As an Olympic athlete, my coaches used to talk a lot about ‘building muscle memory’.
Now as a doctor of physical therapy at PhysioPoint Therapy in Crown Point, many patients of all ages ask me about similar concepts in order to improve or return to high school sports, golfing or other hobbies. The term muscle memory is kind of 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 a large numbers of 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 do 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!
Just 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 a number of ways.
For example, if you have a painful shoulder every time you lift your arm 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 are building 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. If you have any other questions, contact Doctor of Physical Therapy and 2x Olympic Wrestler Matt Gentry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author:
Dr. Matt Gentry grew up in Oregon and attended StanfordUniversity on a wrestling scholarship, where he received a degree in human biology.
After graduation, Matt coached Division I wrestling at his alma mater while also competing internationally on the Canadian national team which culminated in representing Canada at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games.
After retiring from competition following a fifth place finish in the London Olympics, he and and his wife relocated to the Midwest where he received his doctoral degree in physical therapy from Governor State University.
Dr. Matt has an interest in serving clients with sports performance needs, orthopedic conditions, and pediatric clients with neurological conditions. He now resides in Manteno Illinois with his wife and three small children.