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Unlike octopuses, we don’t have brains in our limbs. So we can’t really “remember” anything in our arms and legs. But it’s true that once you learn how to do something physicalβ€”whether it be riding a bike orΒ deadliftingβ€”it becomes easier and easier to do it without thinking. It sureΒ feelsΒ like your body remembers how to do it.

Most people are referring to this phenomenon when they talk about “muscle memory,” but when biologists and neuroscientists study it they meanΒ at least two slightly different things, though only one actually happens inside your muscles.

If you’ve never held a barbell in your life, the first time you try working out with one it’ll probably feel heavy and awkward. You’ll need toΒ work your way up to lifting impressive poundage. But if you take a break from working out and return months later, you’ll find it’s much easier to get back up to the weights you were lifting before. And the same is true no matter whatΒ your exercise of choiceβ€”it’s simply easier to put lost muscle back on than it is to bulk up for the first time.

Some biologists have done elaborate experiments in recent years to try to figure out why that is. Their current theory: that even as muscles shrink,Β muscleΒ cellsΒ stick around.

See,Β when you stress your muscles to the point of hypertrophy, they grow new cells to get stronger. For a long time, the idea was that the same thing happens in reverse if you don’t use your musclesβ€”those cells should die off. But that might not be quite right.

Recent researchΒ where biologists, like Kristian Gundersen at the University of Oslo, tag specific cells to track their growth or decay have found that myonuclei shrink down without disappearing as muscles atrophy.

Reference: Muscle memory and a new cellular model for muscle atrophy and hypertrophy —
Kristian Gundersen — Journal of Experimental BiologyΒ 2016Β 219:Β 235-242;doi:Β 10.1242/jeb.124495

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