A bodybuilder is grateful for many things. The ability to train, 24 hour gyms, huge pumps, cheat meals; and possibly any meal that doesn’t contain chicken or rice.
However, one thing that tops this list easily is – muscle memory.
Losing muscle is a bodybuilder’s worst nightmare.
You spend years working their butt off in the gym, chugging down protein shakes until you’re almost gagging. Whilst religiously separating egg whites each morning and turning down public invitations to eat out, causing your family to think you have an eating disorder.
You also count your calories to a T, causing you to be more anal than your girlfriend.
Then, there’s the calculations of macro ratio’s that constantly take place in your brain (day and night), practically putting you on a par with Einstein.
And as a result you may end up building some quality muscle.
You lose muscle.
Perhaps you get injured, your cut went terrible, or you need to take some time away from the gym for personal reasons.
Within a flash, all your hard work is taken away from you. You are officially kicked out of Gainzville.
When this happens, you can be forgiven for losing the plot.
No doubt, many tears have been shed from those who’ve experienced significant muscle loss.
- 1 What Is Muscle Memory?
- 2 How Muscle Memory Works
- 3 History of Muscle Memory
- 4 So, How Does Muscle Memory Work Exactly?
- 5 Example #1 Stopped Lifting Weights
- 6 Example #2: Muscle Loss From Cutting
- 7 My Muscle Memory Transformation
- 8 Example #3: Coming off Steroids
- 9 Example #4: Cortisol
- 10 Conclusion
Common Causes of Muscle Loss
- Not going to the gym (possibly due to injury, or just being lazy)
- 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.
What Is Muscle Memory?
In sport and other activities, muscle memory often refers to a permanent type of motor learning, enabling the restoration of a previous level of performance or skill.
In bodybuilding, this effect is more literal and fitting to the term – muscle memory.
How Muscle Memory Works
When a bodybuilder stops lifting weights they will lose muscle mass (roughly 20lbs). However, due to muscle memory, they can regain this amount of muscle when they resume lifting weights again.
This is pretty spectacular, as someone can take a break from lifting weights for 30 years, yet within a couple of months, their muscles can blow back up again.
Muscle memory is permanent and thus does not expire; even if the person cannot literally remember how big their muscles were before.
History of Muscle Memory
Many years ago, scientists used to believe that once your muscles started to shrink, that was it. There was no magic way to get them back, it was permanent and you’d have to start all over again.
The scientific analysis for this was that your ‘muscles had died’ (1).
As we have more advanced knowledge on muscle memory now, you’d be forgiven for thinking this scientific analysis was made by monkeys.
So, How Does Muscle Memory Work Exactly?
When a bodybuilder lifts weights they build muscle and strength. This is due to the body increasing the amount of nuclei stored within the muscle cells.
The more muscle you build, the more nuclei your body recruits.
So, what happens when you stop lifting weights and lose muscle?
Aka 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 that is 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, as your muscles will ‘remember’ the maximum size you were originally.
However, there are some people who are still waiting for muscle memory to kick in, but are failing to see the gains they once had.
In this case, you may be wondering if your body’s suffering from a case of ‘muscle amnesia’. Just kidding.
I’m going to list a few different scenarios where people lose muscle. Then I’m going to give step-by-step instructions on how to get your muscle back, via the wonderful, God-instilled; muscle memory.
Example #1 Stopped Lifting Weights
This is the most popular example of muscle loss, and happens because people simply stopped lifting weights.
Solution: Start lifting weights again.
It’s really as simple as that. Be patient, your gains will return.
One of the most famous examples of this in bodybuilding is Franco Santoriello, a bodybuilder from the 80’s and 90’s. There were large chunks of the year where he wouldn’t train, then shortly before a show, he’d hit the gym hard and consequently blew up in a matter of weeks and often destroyed his competition.
How Long Will It Take For My Gains to Return?
This all depends on your training volume.
If you train for 1 hour for 6 days per week, expect for all your gains to come back within roughly 3 weeks.
However, if you only do 30 minute workouts and train 5x 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‘.
Rule of thumb: The more you train, the quicker your muscle will come back.
Example #2: Muscle Loss From Cutting
Just like bulking can help you build muscle, cutting can make you lose it (if done incorrectly).
