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Muscle Memory: When Martha Returned to Class

I wrote about Martha’s story in my October 28 blog. She had been one of my stronger students before her ovarian cancer diagnosis, surgery and treatment. On her first day back in class after over a year of being away for her treatments, I had expected Martha to have overall body weakness from inactivity. But I was surprised to see that when she was lying on her stomach and performing small upper back extensions, she could barely lift up her head and upper body. It was particularly upsetting to detect such obvious decline in the body of someone who had been so strong and robust.

I watched her carefully during her first Pilates class, without letting on that I was giving her too much attention. Here was what I saw. Lying on her stomach, using her arms a great deal to assist, Martha could only clear the mat by an inch, and could not hold the position for a complete breath. The strength in her upper body – including the small deep muscles around and between the shoulders – had atrophied from lack of use.

When I approached Martha gingerly after class, she herself brought up what I was thinking. ‘I didn’t know how round my back had become until I saw some photos from a family picnic,’ she told me. ‘I figured that the chemo chemicals have made my bones soft and muscles weak. Standing up straight for any period of time hurts.’

Muscle Memory

I tried to reassure her. I reminded her of the adage that you never forget how to ride a bike even if you haven’t done it for decades. This is called muscle memory: when the body ‘remembers’ the movement before an injury, surgery, or period of inactivity. Martha’s neuromuscular system was already programmed to remember both deep and superficial muscles that worked well before the cancer. Lost strength (in Martha’s case, we’re talking about the sort of strength needed to wield hefty locomotive tools) will eventually come back and it won’t take as long as it did to get in shape initially.

If you need another reason for regular exercises, here it is. As you struggle through your ab reps, brisk walk or weight exercises, remember you are ‘recording’ strength and endurance that can be recalled at any time. Muscle memory works at any age, even in elderly patients.

Martha had started by rebuilding her abdominal strength at home. It would take longer to build up the small deep muscles around and between the shoulder blades, but eventually with daily work, she was able to do Upper Back Extensions (featured in the video below) as well she had as before her cancer. The rewards of retraining the postural muscles also played out in other parts of Martha’s body. The small deep muscles supported the larger muscles and brought her spine into balance. Her head no longer poked forward. With better posture came a lightness in her movements. The ‘round back’ look had vanished.

Colleen Craig

Colleen Craig

Colleen is the author of Pilates on the Ball, Abs on the Ball, and Strength Training on the Ball, and the producer of the Pilates on the Ball DVD.

Disclaimer: I highly recommend you watch the video two or three times before attempting an exercise.  Listen carefully for watchpoints. Check with your doctor or health care practitioner to be sure these exercises are suitable for you. Pay attention to modifications and stop if there is any discomfort. If in doubt, avoid an exercise.

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