The Mystery Of Muscle Memory

The phrase ‘muscle memory’ is great alliteration but it can be misleading if you are not clued up on what it actually is. It refers to the neuromuscular signalling pathways which develop as a result of frequently enacted tasks. It is in fact a form of procedural memory which can help you become very good at something through repetition, essentially because your body adapts to demands placed upon it.

The link between motor skills and muscle memory is significant. Motor skills require the muscles, brain, skeleton and nervous system to efficiently work in order to accomplish a task. Muscle memory is therefore the body’s collective ability to memorise and perform well practiced muscular contractions.

If you have ever wondered why someone who trains in a particular sport as a child is particularly good at something with little conscious effort, it is partly because of all the ‘nerve maps’ they have developed between the brain and muscles. These ‘maps’ require human growth hormone (HGH) to stimulate the nerve growth and wire together the circuit.eveloping muscle memory is vital for all humans (regardless of how much training you do) because it allows us to multi-task. And yes, despite the rumours, men can multi-task too! Take walking as an example. When you are a baby, you struggle to crawl and then to walk. You have to try over and over again to get your balance and engage the muscles that will help move you forward. Once you can walk, you can then practice speeding up. And now as you walk along the road, you can eat, talk on the phone and dodge obstacles all at the same time!

Negative Muscle Memory:

Practice makes perfect is an accurate phrasing of how muscle memory works, but it is possible that if you practice poor technique or make the same mistakes repetitively in training, you will form a negative muscle memory. Your central nervous system cannot tell whether the movement you are repeating is good or bad and so it forms the link just as it would if you perfect a skill.

The saying ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is accurate for this issue. It can become very difficult to overcome poor technique once the mistakes become common.

Mental Training

When you start a training regime tailored for increases in muscle strength, the initial gains you achieve result mainly from changes in the nervous system! With this in mind, researchers set up an experiment to see whether just visualising muscle specific exercises could increase muscle strength.

Thirty healthy adults were split into 3 groups: Imagining exercising their little finger, imagining exercising their biceps and no imaginary exercise for the control group. Results showed that those imagining exercising their little finger increased strength by 53% and those imagining their biceps workout increased strength by 13.4%!

The measurements of brain activity that were recorded during visualisation suggest that the strength gains are a result of the improvement in the brain’s ability to send signals to the muscle and activate the muscle fibres.

From this we can gage that the reason that people who have previously trained can regain fitness quicker is down to the fact that their body ‘remembers’ the movement. If you are injured at the moment and unable to train, perhaps try out your muscle memory. Perform a skill or exercise you used to do effortlessly, then visualise this for one week, return to the exercise/skill and see what happens!

Physical Training

Functional strength progression is a combined of protein synthesis and mind-muscle connection. Coaches will routinely ask a competitor to practice competition specific skills as well as general strength training because it improves coordination of that particular movement. For example, training each upper body muscle will increase upper body strength but it will not peak your bench press power. This lift must be consistently performed in order to see maximum results.

The importance of practicing proper technique when developing motor skills is paramount. If you want to train for a specific skill and enhance your muscle memory, you can do this with 3 simple training steps.

1. The first step is to practice the skill in a blocked environment. In other words, free from distractions, opponents and competition. You should train the skill until you are successful at it. Depending on the skill, it may take more than one training session. Once you have managed the skill successfully once. You should half the amount of tries it took you during that session and try to repeat your success. For example, if it takes you 20 attempts to score a free throw at a basketball net, you should try to repeat this in the next 10 attempts with the same technique that brought you success. The secret is not to spend too long training this one skill as you risk ‘overlearning’, frustration and adopting poor techniques.

2. Once you are able to consistently repeat the skill, you are ready to move it into a variable environment. For example, if you were learning to backhand in tennis you would switch from a ball machine which delivers the ball to the same point each time to a training partner that will challenge you more.

3. The third and final step is to practice the skill in a random environment. In other words, placing yourself in a competitive environment where your opponent will be placing more pressure on your skills.

Diet

There are many foods you can include in your diet which will help maintain a healthy nervous system and ensure that you stay focused while training to acquire skills which will improve your muscle memory!

BLUEBERRIES – These tasty berries contain antioxidants which help protect brain cells from oxidative stress. Studies have also shown that they can enhance learning capacity and motor skills. Making them the perfect choice for a pre-training snack!

NUTS & SEEDS – Another great snack which is perfect if you are not a fan of sweet food. They help maintain cognitive health and therefore optimise your ability to process new skills and form those all important mind-muscle links.

SALMON – Oily fish are high in Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) which is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid crucial to the health of your nervous system.

DARK CHOCOLATE – No, you cannot binge on chocolate and say it is good for your muscle memory but a few pieces of this food can enhance focus and stimulate endorphins. The antioxidants and stimulants (including caffeine) which are found in dark chocolate can help you make more of your skill training session and keep a positive attitude despite the difficulties of learning a new skill.

PUMPKIN SEEDS – Make the most of the seeds after you finish carving your pumpkin this Halloween! They are a great source of zinc which enhances memory and thinking skills.

Supplements

Health Aid Vitamin B+C Complex – These vitamins are involved in releasing energy and maintaining a healthy nervous system (among many other health perks) so they are a perfect choice for skill training sessions!

Inner Armour Caffeine – Keep yourself focused and alert during training sessions to optimise skill learning and form those all important mind-muscle links!

Optimum Health Memory Lane – The key ingredient of this supplement is Phosphatidylserine which is believed to aid nerve cell and memory processes. Perfect for maintaining cognitive health!

References:

Duchateau J, Semmler JG, Enoka RM, Training Adaptations in the Behaviour of Human Motor Units, Journal of Applied Physiology, 2006, 101, 1766-75.

Jensen JL, Marstrand PCD, Nielsen JB, Motor Skill Training and Strength are Associated with Different Plastic Changes in the Central Nervous System, Journal of Applied Physiology, 2005.

Ranganathan VK, Siemionowa V, Liu JZ, Sahgal V, Yue GH, From Mental Power to Muscle Power; gaining Strength by using the Mind, Neuropsychology, 2004, 42, 944-56.

About the Author

Job Role Sports Nutritionist and Social Media Coordinator Qualifications Bsc Sport and Exercise Science Steph has a competitive athletic background which spans 19 years. As a child she performed with the English Youth Ballet and had performed on the West End stage by the age of 10. Her enthusiasm for sport and fitness continued to grow as she did, encouraging her to learn more about nutrition and training. She began using her knowledge and personal experience to help others when she began coaching at the age of 16. From here, she went on to study Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Essex during which time she also received the Most Promising Newcomer Award from her University to mark her outstanding contribution to sport. During her first year of study she was introduced to partner stunt acrobatics and artistic gymnastics. After one year of dedicating herself to a lifestyle revolving around her sport, she was training with the best team in the UK who are currently ranked fifth in the world. Steph has worked in both the private and public sector coaching children and adults from grassroot to elite level as well as providing them with cutting edge advice on how to reach their goals. Steph has received awards for her choreography and has competed nationally and internationally meaning that she can back up her scientific knowledge with a wealth of experience. As our resident Sports Nutritionist, Steph is here to provide the most current and evidence based fitness, health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals.
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