Muscle memory is a phrase commonly referenced by strength trainees and coaches; however, most use the term incorrectly or fail to totally grasp the relationship to general motor skill ability. The majority of strength athletes simply believe muscle memory refers to an ability to regain muscle, strength lost from an extended period of detraining. More accurately, muscle memory is not the cause of regaining strength but the effect strength training has on the nervous system’s ability to properly activate a muscle intended to perform a specific movement.
Motor memory refers to recalling specific motor skills. Proper motor skills are required for the muscles, brain, skeleton, joints and nervous system to work together efficiently toward accomplishing a task. Muscle memory is properly defined as the body’s collective ability to memorize and perform well rehearsed muscular contractions.
Increases in limit strength are a result of many factors, but it makes sense to consider resistance training as a motor learning process. Strength progression involves muscular growth with a build up of new proteins, while improvements in coordination are a learning process established by new neural pathways in the central nervous system. Motor and muscle memory connections mature with training consistency.
These affects on motor skills and neural drive explain the well documented influence overtraining syndrome has on performance – resulting in progression plateaus. Overreaching, and subsequently overtraining, causes CNS fatigue. This produces sub maximal muscle contractions from decreased physiological arousal. Neural drive comes to a slowing skid.
Additionally, this premise further explains why strength coaches routinely advise power athletes to train with their competition’s lifts; such as bench press, deadlift and squat. Training each upper body muscle with isolation exercises will not peak bench press power; the lift itself must also be routinely performed. This builds up the functional strength required, as well as a proper mind-muscle connection.
A lot of events occur while consistently performing strength training routines to muscular failure. It is well known that previously untrained individuals can attribute early strength gains to increased motor unit activation of trained muscles. Muscle fiber hypertrophy is often insufficient to account for measured changes in strength during the early stages of resistance training. Strength is frequently gained with no changes in lean body mass. An increase in muscle fiber cross sectional area becomes a leading training adaptation during later stages.
Alterations in the activation of multiple systems during training can be related to changes in the ability to focus motor commands to specific muscles. Elite athletes exhibit reduced multi-muscle activation. During the early stages of training, strength gains can be attributed to less antagonist muscle involvement and greater neural efficiency toward activating the intended muscle.
The value of a training stimulus is based on an individual’s training experience and formal instruction to accurately recruit muscular systems. A previously untrained person will perform a movement with one intention: move a load from point A to B. Proper exercise form can be lost in an attempt to make the movement easier; an understandable reaction but it must be minimized for further strength and muscular development.
For instance, a beginner will usually perform a bicep barbell curl while swinging their arms and falling short of adequately extending their elbow joints in a rush to become stronger. The load ends up recruiting much larger supportive muscles while using the bone structure to provide additional leverage. The biceps muscles are suppose to get direct engagement but become insufficiently recruited for each repetition. The training stimulus required for growth of the biceps is consequently weak.
On the other side, experienced and well built bodybuilders use superior technique by properly developing the motor skills required for strength training. They exhibit superior mind-muscle connections and motor memory throughout each workout. The load moved during a biceps curl moves with intense bicep contractions. The elbow joint is properly extended for each repetition and excessive momentum fails to take tension away from the biceps. The muscle receives adequate recruitment and the training stimulus sets the stage for total muscular failure and successive growth.
Muscle memory can allow a return to previous strength levels; as long as sufficient motor skills and neural drive was developed. After a period of detraining, the early stages of retraining a muscle can be more lucrative for a previously successful athlete.
JACQUES, DUCHATEAU, JOHN G. SEMMLER, ROGER M. ENOKA, Training adaptations in the behavior of human motor units. Journal of Applied Physiology 101: 1766-1775, 2006.
JESPER LUNDBYE JENSEN, PETER C. D. MARSTRAND, JENS B. NIELSEN, Motor skill training and strength are associated with different plastic changes in the central nervous system. J Appl Physiol. 2005.
O. M. RUTHERFORD, D. A. JONES, The role of learning and coordination in strength training. Eur J Appl Physiol 55: 100-105, 1986.
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