Overcoming Muscle Memory to Incorporate New Martial Arts Skills


Whether you have years of experience or are beginning martial arts for the very first time, you’ll find yourself trying to learn techniques that feel unnatural or counter to your usual way of moving. It can be quite a challenge to force your body to do things it has never done before, or that feel awkward.

For those of you unaware, Lori O’Connell Sensei works in the movie industry when she’s not in the dojo, and I work in the security industry. Both of us have been training in the martial arts for a lengthy period of time, and we’ve both recently begun adding new physical skills to our repertoires for our work outside of the dojo. Lori Sensei has been working on her fight reactions for stunt work, while I have been working on my handcuffing skills. We have been practicing together, and it has led to some challenges.


Comments (6)

Muscle Memory & Confusion for Building Technical Ability & Strength

My last two posts addressed Muscle Memory and Its Role in Self-Defense, as well as 4 Factors that Affect Muscle Memory Development. This week, I’ll be discussing how muscle memory and muscle confusion work into martial arts training regimes to build technique and strength.

Warm-ups are not only used to get the body warm to prevent injury. They also help develop body movements, and strengthen the body, to help students improve their performance of the techniques learned in class. To this end, I try to work in movements that relate to the techniques I plan to teach later in the class to develop both strength and technique.

If I’m running a ground defense class, I’ll use shrimping, bridging and rolling and/or turtling as part of our warm-up. These movements not only develop strength, they develop the students’ technique in movements that apply directly to ground defense. By having these drills, students get to work on their muscle memory as they warm up and build strength. (*Be sure to check out all the ground defense drills I teach in my new ground defense book!)

Here is a video of me doing these drills:

These are just examples from my ground warm-up, but these principles can be applied to any other aspect of martial arts training. If you’re working punches, try doing punching with hand weights or resistance bands as part of your strength training. If you’re working on kicks, try doing isometric leg training by going through the movements of your kicks slowly and holding your leg out in the extended position. If you’re working on throws, try throwing a heavy bag or weighted throwing dummy. Breakfall training also strengthens the body and prepares you for being thrown. If you’re going to be sparring or you’ll be taking hits to the body for some other reason, do a medicine ball ab toss to strengthen the muscles you use to absorb hits(see video below).

Muscle Confusion for Further Development

After a while, students get very comfortable doing strength training exercises like the ones shown above. And that’s good because if it’s in their muscle memory, they’re more likely to use it on the street when it counts. That being said, if students are to continue to develop their muscle strength/endurance, they can’t just keep doing the same strength training drills all the time. Muscle memory makes people more efficient at doing the movements, using less efforts for the same results. This is a hindrance for muscular development. That’s why I like to switch things up and do movements that are not natural and are not trained often. This leads to “muscle confusion”. When the muscles aren’t use to a movement, they tend to exert themselves much more so to make the action happen. This in turn helps develop muscle strength and endurance.

Below is a video of another drill I like to throw in to my ground defense warm-up. I uses the same core muscles that are important on the ground, but using movements that are counter-intuitive to the way the body naturally moves. Basically, you swing your arms and legs in opposite directions while lifting your hips, causing you to move across the floor. Even if you don’t manage to move much, it’s still a great ab workout. The embedded version is a little cut off, see the full size version here).

How about you? Do you have any special exercises in your pocket that you like to use to develop your skills (or confuse your muscles)? Please share them in the comments. 🙂

Comments (3)

Muscle Memory & Its Role in Self-Defense

In last week’s post, I discussed 4 Factors that Muscle Memory Development. This week, I’ll discuss the relevance of muscle memory in its application to the practical application of self-defense skills. In Can-ryu Jiu-jitsu, the style we practice at my Vancouver/Richmond BC martial arts school, we emphasize the use of gross motor skills and commonality of techniques to make our self-defense techniques easier to use should the need arise. Both of these concepts relate directly to muscle memory development.

Gross Motor Skills & Muscle Memory

Gross motor skills are skills that use the larger muscle groups. All gross motor skills come from things we learned from infancy to early childhood, including walking, crawling, maintaining balance, reaching, hopping, etc. By using techniuqes that employ larger muscle groups, we are drawing physical skills the body is used to using, ones that have been reinforced since our early physical development. This makes them easier to learn and use when under the high stress conditions of an attack. The body already has a tendency to resort to movements it has already learned, so we are taking advantage of that by using gross motor skills for our defensive techniques. Fine motor skills, one the other hand, require a lot more training to get the movements ingrained in our subconscious minds. That’s not to say they can’t be effective (we do include fine motor skill techniques at higher levels of training), it just takes longer to develop the muscle memory to make them second nature.

Commonality of Technique & Muscle Memory

Commonality of technique means that we use similar types of defensive techniques for similar types of attacks. For example, we would treat an attack with a wide haymaker style punch to the head the same way we would treat a wide inward swing to the head with a club. While there are slightly different nuances with the distance and timing, the basic movements of the defense are essentially the same. So what does this mean for muscle memory development? It means that all the time we spend developing the skill to defend against a punch directly helps us to develop the skills to defend against a club. And as I said in my last article, repetitive practice reinforces muscle memory development. It also helps keep us from having to use our conscious minds in a real defensive situation, resulting in brain stalls, which could cost valuable seconds in reaction time. In other words, if we trained completely different defensive techniques to be used in similar styles of attack, practitioners may get tripped up when faced with such a situation as they have to make a consious decision as to which defense to use. That is not to say that it can’t be done. Again, the more you train, the more you can overcome these types of difficulities. It’s just that commonality of technique helps make the learning process faster and easier to use when under pressure with less training under your belt. This can be vital, particularly when trying to impart self-defense skills to people who will not be training over the long term, like a women’s self-defense class.

In my next article, I’ll be discussing how to play off the concepts of muscle memory and muscle confusion to build strength and technique.

Comments (1)

4 Factors that Affect Muscle Memory Development

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 more complicated martial arts techniques to children at 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.

Comments (4)

Jiu-jitsu Sensei
Martial Arts Blog