The dictionary defines muscle memory as “the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement.” In other words: it’s a nifty little way to turn your muscles on autopilot!
Getting Groovy: Muscle Memory 101
Imagine walking through a heavily wooded area to get from your house to your friend’s house. You take the same path every day, day-in and day-out. At first, you may get lost or stumble because the path is new and hard to follow. But over time, your footprints make the path clearer and clearer, until eventually the path is so obvious and you remember it so well that you can practically walk it blindfold.
This is how muscle memory works.
When we first perform a movement (whether that’s a dance move, a bodyweight squat, or a yoga pose), it may feel a little clunky and awkward. We have to think about what we’re doing and listen to what our coach or instructor is telling us in order to perform the movement correctly.
With enough practice, however, the movement begins to get easier. We don’t have to think about what we’re doing–we sort of just do it. This happens not only because we are gaining strength, stamina, and flexibility, but also because we are gaining body awareness, motor control, and neuromuscular efficiency.
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Muscle memory is a process of reorganizing and rewiring our nerves to make the brain/body connection stronger, faster and more accurate. When we practice a new movement over and over again, we are literally “grooving” a new neural pathway within our central nervous system. This makes it easier for our brain to tell our body what to do the next time. In geek terms, this is “neuroplasticity”, or the ability of our central nervous system to reshape itself based on the demands we place on our brain and body. Who knew that working out could literally change the shape and strength of your nerves and brain? Pretty darn cool.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”
When Muscle Memory Goes Bad
Muscle memory saves you a lot of mental energy, which allows you to work harder and get more out of your workouts. But here’s the thing: muscle memory is learned movement–whether the movement learned is correct or not!
If you “learn” (practice) a movement again and again improperly (e.g., repeatedly squatting with bad form), then you’re “teaching” your muscles and nervous system that this is how you should move–even if the movement itself is potentially unsafe or inefficient.
To go back to the woods analogy, let’s say that the path you made to get to your friend’s house goes around a huge lake and over a super steep hill full of thorny bushes and loose rocks (ouch!). But, as it turns out, there’s a safer and faster way to get to your friend’s house. In order to start using this newer path consistently, you’ll have to break your habit and be willing to step off the “improper” pathway that you’ve already spent so much time and energy “grooving.”
So, to prevent learning bad technique (and avoid the hassle of “unlearning” bad technique), remember this mantra: Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
Any time you are learning a new skill–whether it’s weight lifting, yoga, swimming, or something else–take the time (and have the patience!) to learn the new skill the right way. Ask your Healthworks coach or trainer for guidance. It’s far easier and safer to learn something correctly the first time rather than having to “unlearn” the bad movement and retrain your muscle memory.