When It Comes to Muscle, ‘Use It or Lose It’ Isn’t the Whole Story

Use it or lose it!

How often have we heard this adage to motivate us to get off the couch and into the gym? It turns out that those five words may be a bit of an oversimplification (shocker). Taking a little time off from your strength training isn’t as utterly devastating as we’ve been lead to believe.

Let’s dig into the science. When you put on muscle, two important things happen. First, your muscle fibers grow and your muscles visually appear bigger. Second, you add more muscle nuclei (myonuclei) to that tissue. It’s those myonuclei that really make a difference.

Wait, high school biology taught us that cells only have one nucleus, right? Yes, but since muscle cells are so large, they require multiple nuclei. When muscles are met with resistance (like strength training), they form additional nuclei to support their growth.

But what happens to those additional nuclei when we stop working out and our muscles shrink back to their original state? It was previously believed that these additional nuclei were destroyed in apoptosis (a normal part of cell maintenance) once the muscle stopped being used so intensively. But it turns out this may not be the case.

When It Comes to Muscle, 'Use It or Lose It' Isn't the Whole Story

According to a new study published in Frontiers in Physiology, we actually retain these myonuclei once they have been developed—they don’t get destroyed. Not only that, but these myonuclei may also play a major role in muscle memory.

When you start working out again, these myonuclei will reactivate and help your muscles remember and regain their former strength even faster than they had the first time around. According to study author Larry Schwartz, “The old adage ‘use it or lose it’ might be better rephrased to ‘use it or lose it, until you work at it again’.”

So we don’t completely lose our gains when we take time off from the gym. Yes, your muscles will shrink if you don’t use them, but all that effort that went into growing them in the first place isn’t necessarily lost. Your muscles retain the framework for that growth and power. To get it back, all you need is a little effort (potentially even less effort than you needed the first time around).

That’s why any sort of muscle-building is so valuable—especially as we age. The more myonuclei you have, the easier it will be to retain your gains throughout your life and the less hard you’ll have to work to keep them.

Of course, this isn’t an excuse to stop working out. Even though you don’t completely lose your muscular gains during periods of low activity, you’ll lose out on all the other powerful health benefits of exercise. So keep working out, just don’t stress if an injury keeps you sidelined for awhile. Your muscles will bounce right back when you give them the chance.

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Images via Getty

28 comments

Chad A
Chad Anderson7 days ago

Thank you.

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Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R9 days ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R9 days ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R9 days ago

Thank you for sharing.

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heather g
heather g12 days ago

My muscle memory disappeared over the short holiday break....

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David C
David C18 days ago

thanks

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Debbi W
Debbi W18 days ago

Muscle memory can effect us in many ways.

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Angeles M
Angeles Madrazo19 days ago

Good to know. Thank you

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Anne M
Anne Moran19 days ago

Muscle memory...

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Shae Lee
Shae Lee19 days ago

thank you for sharing

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