The Truth Behind Muscle Memory
Muscle memory refers to two different concepts, but understanding both can be the start of a new level of strength in your training. I CAN say that the way muscle memory is often sold by many people people in the fitness industry isn't quite accurate. They say that you need to switch up your training program every few months so that you don't plateau; meanwhile, powerlifters manage to improve their strengths consistently, but train primarily in four lifts. So if the ideas proposed by some of these trainers are true, then powerlifters would never get stronger past a certain point.
Inversely, people who do try working out by changing up their programs often find that THEY'RE the ones who don't get stronger past a certain point, and plateau continuously. They expect plateaus as a fact of weight training, something that is inconvenient but inevitable. In reality, the only reason that these people plateau if that they're duped by a misconception about muscle memory. Let's get right to it.
Creatures of Habit – Muscle Memory Pt. 1
Humans are undeniably creatures of habit, from our daily activities and preferences to our life successes. In fact, one of my favorite quotes by Aristotle is “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit.” Your daily actions and thoughts will matter more than the one big action you did 3 weeks ago. This applies to muscle training as well. When you practice a movement repeatedly, your nervous system gets used to doing that movement so that it's easier to do that movement again in the future. Basketball players improve their shots by constantly shooting hoops in practice; martial artists reduce wasteful movements in their attacks by doing forms constantly in their training.
In whatever you do, your body wants to make that thing as efficient and energy conserving as it can, so the more your nervous system develops to accommodate those moves, the easier the moves will be for you.
This is where the “muscle memory” trainers often go wrong. If your actions are fatiguing the CNS and putting little fatigue on your muscles, you'll maintain the same level of strength for quite a time without improving. The only way to fatigue that muscle is to increase the resistance of your exercise. Whether that means putting more weight on the bar or trying to do one-handed pushups instead of two, you've got to increase the resistance to increase your muscle, regardless of the movements that you practice constantly.
However, the message here is quality over quantity. When you do perform whatever movements, take care to do them slowly, deliberately, and correctly, otherwise you'll be wiring your nervous system so that you habitually do movements incorrectly, which could mean some bad injuries later.
Harnessing Muscle Memory For Strength
There's a silver lining here – if you can manage to fatigue your muscles AND fatigue your nervous system, your strength gains and muscle gains will improve, and you can completely eliminate the concept of plateaus from your mind. You might struggle with increasing your muscle gains with isolation lifts (bicep curls, one arm presses, etc.) because it's simply harder to make gains from isolation movements. If you really want to develop powerful, dense muscle with incredible strength to match, you've got to train beyond muscle memory, and I've got a couple methods you could use to do just that.
Types of Training for CNS and Muscle Training
Exercises that develop the central nervous system usually involves volume training. This is why after sprinting or running for a long time, we may feel completely exhausted even if not all of your muscles are fatigued. In the same way, exercises that develop more muscle involves weight. So you might manage to do a lift that fatigues a muscle you're training, but not your nervous system. How do you fatigue both to increase muscle AND strength?
Taking a leaf out of the powerlifter's book, you've gotta lift heavy in big lifts if you're looking to fatigue your muscles and your CNS. The four big lifts of powerlifting are the clean and press, the deadlift, and the squat. Each of those lifts works major muscle groups, covering big areas of your CNS. So if you train near your one-rep max in compound lifts, you'll definitely increase the level of strength you have. And people often say that powerlifters don't really build too much muscle even if they build a lot of strength.
The man on the left is Bud Jeffries, the man on the right is Dru Patrick. Bud powerlifts, trains with kettlebells, etc, and I'll say he's built a lot of muscle on top of his highly functional strength. Dru Patrick is a raw powerlifter, and he's got enough muscle to share with a family of four. Not only that, but every bit of his muscle contributes to an immense amount of power, instead of being for show. So compound lifts really can do wonders for someone looking to build strength and power.
(You can see images of the four big lifts below in order: power clean, bench press, deadlift, squat)
Volume and Isometrics
Again, volume training can do a lot to build bigger muscles, even if it doesn't contribute as well to overall strength. Bodybuilders do a lot of high volume training, which makes the muscles recruit hella energy to prepare for the next workout. The muscles will store a lot of water and glycogen for the next workout, causing a pump in the muscle. This is sarcoplasmic growth, and will cause your muscles to grow without getting too much stronger. On the flipside, isometric training is one of the best ways to develop strength around. Isometrics are exercises that involve doing an exercise with your muscles staying the same length. For instance, conventional weight training would be doing a bench press; an isometric exercise would be pushing against an immovable wall. Isometrics helps you get to that maximum effort quickly, managing to fatigue a muscle in 7-12 seconds. So combining a bench press with something like pressing your hands together, pushing an immovable wall, or holding an isometric pushup (go halfway down in pushup position and hold) can help to build strength as you also build great size.
In fact, Alexander Zass, an immensely powerful strongman and the Father of Isometrics, trained isometrically with minimal apparatus and got the strength to lift horses and break chains across his chest, even at a weight of only 176.
Mostly, isometrics aren't associated with giving you size although it gives you strength. Honestly, isometrics will help you develop some muscle, but it won't compare to the muscle gains of most bodybuilders because isometrics aren't really trained with volume or sets.
However, if you're interested in an isometric training program that DOES have sets, and increases strength as well as muscle mass, there is a program that involves doing maximal contraction isometrics for reps, coupled with a warmup and some quick recovery methods. It's called Maximetrics, and it's definitely worth the effort to develop incredible functional strength with muscle bulk to boot.
Get Back Into Shape! - Muscle Memory Pt. 2
The second aspect of muscle memory is the idea that your muscle can literally remember the level of strength it once had, even if it atrophies after a certain amount of time. This comes into play with retired athletes or trainers, who can often get back into shape much quicker than someone who never did any training earlier in life.
According to the University of Oslo, that's because when you build new muscle, that generates more muscle nuclei. So even if you lose muscle mass over a period of time, those muscle nuclei remain indefinitely. With more muscle nuclei, it's easier to rebuild the muscle you've lost overtime. It's harder, though not impossible, to generate new muscle nuclei when you're older, so take advantage of your youth; if you train hard while younger, your muscle memory will give you an advantage in regaining your former glorious strength.
Things to Avoid
REST, REST, REST! It's very important to get rest and sleep, and to refuel with healthy food options after a CNS intensive workout. If you overtrain the CNS, you set yourself up for a weakened immune and lymphatic system, and that throws off overall homeostasis. Furthermore, if the CNS is overtrained, you can end up stunting or reversing gains instead of increasing them.
Also, if you do want to try different training programs every so often just for fun or to switch it up, I highly encourage it. Just know that unless that program also has a system of progressive resistance, you may have fun but you won't be getting much stronger.