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Muscle Memory – What Should You Expect?

I recently saw a query on how long the “muscle memory” effect will last when a former bodybuilder or athlete returns to weight training. The enquirer suggested he’d already gained 8 lbs of muscle and lost 5 lbs of fat within a 5 week period after resuming his training.

These were my recommendations:

If you train correctly and don’t go into a burnout spiral by getting carried away, you should be back to where you were within about 6 months (based on my own personal anecdotes and what I have seen other people do).

However, muscle memory is just that – “memory.” As the so-called memory returns you will seem to get stronger and fitter quite fast. But you will not be gaining muscle mass at the corresponding rate to your performance increases. You will probably gain muscle mass at the same rate as anyone else who starts training – beginner or otherwise. But your strength and fitness will develop much faster than a beginner’s.

This is because fitness improvements occur largely at a cellular level and also within the nervous system itself (hence the term “muscle memory”). It is genuinely a type of “memory,” just like learning a martial arts technique again after a long layoff. If you were very good previously then your “memory” of how to do it will return quickly – to enable you to learn faster than someone who has never done it before.

The structures which allow you to get fitter will still persist at a cellular level for a long time after you stop training, as will the learned nervous system coordination. Your performance will increase largely as a result of changes to the cell machinery – such as the mitochondria – and a return of lifting and technique coordination.

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Of course, if you use bodybuilding drugs, you will be able to make the sort of muscle gains and fat losses you’ve pointed out in your message within 5 weeks. If you do not use such drugs, then you are probably getting your sums wrong somewhere. It is not really possible to gain the amounts of muscle you describe in 5 weeks and muscle memory has little to do with muscular development.

Your ‘sums’ suggest you gained 3lbs overall in this timeframe. You suggest it’s 8lbs of new muscle and 5 lbs of fat loss. A more sober assessment would suggest you either gained 3 lbs of muscle only – and lost no fat – or (possibly more likely) you gained just 3 lbs of fat.

I am not trying to pull the plug on your celebrations with this message and I don’t have much information to go on – but it is worth noting that if you are doing something wrong with your diet it’s easy to resolve it earlier rather than later on.

Rather than wait for your spouse or close friends to tell you you look a lot fatter – at which stage the damage will have already been done – make sure you know where you really stand with your body composition.

I suggest an accurate way to do this is to take waist measurments and arm circumference measurments each month. Those are very reliable – because fat builds mainly around the waist, while the arms are slow to get fatter (even if the rest of the body is getting fatter). This way, an increase in arm circumference, measured alongside a static (or subsiding) waist circumference, will tell you what you really wanted to hear.

gaining muscle mass

Waist circumference is not your belt line, of course – it is a line around the lower torso measured mid-way between the lowest rib on each side and the top of the pelvis. That way, you get the measurment spot-on every time.

I hope you consider this perspective and I wish you the best of luck with your future progress.