How Do Your Muscles Remember What To Do? – Muscle Memory
The Truth About Muscle Memory
I’ve been hearing about this concept of ‘muscle memory’ from my clients. One of my clients approached me to ask me about muscle memory, a term she had heard from every fitness marketer and supposed exercise expert.
I told her, “Muscle memory doesn’t exist”.
I explained to her that muscle memory is just brain memory. It’s a skill, not a mystical ability that your muscles have to repeat actions on their own just because they’ve ‘learned’ how to do them before. Muscles can’t learn, they can’t think, and they can’t remember—they can only receive electrical signals from the brain, and act on those signals. Your muscles can only receive messages, furthermore, that tell them to either “fire at 100%” or “not fire at all”—your brain actually controls which muscle fibers contract, not your muscles themselves.
Your brain learns what to fire and in what order through repeated action, just like any other skill. Therefore, what we think of as “muscle memory” is actually just plain old memory/skill.
Brain Memory, Not Muscle Memory
My client was confused. “But your muscles have an easier time doing things they’ve done before, right?”
“Yes, they do—but it’s because your brain has learned what signals to send to get your muscles to do what you want.”
While your brain is telling your muscles what to do, it does have one automatic tendency—it tries to spend as little effort as physically possible at all times.
“Your brain is an organ that tries to survive as long as it can. It tries to complete tasks with as little effort as possible. To do this, your brain generates as much force as possible by recruiting surrounding muscles. This creates leverage to complete the task with less effort. At one time, preserving energy in this way was an important survival mechanism. If you get tired, you can’t fight off a sabretooth tiger, so your brain is always trying to conserve energy.”
Muscle Strengthening and Muscle Atrophy
In our world of convenience, we don’t need to conserve enough energy to fight off a predator—we don’t even need to conserve enough energy to open doors anymore. We need to force our muscles to stress, because simply going about our days doesn’t provide enough overload or stimulus. The result of this less strenuous lifestyle is muscle atrophy and beer guts.
“This tendency of our brains to conserve energy is completely at odds with what we’re trying to do together in the gym. We want to stress muscles to trigger the physiological response of adaptation—which causes muscles to grow and strengthen. Without that overload we get in the gym, combined with our less active lifestyle, our muscles have no reason to stay strong.”
“So how do I get an effective workout if my brain wants to make life easier?”
Technique Over Muscle Memory
“Practicing targeted form during resistance training will take you a long way towards overcoming your brain’s natural tendency to conserve energy. When you are able to engage the muscles you are targeting when you exercise, you won’t be getting as much help from nearby muscles. This will drive the targeted muscles to stress faster and your workout will become much more efficient and effective. The more you are able to isolate the targeted muscles and prevent your brain from lessening the workload by recruiting others, the more benefit you’ll get from your workout.”
I am able to actually watch as my clients’ technique improves, and their workouts become more focused and effective. When they practice proper posture during resistance training, and then do the same activity over and over and over through repeated workouts, their brains will learn what signals to send while making it harder on their muscles. The brain will develop resistance training technique as a skill, and learn what muscles to target and which to leave out.
At the end of the day, the idea of muscle memory was developed by marketers to sell things. It’s just a buzzword. It’s not tapping into a second memory system, it’s learning a skill, and repeating an action until it becomes natural.