Muscle memory can be best described as a type of movement with which the muscles become accustomed to over time. For example, newborns don’t have muscle memory for activities like crawling or walking, (Ellis-Christensen, 2012). The only way for the muscles to become accustomed to these activities is for the baby to learn how to do these things and then practice them with a great deal of trial and error. Gradually as the baby becomes a skilled walker, he falls less, is able to balance and is finally able to incorporate other activities into his life such as running and jumping.
This process is achieved by building neural pathways that will give the muscles a sense of: muscle memory. In other words, even without thinking, the child is able to walk, and the muscles are completely accustomed to this process. They do not have to tell the body to walk; the body just knows how to do it, this is down to the neurons which communicate with the muscles and say, “walk now;” as quoted by Ellis-Christensen, (2012).
This term is known as, ‘Muscle memory’ and is an unconscious process. The muscles grow accustomed to certain types of movement. This is extremely important in different types of training for sports. The more often you do a certain activity, the more likely you are to do it as needed.
Physiologists know that any skeletal muscle activity that is learned can become essentially automatic with practice. Muscle memory is therefore a common term for neuromuscular facilitation, which is the process of the neuromuscular system memorizing motor skills. We know that repetition is the mother of skill and that practice makes permanent. After repeating the same movement over and over again, the movement seemingly becomes second nature. It’s like we’re not paying attention but of course it’s all coming from the same region of the brain that controls everything.
Morley (2012) noted the theories that explained motor learning were developed at the beginning of the 20th Century. Dr. Edward Thorndike who was a pioneer in the study of motor learning and he conducted various experiments that showed subjects required very minimal training in completing tasks that were learned decades before. These experiments led Thorndike and other scientists to determine that learned motor skills are stored in the memory section of our brains.
‘We all use muscle memory techniques in our everyday life. Whether it is riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard or entering a common password or pin number, we have taught our muscles to carry out these commands without putting much thought into them. It takes a great deal of practice and repetition for a task to be completed on a strictly subconscious level. For professional sports players it may take hundreds of hours of practice and repeated shots for the brain and muscles to perform at a world class level;’ (Morley, 2012).
The process of adding specific motor movements to the brain’s memory can take either a short or long time depending on the type of movements being performed. When movements are first being learned, the muscles and other body controlling features (such as ligaments and tendons) are stiff and slow and can be easily disrupted if the brain is not completely focused on the movement; as quoted by Morley (2012). In order to complete the memorization, acts must be done with full attention. This is because brain activity increases when performing movements, and this increased activity must be fully centred on the activity being completed. Much of the motor learning in the brain is located in the cerebellum which is the part of the brain in charge of controlling sensory and cognitive functions.
There are three stages in the motor learning process:
1. Cognitive Stage
The cognitive stage begins when the learner is first introduced to the motor task. This is where the early identification and understanding of the skill is to be learned. Individuals focus on how to do the skill rather than actually practising it. This is achieved by watching, thinking, analysing and visualising.
2. Associative Stage
The associative stage is where the practice of the skill begins. The learner may not be able to perform the skill with a high level but they have an understanding of how it is done.
3. Autonomous Stage
The autonomous stage is characterized by executing the skill automatically with no conscious thought. The individual can perform the skill fluently and instinctively.
Once the internal model is formed via the central nervous system Shadmehr et al., (1997) found improvement of the performance of the new skill can persist for up to 5 months. Once actions are memorized by the brain, the muscles must be trained to act in a quick, fluid manner; (Mack, 2012). This can be done in the gym, on the court, or other playing field. When athletes complete strength training exercises, they enhance the synapses in their muscles which increase the speed impulses travel from the brain through the nervous system to the muscles. This is key because it lowers the time between when the brain decides to complete a movement to when the muscles actually start to move.
Bad habits and injury can seriously disrupt and damage the associated muscle memory that has been established. So how do you successfully override it? With conscious effort. You must concentrate on the new skill that is to replace the previous habit and they must do so until the new muscle memory pattern is established. Not just one practice session, one day, or even one week. It may take weeks, months, or even years. Although it takes strong concentration to change your current muscle memory, it only takes a few thoughts about your mechanics to interrupt your trained muscle memory patterns, and change your entire performance.
The key points are:
If you don’t use correct form at the start of your training regimen, any flaws in your technique will become bad habits. It will take a long time to break these bad habits, which is why coaches start training with fundamentals (Mack, 2012).
Many resources offer insight into how to perfect your technique, but nothing can replace an expert analysis of your particular style. Work with a qualified coach who can dissect your performance and point out your flaws as you’re more unlikely not to be able to see them (Mack, 2012).
Practice, practice and more practice is the key. The more you practice the sooner it will become engaged into a muscle memory and the sooner it becomes this, the action will become natural and you are able to improve both your movement and performance on and off the sporting field (Mack, 2012).
Ellis-Christensen, T. (2012). What is Muscle Memory. Available: http://www.wisegeek.org/what-is-muscle-memory.htm. Last accessed 2nd Dec 2012.
Mack, S. (2012). Does Muscle Memory Affect The Percentage in Basketball? Available: http://www.livestrong.com/article/448564-muscle-memory-affect-percentage-basketball/#ixzz26i9yQVFS. Last accessed 2nd Dec 2012.
Morley, K. (2012). Muscle Memory. Available: http://sportsnscience.utah.edu/musclememory/. Last accessed 2nd Dec 2012.
Shadmehr, R and Brashers-Krug, T. (1997). Functional Stages in the Formation of Human Long-Term Motor Memory. The Journal of Neuroscience. 17 (1), p409-419.