As an Olympic athlete, my coaches used to talk a lot about ‘building muscle memory.’
As a doctor of physical therapy at PhysioPoint Therapy in Crown Point, many patients of all ages ask me about similar concepts to improve or return to high school sports, golf, or other hobbies. The term muscle memory is a misnomer- after all, there isn’t a mini-brain inside every muscle!
SO WHAT DOES MUSCLE MEMORY REALLY MEAN?
Muscle memory relates to coordinating movement. For example, asking your body to swing a golf club requires the muscles throughout your body to contract in a coordinated fashion. How does this happen? Your muscles contract due to your brain and nervous system telling them to.
For complex movements, that requires your brain to get the exact sequence and strength of contraction for many muscles. Even a little bit off, and you end up with a slice.
BASICALLY, MUSCLE MEMORY IS THE BRAIN AND NERVOUS SYSTEM’S ABILITY TO FIRE MUSCLES BETTER.
The more you make a particular motion, the better your brain gets at communicating with the muscles. This process of building muscle memory is called neuroplasticity– the brain actually changes!
Think of when you learn a new skill. At first, it takes time and a lot of conscious thought, and the movements might seem jerky or uncoordinated. Your brain is receiving feedback from all those movements and fine-tuning the motion. As you do the movement more, it takes less thought, and you can do the movement faster and smoother.
BESIDES JUST SPORTS, THIS CONCEPT OF MUSCLE MEMORY RELATES TO PHYSICAL THERAPY IN Several WAYS.
For example, if you have a painful shoulder every time you lift your arms overhead, your body might compensate to avoid pain by doing a shoulder shrug. The body is very good at figuring out ways to move in a pain-free manner. If you do this long enough, it becomes a habit even though it is a dysfunctional movement that eventually leads to other problems.
MANY PEOPLE HAVE HEARD THAT ‘PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT,’ BUT MY OLYMPIC COACHES USED TO PREACH “PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.”
This is because the brain doesn’t care what the movement is; it will help build muscle memory for that movement. A golf swing has a huge variability in movement patterns, and you can actually reinforce bad muscle memory. If you can go to the driving range and slice it every time, you build muscle memory for that particular (bad) movement. Luckily, the fact that the brain can change in one direction means that it can also change in the other.
Hopefully, being intentional about your movements will help you in your sport or hobby.