The human body is a fascinating structure, an intricate set of interrelated subsystems all hardwired for our survival. Muscle memory is an interesting phenomenon, involving a relationship between our muscles and their interaction with the brain. Muscle memory is often referred to in the martial arts. But exactly how and why does muscle memory develop? And what of Muscle Memory’s often overlooked little sibling, Muscle Confusion? This blog is an introduction to a 3-part series on this topic.
What is Muscle Memory?
The theory behind muscle memory is that anyone learning a new activity, or practicing an old one we use our brains extensively. A child learning to walk is gradually building neural pathways using the conscious mind to give the muscles a sense of muscle memory. In other words, even without thinking, the child is soon able to walk, and the muscles are completely accustomed to this process. The child no longer has to tell the body to walk; the body just knows how to do it, thanks to neurons that communicate with the muscles and say, “walk now.”
Muscle memory thus becomes an unconscious process. The muscles grow accustomed to certain types of movement. This is extremely important for the martial arts. The more often you train a certain skill, the more likely you are to do it as needed, when needed. If you’ve trained to respond in a certain way against a certain attack a thousand times. You don’t have to think about the specific combination of defensive techniques. Your body knows how to do it on demand.
5 Factors that Affect the Development of Muscle Memory
There are a number of factors that can affect the development of muscle memory. Understanding them is important for an instructor as it helps them to run a class that helps promote faster and better learning. As a student, understanding these factors helps you to understand what you can do to help improve your training habits.
1. Regular Training. Instructors know that the more a student practices, the better they get. Conversely, if a student only show up to class sporradically, it’s difficult for them to make progress. Students should strive to train at least twice a week, especially in the early stages of learning.
2. Repetitive Practice. Within class training time, students need to get sufficient opportunities to repeat techniques in order to develop muscle memory. This is why it’s important to curb the desire to discuss the performance of a technique at length in class, both as an instructor and as a student. While a student does need to understand the fundamentals of what they’re about to practice, an instructor that talks too much robs the student of valuable opportunities to develop muscle memory. An instructor also needs to let their students practice a technique enough times to get a feel for it before calling the class to order to introduce the next technique. Students, on the other hand, who like to discuss the technique during their practice time are also inhibiting their ability to develop muscle memory for the technique. It is also important to remember that repetitive practice ingrains a physical skill, whether you’re doing it right or wrong, so a student should always aim for perfect technique or as close to it as possible while practicing, even if it means doing the movements slower.
3. Age. It is widely known that children, once they have reached a certain age of motor skill development, are able to learn new physical skills fairly quickly. This is true of the martial arts too, but due to some of the mental apsects of training like focus, control, comprehension of application, and memory, they don’t necessarily advance as quickly as adults. This is why a lot of dojos refrain from teaching children from too young an age. And while there are few studies examining the development of physical skills in older adults, from experience, I can say that it usually takes them longer to develop muscle memory, especially when the skill is entirely new to them. They have to reprogram their bodies and unconscious minds to do things, fighting ways of moving that have become ingrained over decades of life.
4. Previous Physical Experience. I’ve always maintained that students who come into the martial arts with a previous background in dancing tend to learn martial arts more quickly. Dancing uses the body in a wide variety of ways and gets the person used to putting together strings of movement. Even though on the surface dancing seems completely different, it is actually very complementary to learning a martial art. Of course, there are other physical activities that share these qualities, but dancing stands out strongly in my mind. Conversely, if a person has previous experience in a different martial art, if there is a lot of cross-over, they may find the initial learning experience to be a little frustrating as their body has a tendency to do what it has already learned in a similar context. That being said, if one is patient enough to get past the early difficulties, a student with prior experience that is relevant to the art they’re currently studying may see an acceleration in their learning process.
The next two posts to follow will discuss ways to take advantage of the body’s ability to develop muscle memory and how to play off the concepts of muscle memory and confusion to develop technique and strength for the martial arts.