The Impact of Muscle Memory on Recovering Lost Muscle Mass

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How muscle memory works and how to recovery lost muscle mass – A physique enthusiast appreciates a multitude of things: the chance to work out, access to gyms day and night, intense muscle pumps, indulgent cheat days, and truly, any dish that strays from the monotonous chicken and rice diet.

Yet, there is one phenomenon that stands out above all — muscle memory.

For any serious bodybuilder, muscle loss is an absolute horror.

Countless hours are exhausted sculpting their physique, consistent protein shakes consumed to the brink of nausea. Daily they partake in the ritual of isolating egg whites and frequently decline social dining, leading their relatives to suspect a dietary disorder.

Diligently counting every calorie, they exhibit a level of meticulousness that could rival their partner’s.

And let’s not overlook the endless mental gymnastics as they calculate macronutrient ratios, in a league with brainpower akin to Einstein’s.

Maybe due to an injury, a botched cutting phase, or pressing personal matters pulling you away from your training regimen.

Instantly, it feels as if you’re exiled from Gainzville.

At this point, it’s entirely understandable to spiral into frustration.

Tears have indeed been shed by many who’ve witnessed their hard-earned muscle mass disappear.

Frequent Causes of Muscle Atrophy

  • Neglecting the gym (could be an injury or a lapse in motivation)
  • During periods of dieting
  • Post-steroid cycle
  • High cortisol levels

It’s at these times you ponder the possible solutions to this devastating issue:

“…Could it be? That whole muscle memory concept – does it actually work? Please, just get me back to my former glory!”

Fear not, my friends. I am here to alleviate all your concerns regarding muscle loss within this very article. Dive in now, and you’re welcome in advance.

Defining Muscle Memory

The definition of muscle memory.

Often in sports and other activities, muscle memory is linked to a type of motor learning that is enduring, making it possible to regain a level of performance or skill from the past.

In the world of bodybuilding, the phrase – muscle memory – assumes a more literal sense.

The Mechanics of Muscle Memory

A bodybuilder can expect a loss of muscle mass (approximately 20lbs) if they stop weight training. However, due to muscle memory, they can recuperate this lost size upon resuming their workouts.

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This is quite the wonder, considering one could pause their weight training pursuits for 30 years and still, within mere months, witness their muscles re-inflate to prior dimensions.

Muscle memory is enduring and, therefore, lacks an expiration date; it persists even if a person no longer recalls the prominence of their muscles from the past.

Tracing the Concept of Muscle Memory

In bygone eras, the consensus among scientists was grim once muscles started to dwindle, they believed the shrinkage was terminal. No mystical restoration existed; one had to start the arduous process anew.

Indeed, back then, the conclusion was rather bleak, suggesting that ‘muscles had died’ (1).

Yet, with more sophisticated insights into muscle memory today, previous conclusions might seem rather uneducated.

Currently, the existence of muscle memory is widely recognized (2), establishing itself firmly apart from controversial or intensely debated subjects like overtraining (example).

Detailed Look at Muscle Memory

As bodybuilders cultivate muscles through lifting, their bodies accrue more nuclei within their muscle cells.

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The accumulation of nuclei progresses with muscle growth.

So, what transpires when a person ceases weight training and experiences muscle loss?

This is the juncture at which muscles wither, clothing starts to hang loosely, and society seems to comment excessively on one’s diminished size (undeniably irksome).

But current research has illuminated that these nuclei numbers are permanent (3).

This signifies that recuperating muscle size is swift, since the muscles ‘recall’ their peak volume.

Nonetheless, for those whom muscle memory seems a far-off dream with no muscle gains restituting, one might wonder if their bodies have somehow contracted ‘muscle amnesia.’ A humorous thought indeed.

Let’s delve into various scenarios of muscle loss and provide clear, step-by-step guidance on reclaiming lost muscle through the miraculous, innate process of muscle memory.

Scenario #1 Ceased Weightlifting

This common form of muscle attrition simply stems from a halt in weight training.

Solution: Reintroduce weight lifting into your routine.

Patience is key here; your gains will return in due course.A quintessential illustration of muscle memory in action hails from the golden era of bodybuilding, featuring Franco Santoriello, a renowned figure from the 1980s and 90s. Santoriello would often refrain from training for extensive periods throughout the year only to stage a rigorous comeback at the gym just weeks before a competition, astonishingly ballooning in size and often vanquishing his adversaries with ease.

Insights into Franco Santoriello’s Muscle Memory Phenomenon

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The Timeline for Regaining Muscular Strength and Mass

Your recovery timetable will largely hinge on the regularity of your exercise routine.

