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Do Muscles Remember Your Strength Training?

August 24, 2010

What happens to your muscles once you stop going through strength training process? General consensus has been that if you stop going to gym and stop strength training, your muscles will go back to old stage (when you were a lazy bum), and you will lose all the benefits of working out. In order to get back to shape you will have to start all over, that’s what we usually think. Well, behold your thoughts, new study published in PNAS shows that muscles do have some kind of  memory and they retain the memory of the training process you have gone through and so once you decide training process, you will not be starting at zero level. That’s exciting news for people like us, who are not consistent in physical fitness training.The study also states that retraining is facilitated by previous training episode.

So how does muscles retain the memory of previous training it has undergone. Muscle memory is stored as DNA containing nuclei or myonuclei. Muscle cells are very large and one of the few mutli-nuclei cells in vertebrates. Multiple nuclei provides sufficient DNA templates required for sustaining such large muscle cells. When we exercise or work out, muscle cell grows by fusion of muscle cells with stem cells and in the process new nuclei are generated. Earlier it was thought that during atrophy stage (reached after detraining), extra nuclei were destroyed by process called apoptosis. Recent experimental data challenges this idea.

Researchers at Univ of Oslo, Norway used mice to simulate the effect of working out and they used in-vivo imaging technique to observe the changes in mynuclei as the mice worked out their muscles for 21 days. They first observed increase in the myonuclei number during the course of first six days and then they observed increase in mass of the muscle during the rest of the period. In the next step they disconnected the nerve which connected the muscle and thus stimulated the detraining process. They observed that with time, mass of the muscle fiber decreased, as expected, but surprisingly the number of nuclei did not decrease. They observed that that during this process, cells were dying by apoptosis but not the newly formed muscle nuclei. These nuclei survived in the mice for about 3 months which is a long time comparing mice life-time. In humans, this might survive even longer. These surviving nuclei can be easily activated to make proteins for muscles, simply by restarting the training process, and these nuclei remember where you left off!

So, what are the advantages of this new exciting study? Firstly, the experiments and data are beautiful which challenges long held belief and research, it’s exciting scientifically. Secondly, it also suggests that if we work out now and increase these nuclei in our muscles, it might be helpful in our old age when we are unable to create these nuclei in muscles. Earlier we work out, easier to generate these protein synthesizing nuclei and better benefits can be reaped in old age. Thirdly, it also suggests that athletes who use steroids have to rethink their strategy as using steroids increases the number of these nuclei and if this is permanent, then they should be excluded from games forever as they would be getting that unfair advantage even after they stopped using the steroids. Rules of exclusion from games might have to be re-written, just saying sorry for using steroids might not suffice.

Lastly, it’s good news for people like us, we can workout whenever we get time, give a break when get busy, and then restart again when get time and our muscles can pick up from where we left. Good news for lazy bums like me. (Interestingly, this study came out the same week I started going out to gym for strength training, gives me a good excuse to take a break after few weeks).

Reference Article: Bruusgaard et al. Myonuclei acquired by overload exercise precede hypertrophy and are not lost on detraining, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0913935107

First Picture credit: Science News/ J.C. Bruusgaard/University of Oslo: nuclei can be seen as green color on the muscle fiber

Schematic credit: PNAS/ Authors of the article: Previously untrained muscles acquire newly formed nuclei by fusion of satellite cells preceding the hypertrophy. Subsequent detraining leads to atrophy but no loss of myonuclei. The elevated number of nuclei in muscle fibers that had experienced a hypertrophic episode would provide a mechanism for muscle memory, explaining the long-lasting effects of training and the ease with which previously trained individuals are more easily retrained.

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