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Good Muscle Memories

What did you do this morning? Maybe you buttoned your shirt and tied yours shoes while getting dressed. Perhaps you walked the dog. After scrambling eggs or flipping pancakes for breakfast, you probably brushed your teeth. Although you may not have realized it at the time, your muscle memory has been busy from the moment you woke up.

Muscle memory (also called motor learning) is a type of procedural learning wherein an action is repeated until the movements required for it can be performed with little conscious effort or attention. Despite its name, muscle memory doesn’t reside in the muscles themselves, but rather in the complex neural pathways that are formed in our brains when the task is learned. The more the task is repeated, the more well-formed and efficient that pathway becomes.

Muscle memory is one of the body’s many hidden blessings. Imagine for a moment what life would be like if you had to re-learn an action every time you performed it. For a small taste, try doing everything with your non-dominant hand and see how long you last (unless you’re one of the very rare, truly ambidextrous people, you’ll probably get frustrated pretty quickly). Walking, driving, typing, writing, and countless others – we perform these tasks in the “background” of our minds. We may think about WHERE we’re walking, but most of us don’t have to concentrate on HOW to walk. In these instances, muscle memory is very subtle.

Other times muscle memory is really obvious. You know it when you see it – the seasoned golfer with the smooth, easy swing, or the experienced cook who can produce perfectly minced garlic in the blink of an eye. Whether they’re serving a volleyball or playing piano, these people have performed this task so many times, they’ve become an expert at it.

Unfortunately, there’s also a flip side. Muscle memory can be a bad thing when you’ve performed an incorrect action so many times that it becomes ingrained. I see this a lot in my work as a physical therapist. Some people have adopted chronically bad posture for so long that they have to concentrate nearly every second just to stand or sit up straight. Their muscles have become experts at “remembering” bad posture. Other times it’s a person who has allowed a knee or hip problem to completely alter the way they walk, and I have to help them re-learn how to move without a limp. Often I see people who have just learned to be tense all the time, and they suffer headaches as a result. I can coach them how to relax their muscles, but because being tense has become second nature to them, they must consciously make that effort to relax.

You’ve heard that only perfect practice makes perfect, and when it comes to muscle memory, that’s very true. Focus on making good muscle memories, and if you need help breaking bad ones, come visit us. The longer your muscles “remember” the wrong way of doing things, the more ingrained your muscle memory will become. Keep moving, my friends!

– Alan

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