve found that almost all of the 5lbs gained in this example will be pure muscle weight.
As opposed to if muscle memory wasn’t a factor, the weight would be distributed as a combination of mostly fat and some muscle.
How to Minimize Muscle Loss During a Cut
It’s fine knowing how to get your muscle back once you’ve lost it after a cut, but it’s also important knowing how to keep it.
To burn fat whilst retaining muscle you need to make sure your calories aren’t too low, so you’re not losing weight too fast.
Aim to be in a moderate calorie deficit of about 20%-25%.
Thus, if your maintenance calories are 2,000. You would hit approximately 1,600 calories every day.
To find out what your maintenance calories are, you can use IIFYM.com’s BMR calculator.
One study concluded that when athletes entered a calorie deficit of 24%, they burned a significant amount of fat and lost very little muscle (4).
Also in my experience of cutting, a 20% calorie reduction has worked perfectly for retaining muscle.
In my post: How Much Protein Do I Need to Build Muscle, we also realise that high protein isn’t actually essential for sparing muscle during a cut, but instead the quantity of calories do matter.
How long for your gains to return?
It depends on how much muscle you lost. If you lost 2lbs of muscle, it won’t take long to overeat and gain this back. Maybe a few days to a week.
However if you lost say 10lbs of muscle, this may take you a few weeks, assuming you only eat in a calorie surplus of 500. If you were to eat more, you’ll gain it back quicker.
I lost a lot of muscle once because I took some time off the gym, which was about 8 weeks. During this time I decided to do a cut.
And I lost a significant amount of muscle because when you don’t lift when in a calorie deficit, your body has no motivation to spare muscle tissue.
However when you frequently lift weights whilst cutting, your body registers this as:
‘Alert! We need to preserve all muscle stores in order for you to perform your daily activities i.e. lifting weights!’
Thus in this scenario you’ll retain muscle and burn fat.
After I lost this muscle, I started grossly overeating.
I was hitting 6,000+ calories a day (I wanted this muscle back fast!). I was pretty much living on McDonalds at the time – ordering almost everything off the menu.
See how disgusting I was below! (I ate all of that in about 15 minutes lol)
To show you how powerful muscle memory is, this is my 3 week transformation:
…These gains are literally 100% muscle memory.
Crazy stuff, eh!
I was eating 3x what I usually did and I only gained a little fat during these 3 weeks, because my muscles ‘remembered’ my previous size.
Thus almost all of the weight I gained, which was about 30lbs was in the form of muscle. I should’ve measured but by going from these photos I must’ve gained at least 1 inch of muscle to my arms.
I literally transformed from a boy into a man during these 3 weeks.
Thank God for muscle memory!
Example #3: Coming off Steroids
Steroid-users deflate when they come off cycle. Some may ask if they can retain the size they were when on steroids, whilst not being on them – via muscle memory.
The simple answer to this is:
To a degree, yes.
Whenever you lose muscle, you must find out the reason. Then to get your muscle back you must do the opposite to this reason.
So for example, if you lose muscle because your calories are too low. If you were to bump your calories back up, you’ll discover that muscle memory kicks in and you get your gains back.
With steroids though, you lose muscle because anabolic hormone levels such as testosterone plummet off cycle.
Thus to gain this muscle back, you would think you’d have to restore your testosterone levels to what they were on cycle.
However, research shows the opposite to be true.
In one study they administered steroids to mice and observed muscle growth (5).
They gained a significant amount of mass as expected, then when they stopped administrating the steroids – they shrunk all the way back down to their original size.
However, after 12 weeks of rest, which is approximately 15% of a mice’s lifespan. They began training the same muscles as before, but without steroids this time.
And they increased their muscle mass by 36% in just 6 days.
The mice had specific muscles that weren’t trained when previously on steroids. And when they were trained them after, they didn’t have any significant growth.
Thus giving us reason to believe that muscle memory can even help you retain gains from steroids, even after coming off them.
This is why all time bodybuilding greats such as Flex Wheeler, can still be in great shape at 50 years old, despite no longer being on steroids.
Example #4: Cortisol
I’ve personally experienced losing a lot of muscle from doing high intensity interval training on an empty stomach in the morning. This consisted of doing sprints for 30 minutes on a bike (in the gym).
I would sprint for 30 seconds, followed by 30 seconds rest, repeated 30 times.
By doing HIIT on empty, cortisol (stress) levels shot up and I shifted into a catabolic (muscle wasting) state. As opposed to if I had a meal beforehand, which would’ve raised my blood sugar levels and kept cortisol levels low.
High cortisol levels also affect cancer patients.
Cortisol is the destructive hormone that weakens their immune system, making it harder for them to overcome the disease.
As a result of elevated cortisol, it’s normal for people who have cancer to lose muscle mass.
There are other ways cortisol can shoot up, including every day stresses such as:
- Paying bills
- Arguing with the spouse
- Diets high in caffeine
- Not getting enough sleep
Studies have shown that just by not getting enough sleep at night, could result in a 45% rise in cortisol (5).
Solution: Once cortisol goes back to normal and you start to overeat again, you’ll gain all of your muscle back.
And similar to when you overeat to kick-start muscle memory after a cut, most of this weight gain will in the form of muscle.
You no longer have to fear about losing muscle. In almost every single case of muscle loss there is a way to get your gains back, due to the nuclei count in your muscles being permanent.
Even guys who’ve taken steroids before can get their gains back (whilst being natty).
How unfair is that?!
You just need to work out the reason why you’ve lost the muscle, then implement the correct solution based on the different scenarios I’ve listed.
I hope this post on muscle memory has helped you:
- Understand exactly what muscle memory is
- Ease your anxieties on muscle loss
- Know exactly what to do to get your lost muscle back (if and when it happens)
As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and learnt something new.
Feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comments section below, I’d love to hear about your experiences with muscle memory!