It’s easily done too. 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 your muscle 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’ll get your muscle back by overeating and gaining 5lbs.
In my experience I’ve found that almost ALL of the 5lbs gained in such a situation will be pure muscle weight, restoring your previous size.
This is pretty magical, as usually a large percentage of weight gain is in the form of fat.
However, if the person hadn’t previously lost muscle, and muscle memory wasn’t a factor, the weight would be distributed as a combination of mostly fat (with a small amount of muscle).
How to Minimize Muscle Loss During a Cut
It’s good knowing how to get your muscle back once you’ve lost it after a cut, but here’s some tips on how to keep it in the first place.
If your goal is to burn fat and retain muscle, you need to make sure your calories aren’t too low, ensuring that you don’t lose 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 this 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.
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 10lbs of muscle, this may take a a month or so to recover, assuming you only eat in a calorie surplus of 500. If you were to eat more, you’ll gain it back quicker.
One time I lost a lot of muscle because I took some time off the gym (approximately 8 weeks). During this time I decided to also eat in a calorie deficit. Consequently, I lost a significant amount of muscle because when you don’t lift weights whilst in a calorie deficit, your body has no need to retain existing muscle tissue.
However, when a person frequently lifts weights whilst cutting, the body registers this as:
‘Alert! We need to preserve all muscle stores in order for the body to perform daily activities i.e. lifting heavy weights’.
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 on the menu CT-Fletcher style.
My Muscle Memory Transformation
To show you how powerful muscle memory is, this is my 3 week transformation:
These gains are literally 100% muscle memory.
I was eating 3x what I usually did and I didn’t gain any noticeable fat during these 3 weeks, because my muscles ‘remembered’ my previous size.
However, I did get bloated from the sheer amount of calories.
Thus, almost all of the weight I gained, being roughly 30lbs, was all muscle tissue.
I should’ve measured them, however by going from these photos I must’ve gained at least 1.5 inches of muscle to each arm.
I literally transformed from a boy into a man during these 3 weeks.
Example #3: Coming off Steroids
Steroid-users sometimes deflate when they come off cycle. Some people wonder 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 culprit.
Then to get your muscle back you must do the opposite of what you did to lose the muscle.
So for example, if you lose muscle because your calories are too low. If you were to bump your calories back up and overeat, muscle memory will kick in and you’ll 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. When trained these muscle groups afterwards, they didn’t experience significant growth.
Therefore, there is evidence to suggest muscle memory can help you retain your 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. Arnold Schwarzenegger has also demonstrated exceptional muscularity during old age, having previously thought to have taken dianabol and other steroids.
However, muscle memory will only be in full effect if the ex-steroid user remains lifting weights. Once weight training is stopped, the steroid gains will be lost. This is why a lot of previously jacked guys, who’ve used steroids in the past, can look skinny later in life (because they’ve stopped lifting weights).
However, a person can still lose some size from steroids. Albeit this won’t be a decrease in muscle size, but water. For example, anadrol-users can gain roughly 10lbs of water on a cycle, giving their muscles a constant pumped look. After they come off, this pumped look will vanish, and they will be left with solely the muscle gains (which still are impressive). Muscle memory cannot account intraceullar fluid like this.
Other steroids, such as anavar, will enable users to keep all of their size, as it doesn’t cause any water retention.
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 negatively affect cancer patients (to a much greater degree).
Cortisol is a destructive hormone that weakens the immune system when levels become excessive, making it harder for cancer patients to recover.
As a result of elevated cortisol levels, it’s normal for cancer patients to lose muscle mass (known as cachexia).
However, there are other ways cortisol can shoot up, including every day stresses such as:
- Financial issues
- Relationship issues
- Excessive stimulants
- Not getting enough sleep
Studies have shown that just by not getting enough sleep at night, can cause a 45% rise in cortisol (6).
Solution: Once cortisol goes back to normal, you’ll gain all of your muscle back. To compliment this effect, a calorie surplus diet may also be adopted.
Similar to when a person overeats to kick-start muscle memory after a cut, virtually all of this weight gain will be 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 people who’ve taken steroids before retain their gains, or get them back (whilst being natural).
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 (above).
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)
Feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comments section below, I’d love to hear about your experiences with muscle memory.