It's normal to stray from a fitness routine. However, when it comes to getting up the nerve to throw yourself back into a routine, many feelings can come up. Maybe you're afraid that your typical routine will be more challenging than it was or that you won't be able to get back to your previous fitness level. The truth is that working out for the first time after a break will probably be challenging at first, but I have some encouraging news: It is actually a lot easier for your body to regain strength and muscle than it is to start from scratch.
You can thank something called "neuromuscular pathways" for your literal muscle memory, says Shawn M. Houck, PT, DPT, SCS of Physical Therapy Central. This phrase, Dr. Houch explains, is your brain's ability to recruit body parts to perform a specific routine to carry out an action. In the simplest of terms, it is easier for your brain to remember something than to learn something for the first time, says Dr. Houck. When you're starting to lift weights and build strength, you're teaching your brain something completely new. It takes a while for your brain to learn how to do an action, and in that learning process, you develop coordination, neural pathways, muscle growth, and technique as you commit it to memory. When you don't have to do all of that, and the muscle tissue is already there—your body has to remind itself how to do the action and send energy to the body parts involved.
"Muscle is energetically expensive for your body to maintain," says Dr. Houck. "When you stop performing a certain action like deadlift or a specific workout routine, your body will take note and reduce how much energy it is supplying to that muscle." This can result in a loss of strength over time (think months, not weeks), he says, but you're always farther ahead when you start back up.
Want more good news? Just because you've lost some of your strength does not mean you have lost that muscle. Muscles often shrink in size and power, according to Dr. Houck, but they rarely disappear entirely without the presence of a degenerative illness. When you begin to perform an activity you once did regularly, your body will remember how to do it, and your brain will signal to the muscles that they need energy, thus beginning the process of increasing, according to Adam Roggia, DPT, PT, MS, OCS from Texas Physical Therapy Specialist.
So if you're gearing up to restart your workout routines, remember that the human body is adaptable. Muscles used through regular exercise will consistently change in size, shape, and abilities, Dr. Roggia explains. "When we stop exercising for a prolonged period, muscles will change. This is normal since they are not being told what to do, and the signal to keep growing is missing. When this occurs, the muscles lose size, shape, and ability—but they are not gone," says Dr. Roggia.
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