The path of movement is well established. A message is sent from the brain through the nervous system to the muscles to create movement. The more you practice a movement, the easier (and hopefully more skilled) you become at doing the movement because you have carved a neurological pattern in the brain.
The muscles also respond to the repeated practice of a movement. You build muscle by asking it to do a little bit more than what it currently can – by doing more repetitions or increasing the difficulty or load.
It used to be thought that it was just the repetition and the hardwiring in the brain that was the source for muscle memory… the ability to bring back a skill not practice for a while. But that didn’t explain why most people condition and strengthen much more quickly after taking time off, whether because life got in the way or you had an injury. After all, when you stop training you start de-conditioning.
When you build muscle the number of myonuclei increase which are known as the muscle stem cells. It was in 2010 that research first showed that even if you stop training for a significant period of time the number of myonuclei present in the cell remains even as the muscle atrophies.
When you start training again you don’t need to go through the process of building up the number of myonuclei and so conditioning and strengthening happens much more quickly.
In 2018, there was a study on humans (the 2010 research was done on mice) that had participants training at the gym for 7 weeks, then off for 7 weeks, and then back on for 7 weeks. This research showed that the changes to the DNA that occurred during the training session stayed even when not training. Cool! This means that our skeletal muscles have epigenetic memory!
Stay with me… I’ve got one more study to tell you about and then we’ll talk about why this is important. There was a study by Ogasawara that compared the results of strengthening a muscle continuously versus periodic strength training. In a nutshell it showed that over a 24-week period the two groups ended up with the same strength gains whether they were training continuously or having 6 weeks on, 3 weeks off.
I’ve always been a proponent of cross training. When you take a break from class and do something else… like swimming or pilates or even playing on a playground… it broadens your movement patterns. This is a very good idea for the fascia by keeping it conditioned and moving easily in all directions by varying your movement. It is also beneficial for injury prevention as overuse injuries are so common in dancers.
Now we have the research saying gains won’t be totally lost if you take a break of a few days or even a few weeks – and there might be some physical, mental and emotional benefits! You’ve got muscle memory on your side, and coming back refreshed and feeling physically ready to start a new school year is a good thing!
So let’s not let our students feel guilty for taking time off. Of course, they have to start training by rebuilding some of those patterns that are unique to dance, but the more advanced the dancer, the more quickly it will happen. Let’s just make sure they remember that sleep, nutrition & hydration and staying mentally resilient are all a part of their training.
To your success,