The strength you build is yours, even if you don't do it forever: the evidence for 'muscle memory'
Plus: The conservatives are struggling, how to overcome weak points, and more. This is Links #19.
I often say “muscle memory is real”1 as reassurance that it’s okay to take time off from working out (it’s okay to take time off from working out for any reason; it’s your one precious life!). It also comes up a couple of times in LIFTOFF when we talk about why a 12-week program would be worth it to a total beginner. But I don’t think I’ve ever talked about the actual science of it. Let’s talk about it!
In short: After a period of strength training as short as several weeks, people seem to maintain the functional gains, if not the muscle size/thickness, for many months, and in one study, even up to a year. This means there are real, measured benefits to committing to strength training for a limited period of time, even if you can’t make it your whole lifestyle forever or have to take long breaks.
First, the preserved-strength-gains bit. In a 2019 study, researchers compared the effect of strength training on trained vs “naive” muscles by having nine men and ten women strength train for 10 weeks, and then take 20 weeks off. They found that, during that detraining period, muscle size and thickness went down, but strength stayed elevated by 60%. In another 2019 study on 53 adults who strength trained for 6 months, their gains were “partly preserved” even a year later. And in a small 1991 study of six women, scientists found that when the women strength-trained for 20 weeks and then stopped for 30-32 weeks, “maximal dynamic strength decreased but not to pretraining levels.” The overall point being here: If we build strength once, we’re never as weak again as we were in the first place.
Second: When we have a nice strength base from a beginner program, those gains can be maintained or recreated with less effort than it took to build them in the first place. In a 2020 study where 30 older men strength-trained for 12 weeks and then took 12 weeks off, it took them less than 8 weeks to get back to the strength levels the’d reached after their initial training period.
There is a lot more out there, and not space to go through it all, but the evidence is extremely good.
It’s important to note that these people were all lifting heavy enough to create change in their muscles to get that strength that sticks. This is why the Chrises Hemsworth and Jasons Stackhouse of the world seem to be able to stay relatively big or lean even when they are just doing a few pushups and pull-ups. It’s also why relatively those same lighter types bodyweight training give disappointing results or feel inordinately difficult for people who are inexperienced with strength training. It matters to lay down that strength base, and protect that muscle by not going on crazy diets or running oneself ragged with cardio trying to “burn calories” and “lose pounds.”
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As an anecdotal example: I was rudely cut off from the gym by COVID on March 9, 2020, when my maxes were 142lb bench, 265lb squat, 275lb deadlift. I had only makeshift weights in my house. From March til August, I did mostly compound and unilateral (single-leg and single-arm) movements with those weights or my bodyweight: single-leg squats, b-stance Romanian deadlifts, regular deadlifts, pushups, overhead presses, lunges, etc. I had no plates, no barbell, no rack. I took quite a few days off just because I hated working out at home.
In August 2020, my gym reopened. I started off squatting and deadlifting about 95 pounds, and benching 65 pounds. By late September, I was back to where I had been pre-pandemic. It didn’t even take that long. In March 2021, even though I spent most of the year not training to my heaviest capacity, I hit a deadlift PR of 280 pounds for 4 reps. Progress aside, I always find these little resets enjoyable: The path is clear, and achievable. It’s rare that anything in life feels that way, so I treasure these moments.
Researchers aren’t quite locked in on why muscles work this way (this 2019 paper and this 2020 paper explore a little of the mechanisms involved). But while figuring that out might help maximize the whole process, we don’t need to intimately understand it to know that, by strength training, it’s possible to build something that is yours forever, without continuing to do it forever.
What subscribers got last week: A lifter wrote to me who was pursuing Health-At-Every-Size/intuitive eating, and was clearly struggling with soreness and fatigue (signs that she was not eating enough). The time had come to discuss: Is it encouraged, or even possible, to do intuitive eating and strength training at the same time? The answer may surprise you, particularly if you haven't read the intuitive eating book, which has some interesting things to say about this situation!
~Discord Pick of the Week: One of our own released an app this week that tells you how many plates to put on the barbell for a given weight, and/or how much weight a given number of plates is!! This is a godsend if plate math is not a reflex for you yet (and honestly, something like this can help you get better at it). It's called CalcuPlator, which is, to me, so clever, and costs only a single American dollar.~
I've gotten requests for a primer on accessories, and how and why to choose them. This is an oldie-but-goodie post: Reddit's Compendium to Overcoming Weak Points. It’s a great starting point for intermediate-level folks. I would add from my own experience: B-stance RDLs and single-leg-squats for glutes; reverse Nordic curls for hamstrings: standing straight-arm pulldowns for your lats (h/t to Murder of Crows coach Jean LaGuerre Jr.; if you struggle to keep your armpits closed on deadlifts, these will help so much with a slightly-wider-than-shoulder-width grip.)
I’m so far behind the curve about the “muscle girl bar” in Japan; so many of you kindly sent me the viral TikTok about it. Here is a longer video about it. Without thinking too much about it, I would love to live and work here.
