Is Muscle Memory Real?

There are two kinds of muscle memory, which are both real phenomena. The first, properly called procedural memory, strengthens the synaptic pathways in your brain for specific coordinated sequences of muscle movement that you perform often. This is what allows a guitar player to form the cord shapes without consciously considering the position of each finger, for example.

Use cues to support muscle memory

In strength training lingo, the same principle applies to developing the best technique and form, especially in movements that rely on many aspects for a good and effective execution, such as the three big lifts – deadlift, bench press, and squat, and even more so when perform in equipped gear. That is also where well-defined cues come in to remind and reinforce the correct posture and movement when setting up and performing the lift.

The brain stores movement patterns

There is another kind of muscle memory though. If you have previously put on muscle mass through training, then it is easier to bulk up again in the future than if you had never trained before. Muscle cells gain an extra nuclei during training and these can last for 15 years, even after the muscle fibers have shrunk back to normal size. It is as if the muscles “remember” their previous strength and find it easier to return to that level. Research published in European Journal of Applied Physiology found training increases your coordination of different muscle groups, helping you to remember muscle movement patterns, lift heavier weights and re-build strength more quickly. But how? This is not a memory of the muscle but a memory in the brain of a certain muscle movement. They’re stored in the Perkinje cells of the cerebellum, where the brain encodes information and records whether certain movements are right or wrong. The brain then gradually focuses more energy on the correct action and stores it in your long-term memory. Once it’s been stored then you need to use less of the brain to repeat it. Which is when the movement starts to feel natural. This means that it becomes easier to repeat movements with proper form without conscious thought, even after being inactive for a while.

* With acknowledgement to Simon Taylor and Very Interesting magazine; Edward Lane in Men’s Health.

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Joan Swart is a master's powerlifting enthusiast, sports nutrition student, and forensic psychologist from Paarl, Western Cape.

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