When we are learning an instrument, or a dance move, or even a specific exercise, we repeatedly practice specific movements of our hands or body until it is ‘learnt’. Then our brain recognises the pattern of movement and we start to notice that we are able to repeat it with ease on a kind of ‘autopilot’. Yet this isn’t what is meant by the term ‘muscle memory’. In fact the brain has nothing to do with it, so how can our muscles remember?
To understand how muscle memory works, we first need to look at what makes up the muscle tissue. Muscles are formed from cells, or fibres, often referred to as myocytes. These myocytes are made up of smaller myoblasts that string together to form the long and tubular shape of the muscle cell. They are formed from a combination of protein filaments, which contain both glycogen and oxygen, and it is these components that provide the energy and movement that the muscle needs.
What sets muscle cells apart from most other cells in the body is their ability to have more than one nucleus. Each cell, or myocyte, is actually formed from multiple smaller myoblasts and each myoblast has its own nuclei. The nuclei works like a cell brain and stores all the information gathered in the DNA. When you work out and stress these muscle cells, your body works to rebuild and repair them stronger and more resilient. The information gathered during this process is stored within the nuclei, as though your muscles are becoming more and more intelligent! When you stop exercising, for whatever reason, your muscles begin to waste away, or atrophy, yet the nuclei from each cell remains. This means that when you resume your exercise once again, the nuclei have all the stored information needed to rebuild and repair more effectively and efficiently in order to regain their previous strength and size.
So basically, the more you exercise your muscles, the smarter you are making them!