You know I love my Fridge Magnet Tips, and in this Outside Mag piece I loved this one: Stop short one rep. The school of RPE 8 (or 9, I guess, in this case) grows!
"The basic tenets of body neutrality include being grateful for what your body can do: its strength in carrying you from A to B; its skill in keeping you alive."
I loved Cheer so much as a sports documentary, so I was happy to learn one of the Cheer girls who used to be very underweight is eating and lifting now. Good for her!
I was very sad to see that the person behind one of my absolute favorite Instagram accounts, Jessica Fithen of @you.look.like.a.man, has been getting bullied by people in her Strongman/woman community. What's really wild is that the basis for the bullying is some incredibly regressive gender essentialism, with Fithen's antagonists telling her and her audience that she is "bad" for the sport of strongman because she is not feminine-looking enough and uses steroids, whereas more feminine-looking athletes draw people in.
Furthermore, her critics seem to have whipped their audiences into a frenzy over the messaging of @you.look.like.a.man. The actual ethos of @you.look.like.a.man is along the lines of "Some men should are way too aggressive online about whether women look enough like women, according to their incredibly regressive ideal of what women look like." Fithen's antagonists took this and spun it up into "ladies: she's trying to take away your eyelash extensions and fake nails!" It appears some people fell for this immediately, despite that that's an incredibly unfair rhetorical leap the size of the Grand Canyon.
Where the antagonists are wrong is quite simple: one, "progress" that relies on reinforcing a harmful status quo like "women must be feminine enough, in whatever way fucking dudebros are defining it that day, in order to be accepted when they do anything" is not progress; it’s a double standard. Two, the idea that posting about how certain men are out of line for telling women they should worry about getting bulky, lest a man not want to marry them, is the same thing as thinking women shouldn't be allowed to brush their hair? That's fucking cuckoo bananas.
What's really crazy is that, in the progressive cohort, a big reason people feel alienated by strength sports is that they seem overrun by loud and weird conservatives who police things like whether women look enough like women. Not only that, those conservatives somehow manage to turn the simple activity of "laughing at stupid men with regressive attitudes toward women as catharsis" into the War On Eyelash Extensions. I don't want to speak for my whole cohort, but I think @you.look.like.a.man is an incredible service to people like me, and I can see very clearly the literal ocean of difference between what @you.look.like.a.man is doing and this frankly bonkers, fake, and pathetic ideological campaign.
COVID coverage is a bit afield for this newsletter but I swear this one will boomerang right back to us: Conservatives are doing double backflip gainers to avoid acknowledging the basic COVID vaccine, to the point they've created an elaborate headcanon of "other treatments that ‘work."' As Twitter user @twinkbride notes, these include spironolactone and finasteride, two testosterone suppressants. The same people who have total meltdowns about the idea of a trans woman using a women's bathroom or a trans woman competing in women's sports, are taking t-blockers. I'm! Wheezing!
Mike Pompeo claims to have lost 90 pound in 6 months by "exercising, not every day, but nearly every day, and eating right." Far be it for me to question this absolute paragon of integrity, but most people who lose weight that fast are on drugs or got their stomach stapled. I judge none of these things, I judge only smugly lying about them.
Thai authorities can't handle being served midriff realness.
It's fun and funny to watch people do ice baths, but in many cases, they are undoing the hard work they just did. (The one use case for them would be if you really know you went too far with training.)
It does seem like the usual New Year's fitness resolution din has been more of a whisper this year; we might actually have to thank omicron for that.
TikToker criticized for thanking guy for not staring at her butt. Too many layers here. This is an aside, but I believe many of the viral gym interactions TikToks are fake.
Swole Woman's Singular Taste in Dorky White Guys, Vol. 2: I'll be honest; I did not like Free Solo. I just believe there are certain ways of raising the stakes that don't teach me or you anything, and are only a fool's errand with no payoff. I feel this way about free soloing, but not about BASE jumping in a squirrel suit; that's the coolest shit on Earth.2
All that said, I love The Alpinist, the doc about climber Marc-Andre LeClerc. When a producer asked him what he eats before climbing, LeClerc responds, in a delicate and circumscribed way, that every climb could be his last, therefore he eats every meal beforehand as if it's his last. He is the most-metal, and yet least-metal, guy of this or any generation.
I'm obsessed with and would die for this truck driver on TikTok, @playboymaudie. His nails! His slippers! The way he talks about Taco Bell! Protect him!
Ok that’s all. I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—
“Muscle memory” has become a fraught term because some technical specialists have gotten stressed out about what the gen pop thinks it means (something like “it’s like riding a bike”) vs. how it’s used in this scientific context. I believe it is mostly useful shorthand and have no real further interest in arguing about it, but if anyone comes up with better words, great. ↩
You might say you have no reverence or patience for the minute parsing of my individual tastes in dudes’ hobbies, particularly in a newsletter of limited space, and that it, too, is a raising of stakes that doesn't teach me or you anything. To that I would say, fair enough.