Committing to a regimen of 1-hour training sessions, six days a week, may see a full revival of your muscular gains in an estimated 3 weeks.

On the other hand, with more modest 30-minute workouts, five times weekly, the process could extend beyond 4 weeks.

These estimates are drawn from both personal accounts and insights from experts like Anoop of, who holds a Master’s in exercise physiology and concurs that muscle memory can be reactivated within just ‘several weeks’.

Essential Insight: The consistency and intensity of your training correlate positively with the swiftness of your muscle recovery.

Example #2: Muscle Depletion During Weight Reduction Phases

While muscle building is typically associated with a bulking phase, the trimming phase, or “cutting,” has the potential to erode muscle mass, especially if not managed correctly.

This conundrum presents itself when, despite maintaining a weightlifting routine, there is an unexpected decline in muscle volume.

So the question arises, how does one reclaim lost muscle mass?

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Approach: By returning to a diet rich in calories, superior to your body’s maintenance levels, the muscle mass you shed during your cut should fully reconstitute itself.

For instance, if you’ve diminished by 5lbs of muscle, reincorporating those pounds through a strategic calorie excess should result predominantly in muscle recovery, bringing you back to your former physiognomy.

This outcome could be deemed somewhat miraculous, as weight gain is typically fat-dominated rather than pure muscle regain.

Nonetheless, absent the element of prior muscle loss and its mnemonic effect, the weight accrual would manifest as a mix skewed heavily towards fat, with only a sliver of muscle addition.

Strategies to Preserve Muscle Mass During a Caloric Deficit

Awareness of muscle reacquisition post-cut is one thing, but preventing such loss in the first instance is another. Here’s advice on how to keep muscle intact while shedding fat.

Setting your calorie intake just right is crucial – not excessively low – to forestall rapid weight drops.

Aim for a calorie deficit hovering around 20%-25%.

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This means, should your daily maintenance level be 2,000 calories, you’d target around 1,600 calories per day.

Your maintenance calories can be determined with this BMR calculator.

Research, including a study that introduced a 24% calorie deficit to athletes, observed significant fat reduction with nominal muscle loss (4).

Similarly, my experiences mirror that a 20% calorie reduction suffices to maintain muscle mass throughout a cut.

How quick is muscle regain?

The recovery period is contingent on the extent of muscle loss.

A marginal muscle loss of about 2lbs can be swiftly overturned, potentially within mere days to a week.

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Conversely, a greater loss, say 10lbs of muscle, might entail around a month of recovery, provided that the surplus is calculated at 500 additional calories daily. A heftier surplus could expedite this process.

I recall experiencing a significant muscle reduction following an 8-week gym hiatus, during which I paired my dormant state with a caloric deficit. This combination triggered substantial muscle shrinkage as, without weightlifting cues, the body perceives no need to maintain muscle mass.

Nevertheless, an active weightlifting schedule during a cut sends the body a clear signal:

Caution! Muscle preservation is critical to sustain daily functions, which includes lifting substantial weights.’

Having shed a considerable amount of muscle, I then engaged in dramatic overfeeding.

Consuming over 6,000 calories a day (driven by a desire for rapid muscle regain), my diet was akin to living off McDonald’s, emulating CT-Fletcher by ordering extensive menu items.

Personal Muscle Memory Metamorphosis

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To manifest the efficacy of muscle memory, here is 18-week transformation narrative:

The gains encapsulated here are pure muscle memory in action.

Muscle memory before/after visualization (18 weeks apart)

Tripling my usual caloric intake did not result in noticeable fat gain across these 18 weeks, as my muscle fibers ‘recalled’ their previous mass.

Although, the copious caloric volume did induce bloating.Accordingly, the bulk of the extra weight I put on, which is about 30 pounds, turned out to be muscle.

I regret not taking measurements, but judging by these pictures, it seems my arms each gained at least an inch and a half of muscle.

In just three weeks, my physique underwent a transformation from that of a teenage boy to that of a grown man.

Example #3: Post-Steroid Body Changes

When individuals stop taking steroids, they often experience a noticeable decrease in muscle size. There is curiosity about whether one can maintain the same size they achieved while on steroids without continuing their use, relying on the concept of muscle memory.

The straightforward response is:

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To some extent, yes.

When muscle loss occurs, identifying the root cause is essential.

To regain lost muscle, one must do the opposite of the actions that led to the muscle loss.

For instance, if caloric intake is too low and muscle is lost, increasing calories and consuming more can trigger muscle memory, and the lost gains might return.

