Sunday, October 24, 2010

No Muscle Memory!

In this week's installment of's blog, I want to take a minute to discuss one of my pet peeves. Recently it seems that I have heard quite a few professionals discuss the concept of "muscle memory". While I understand the concept, as exercise science professionals we should know better. There is no such thing as "muscle memory"! Muscles do not have memory control centers. The actions of our muscle tissue are controlled by conscious and subconscious brain functions.

Sports performance skills such as running, throwing, striking, catching, jumping, landing, and stop and turn activities require coordinated muscle recruitments of multiple joints and planes of movement. During the developmental period of infancy, we learn how to recruit various muscle groups in order to stabilize and balance our bodies (raise the head -> rollover -> sit up -> stand). As we continue to grow and mature, we learn basic loco motor skills such as scooting, crawling, and walking. Still later in our development, we progress to more fundamental movements such as traveling skills (climbing, galloping, jumping, running), object controls skills (kicking, throwing, striking), and balance movements (dodging, rolling). All the while, the brain is programming and saving these movement patterns for future use. With practice the patterns are fine-tuned and enhanced.

The Central Nervous System (CNS) is not programmed for isolated muscle function. When a motor task is necessary, the CNS recalls the pre-programmed patterns of movement that were learned during our developmental years. During sports activities, the body has to compensate for the pre-programmed movement patterns and react to gravity, momentum, and ground reaction forces. This pattern of muscle activation and movement programming has also been seen in recent visualization research.

Rather than referring to this process as "muscle memory", which by definition is not possible, I like to use the phrase "subconscious memory". Subconscious memory more accurately reflects the motor responses.

David Yeager, ATC, CSCS

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