Q: Hi Denis,
People tell me that once you’ve gained muscle, it’s easier to put this muscle back on after a layoff than to put it on in the first place. It’s supposedly called "muscle memory." Is this true?
. . . Dan Pershu
A: Hi Dan,
The principle of "muscle memory" has been around for some time now, and there’s a reason: it does appear to be true. Most experienced athletes notice it when coming back to the gym after a layoff, as they see their gains increasing at a much faster pace than they did at the beginning. The muscle cell (and the human body) is like any live cell; once it goes through a physiological change it modifies itself in order to adapt, which is the principle of evolution. Evolution is not a complete metamorphosis; it means that the cells adapted themselves as they went through different experiences. That’s how researchers can study a phenomenon, by unveiling the "history book" that kept track of the path an entity had to follow in order to change. In fact, your whole body has some kind of a memory "system." Take your fat cells, for example. Once a fat cell reaches a certain volume, it will always tend to go back to that level. That’s why people who have been overweight for a certain period of time in their lives are more susceptible to rebounds and subsequent weight gains even after dieting. This is one of the reasons (other than health concerns) why I’m not a proponent of extravagant and unnecessary weight gain in the off-season. As a bodybuilder and a trainer, my goal is to promote lean mass gains, not any "weight" gain regardless of its quality. I know I am repeating myself here one more time, but I think it can’t be emphasized too much: quantity will NEVER replace quality!
So every change you imposed on your body left some kind of trace on its "history book." That’s also why once you use drugs, your body will never be (or look) the same. That’s why you can tell if a so-called "natural" athlete is life-time drug-free or a former user. You can see the difference in muscular density and volume, as drugs alter the normal cellular growth process (the quality of muscle proteins and fibers is no longer the same). I don’t have anything against this, as it’s only human to be impatient about results and to make mistakes, but it’s sometimes my job to help people recover when they finally realize the importance of taking care of their health. I will always encourage and support those who make that choice, regardless of what they did before, as long as they are willing to make the effort and change.
Nevertheless, when I bring a "real" natural athlete to a contest, he is often discouraged by the density some of those athletes show onstage, as the traces of their path is still apparent (even if they’ve been "clean" for a few months or years), which, of course, "could" give them an advantage. Notice that I used the term "could" as bodybuilding is more than just about muscle mass: it’s about proportions, symmetry, conditioning and even attitude! If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have beaten all those guys for so many years, I wouldn’t be a three-time national champion (or have won an overall title), and obviously I would have never got the chance to reach the international scene. That’s also why my athletes, too, have beaten guys on drugs!
I know I may have gone a little overboard here, but I think I needed to in order to fully explain my point. So if we get back to our original subject, you should now have a better understanding of the principle of "muscle memory." Evolution also means that you cannot "erase" anything -- the best you can do is change direction or completely reverse and go against what you did (like trying to lose instead of gaining weight), but your body will still remember something of what it went through. That can be good or bad, the latter being especially the case if you used drugs, since abnormal tissue growth and alterations (like internal organs or bone) will not return to normal.
There’s also an adage in training that says "use it or lose it," which means that if you don’t train a certain physiological component for a while, you will lose the gains you made. Well, that’s not completely true, as you will lose most of your actual gains, but will still get them back more rapidly than in the first place once you resume training. In fact, you will be even more prone to new gains as the muscle cells will be more sensitive to adaptive stress. This is exactly what "strategic deconditioning" is about: taking advantage of the "muscle memory" principle while preventing the body from getting too effective at adapting to the mechanical stress of weight training. Taking all that into account, you should now be less afraid about the "detraining" effect of taking a break, and maybe even more conscious of the benefits of "strategic deconditioning," which I explained in previous articles.
I think I’ll leave you with that, before I get carried onto another subject and go overboard again.
Keep training hard and stay on the right track!
. . . Denis Pedneault, Canadian Champion 2005, 2006