With steroids, the loss of muscle is a result of a sharp decrease in anabolic hormones like testosterone after the cycle ends.

One might think that restoring testosterone to its on-cycle levels would be necessary to regain this muscle. Yet, research suggests otherwise.

A study subjected mice to steroid treatment which naturally led to muscle growth (5). After gaining mass as expected, their sizes diminished back to the original upon the cessation of steroids.

However, following a rest period of 12 weeks, about 15% of a mouse’s life span, they resumed training without steroids, targeting the same muscle areas.

Remarkably, their muscle mass increased by 36% in a mere 6 days.

Muscle groups in the mice that weren’t exercised while on steroids showed no significant growth when trained post-steroid use.

Thus, there is evidence to propose that muscle memory could indeed aid in retaining gains made from steroid use even after discontinuing them.

This could explain why legendary bodybuilders such as Flex Wheeler appear in great condition at age 50, despite no longer using steroids. Arnold Schwarzenegger also exhibited sustained muscle mass in his later years, having allegedly used dianabol and other steroids in the past.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s muscle memory likely contributed to the maintenance of his steroid-era size.

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However, for muscle memory to remain effective, former steroid users must continue weight training. Without sustaining the exercise regimen, the gains achieved through steroid use will decline. This is why some formerly muscular individuals, who have used steroids before, may appear less muscular later in life if they cease weight training.

Nevertheless, a degree of size loss from steroid discontinued use is possible. This reduction is not muscle loss but rather the loss of water weight. An example is users of anadrol who might gain about 10 pounds of water during a cycle, which accentuates muscle fullness. Once off the cycle, the “pump” fades, leaving behind just the muscle gains, which remain substantial. Muscle memory doesn’t compensate for the loss of intracellular fluid like this.

Conversely, other steroids, like anavar, allow users to retain all their size since they don’t cause water retention.

Example #4: Cortisol’s Impact

I have personally endured significant muscle loss by doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) on an empty stomach in the morning, which involved 30-minute cycling sessions with 30 seconds of sprinting and 30 seconds of rest, repeated 30 times.

HIIT in a fasted state led to a surge in cortisol (stress hormone) levels, putting my body into a catabolic (muscle-wasting) state. This is unlike having a meal beforehand, which would stabilize blood sugar and suppress cortisol.

Cortisol not only affects athletes but also significantly impacts cancer patients.

Excessive cortisol is a hormone that can weaken the immune system (6), which poses additional recovery challenges for cancer patients.

As cortisol levels rise, muscle mass loss, referred to as cachexia, is a common symptom for cancer sufferers.

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Yet, everyday stressors can also lead to increased cortisol, such as:

  • Monetary concerns
  • Relationship troubles
  • High intake of stimulants
  • Insufficient sleep

Studies indicate that inadequate sleep can cause cortisol levels to spike by as much as 45% (7).

Solution: Normalizing cortisol can lead to the restoration of muscle mass. Implementing a calorie-surplus diet can further enhance this recovery process.Much like how individuals may eat in surplus to activate muscle memory following a period of reducing body fat, the majority of the weight regained under such circumstances is typically muscle mass.


The fear of muscle wastage is no longer necessary. In the vast majority of cases where muscle has been lost, there’s a pathway to reclaim those gains, thanks to the enduring number of nuclei within your muscle cells.

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Even those who have previously used steroids have been able to maintain their muscle or regain it after ceasing use while staying natural.

The key is to identify the cause of your muscle loss and then apply the appropriate remedy based on the various situations I’ve described (above).

It’s my hope that this discussion on muscle memory has been beneficial in helping you:

  • Gain a clear understanding of what muscle memory is
  • Alleviate concerns regarding muscle depletion
  • Determine the precise actions to recover any muscle you’ve lost, should that occur.









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Dr. Grant Fourie, a specialist in male hormones, is based in Cape Town, South Africa. He provides comprehensive treatments for conditions related to low testosterone, such as erectile dysfunction, fatigue, and mood changes. His methods include hormone replacement therapy and other modern treatment options.
Contact me via email or phone to book personal appointment in my clinic: The Village Square, Cape Town - South Africa


About Dr. Grant Fourie

Dr. Grant Fourie, a specialist in male hormones, is based in Cape Town, South Africa. He provides comprehensive treatments for conditions related to low testosterone, such as erectile dysfunction, fatigue, and mood changes. His methods include hormone replacement therapy and other modern treatment options. Contact me via email or phone to book personal appointment in my clinic: The Village Square, Cape Town - South Africa

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