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Muscle Memory: How repetition shapes our skills

Did you know that that there is something called muscle memory?

Yes, it’s a thing and it’s actually really cool. I won’t dive too much into the scientific and neurological side of things but let’s check out how muscle memory works and how we can benefit from it on our fitness journey.

What is muscle memory?

Muscle memory may make us think that every single muscle has a little brain, but this is actually not the case. Although it is called muscle memory, the brain is doing the main work here. 

Generally speaking, muscle memory is a neurological process that allows our brain to quickly recall and reproduce specific motor skills. 

So, let’s take a simple example we all can relate to: when we were little, we learned how to ride a bike. None of us jumped onto a bike and could free pedal away. We all started with training wheels, fell over plenty of times. It took us days or weeks to get comfortable and then eventually moved from the training wheels to two wheels. 

Let’s say we stopped riding a bike for a while because it is too cold, we take public transport or the car or we simply don’t have a bike anymore. Once we get back on it, it is as nothing ever happened. Well, we might be a bit wobbly but we will get back into it in no time.

This is muscle memory. 

And the same happens to other movements and skills. Everything we have repeatedly practiced over time and done over and over again, gets stored in our brain. Because the consistent repetition will make it easier for our brain to send signals to our muscles involved, making the movement feel automatic and smooth. 

Muscle memory is often associated with activities that require precise and coordinated movements like everything we do at the gym, dance routines, playing a musical instrument or typing on a keyboard. 

So, the great things about muscle memories: you don’t need to learn a skill from scratch every single time and you can also execute the movement without consciously thinking about it. 

How does muscle memory work in the gym?

Although muscle memory is mainly a brain thing, our muscles contribute quite a lot to it. 

Strength training creates more nuclei in our muscle cells which helps our muscles adapt, grow and get stronger. Those nuclei split and grow, then repeat. The more stress we put on our muscles – due to lifting heavy weights – the more those nuclei grow – the more our muscles grow. 

What happens when we stop training?

We all have had a time where we couldn’t go to the gym, play our sports or go for a run. We were sick, on holidays, simply didn’t have the time or even injured. 

And we are all worried that this time off the training will ruin our whole progress and we will lose all the muscle we have built. 

Well, I have good news.

Muscle memory is our hero here. Although the nuclei in our muscles now don’t have a reason to split and grow anymore, our regular exercising beforehand triggered lasting changes in our muscles. 

That means, once we return to the gym, it will be a lot easier for our muscles because they will use the nuclei that you’ve already made. Our muscles can respond quicker and it will be a lot quicker for us to regain our muscle strength and size than it would be learning it from scratch. 

This is fantastic news for everyone that has had a break on their journey and was concerned about the consequences. 

Yes, our muscles will weaken and we won’t be back at 100% within a week or two but we will feel how much less effort and time it will take then it does learning a new skill or movement. 

How good is muscle memory? 

Now, there is one little thing that may be one disadvantage of muscle memory and that is: technique. 

Imagine you are learning a new movement pattern, like a deadlift. There is so much technique required for a deadlift and for some people it may be easier than for others. 

Now, think about it…shoulders back, hinging from the hip, slight bent in your knees, driving the weight along your legs until you feel the tension in your hamstrings and then don’t forget to squeeze your glutes at the top, but don’t push your pelvis too far out. 

Yep, lots going on. And we may or may not have seen plenty of people doing it wrong. Hopefully, there is a coach nearby that will correct any incorrect movement patterns. But sometimes, there simply isn’t and we one of the elements within the deadlift becomes a bad habit. 

Let’s say we constantly forget to bring our shoulders back and we are hunched over when hinging from the hip. The more we do it, the more we tell our brain that this is the way and this is exactly what our brain will remember.

And once we feel comfortable in our deadlift technique (not consciously knowing that we are doing something wrong) it feels like smooth sailing. 

In this case, our muscle memory has kicked in but unfortunately, we have taught our brain and therefore our muscles something wrong. 

And trust me, it is a lot harder to readjust your technique than leaning it correctly from scratch. 

How long does it take to form muscle memory?

Well, this is hard to say and it depends on a variety of things. 

First of all, we are all different and it may take me longer to learn a specific skill than it does for someone else. 

Secondly, it depends on the skill or movement. Memorizing a bicep curl won’t take as long as the deadlift I have mentioned already. So, we can take anything between a couple of weeks to years. 

Can we speed it up?

Of course, we can. Practice, practice, practice. If we consistently repeat the specific movement pattern, then it will help our brain and muscles to remember it even quicker. 

Back to the example of a deadlift: the first time we are trying a deadlift, it is hard work for our brain to understand what is going on. But while we repeat the exercise over and over again, our brain learns and our muscles adapt. 

it is a win-win

How long does muscle memory last?

Another one that is hard to answer. 

I am sure we all know the feeling when coming back to the gym after a week or two off. We feel weaker, our endurance has decreased. Yes, our strength overall might have decreasd a bit but this did not affect our muscles. 

In order to actually decrease muscle size, we need a good 4-6 weeks off the training. For experienced and advanced athletes, bodybuilders, etc. this can take even longer. 

Let’s sum it up.

Muscle memory is a great thing as it can help us to get back on track a lot quicker than we might think. Enjoying a week away, recovering from an injury or illness won’t throw us off straight away. Our muscles and our brain are doing a great job in working together there. 

It will take time to create muscle memory – practice and repeating the movement consistently will help to speed up the process. 

But remember, make sure you are teaching the correct technique and form to your muscles so you will benefit from it long-term.