Use It or Lose It... Until You Use It Again
"Use it or lose it" is something gym teachers, physical therapists, and nursing home directors say a lot to inspire or browbeat students, patients, or old people. The thinking is, of course, that if you don't get active – or in the case of old people, do your jigsaw puzzle – you'll lose whatever muscle, abilities, or brainpower you currently have.
Scientists have figured out something amazing, though. In the case of muscle, you don't lose it, regardless of how little you use it. Whatever muscle you built during your miserable life actually hangs around with you forever. The muscle itself may shrink, may wither, but the muscle nuclei hang around like loyal beagles at their master's beck and call.
Then, when you start exercising again, these "myonuclei" allow for increased and faster growth of the muscles. This explains and confirms the phenomenon known as "muscle memory."
Scientist are even suggesting young people could "bank" muscle cells away for use when they're old and otherwise decrepit. Similarly, someone could do a single cycle of steroids, get all buffed out, and then stop using them cold turkey.
They'd keep the new muscle nuclei they accrued during the cycle, thereby maintaining an advantage over the non-steroidal mortals but they'd never fail any subsequent drug tests.
Because of their discovery, these scientists have suggested we change the phrase from "use it or lose it," to "use it or lose it... until you use it again."
Just Waiting for the Bat-Signal
At the root of this discovery lies something called the syncytium, which is a network of cells that behave like a giant single cell. Lawrence Schwartz, author of the paper that described this new truth, explains that the heart, bone, and even placenta are built on these networks of cells, but the biggest syncytia is in fact our muscles.
"Muscle growth is accompanied by the addition of nuclei from stem cells to help meet the enhanced demands of larger muscle cells," explained Schwartz. He believes that this thinking was what led to the assumption that a given nucleus controls a defined amount of cytoplasm, "so that when a muscle shrinks or atrophies due to misuse or disuse, the number of myonuclei decreases."
But two independent studies showed that the nuclei aren't lost from shrinking muscles. They stay with the muscle synctytium, probably forever, just waiting for you to shine a bat-signal into the sky by resuming exercise.
How This Info Might Benefit You
If muscle nuclei stay with us, it presents a lot of implications. As mentioned, some of the benefits of exercising at a young age would have the potential of staying with us our entire lives. The muscle nuclei grown early on would remain, even if the muscle surrounding them were left to shrink from decades of disuse. All one would have to do is start exercising again and witness a physical resurrection of sorts.
Steroid use would have an even greater impact than currently realized. You wouldn't have to be "on" steroids to benefit from them, as the new muscle cells acquired from their use would always be there, giving users/abusers a permanent leg-up on their competition.
Lastly, this knowledge should give solace to lifters and athletes of all kinds that any forced lay-off isn't going to have the muscle-wasting repercussions they might have thought it would. The muscles acquired through hard training won't go anywhere. At worst, they'll just be mothballed away, waiting for when they'll be called on to grow again.
A Side Note About Steroids and "Muscle Memory"
Okay. I know some of you are scoffing at the notion that the muscle cells acquired from steroid use would stay with a person. That's fair, because any nitwit knows that you shrink when you go off steroids, regardless of how many new nuclei you may have accrued.
That shrinking doesn't mean you haven't kept the nuclei, though. Remember, the engorged muscles seen in steroid users are partly cosmetic. Steroids increase the number of muscle cells and protein synthesis in general, but they also increase something called cell volumization, which leads to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
In simpler terms, steroids cause the fluid in cells to fill but this particular effect doesn't come with any accompanying increase in strength. Professional bodybuilders are often as much human balloon as they are actual muscle.
This is why you sometimes see some 180-pound strength athlete easily out-bench a 250-pound bodybuilder. The former might have more muscle nuclei and more myofibrillar hypertrophy, the kind that translates into strength.
Steroids will help you grow more muscle cells and further blow up these muscle cells through increased cell volumization, but when you stop taking steroids, the cell volumization will recede and the muscles will eventually deflate to normal-human size. Even so, based on new findings, it's clear the new muscle cells hang around.
That's how the benefits of doing a cycle will give someone a long-term advantage over someone who's lifetime drug-free.
- Schwartz, Lawrence, "Skeletal Muscles Do Not Undergo Apoptosis During Either Atrophy or Programmed Cell Death-Revisiting the Myonuclear Domain Hypothesis," Front. Physiol., 25 January 2019