Basically, muscle memory is the connection that develops between your brain and your body as you learn a new move. Remember what it was like to first figure out how to do chaturanga in yoga class? Muscle memory is what ensures that we aren't re-learning those mechanics each and every time we flow—instead, our body actually gets better each time you do it. "Neural pathways move from the brain through the spinal cord and out into your arms and legs. Your muscles learn how to coordinate tasks better over time so that it almost becomes subconscious," says David Geier, DO, orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist. "You're going to make a pretty rapid improvement at first—not just from your muscles getting bigger, but because you have neurons going to those muscles to learn a new movement, and the process allows your body to adapt to this new stress."
The best part of all is that your muscle memory means that you're literally, biologically not screwed by taking a break from working out—even if it's a year-long. That's because the movement skills that your brain and body have learned actually stay within your neuromuscular vocabulary (hence the "memory" name). Ben Gildenberg, a strength and conditioning coach with New York Sports Science Lab, notes that if someone who does a lot of squats takes a break and then, after some time, starts doing them again, their body "will acclimate at a faster rate" and their movement quality will remain the same. "They may not be able to squat the same amount of weight right away because they haven't been exposed to that weight in a while, but their body knows the movement and will be able to perform it with the same efficiency as before," he says.
Because of this innate knowledge within your body, you are able to get back into shape quicker. "Those connections can wake up, and whether it's been 10 years or six months, they'll go back to what you already created," says Phil Catudal, fitness instructor and nutrition expert. This study even says that memory can last for 15 years within your body. So next time you skip the gym, you have your muscles to thank for sticking with you (and staying strong) whether you're using them or not.
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