Is Muscle Memory a Real Thing?

I slid into home on a close play.

It was a few weeks back during a recreational kickball game, and because I essentially slid with 100% effort (while wearing shorts and sneakers) trying to avoid getting pegged with the ball, I scraped up my legs, arm, stomach, and hand.

All of my teammates starting laughing at me, saying “Steve, it’s just a kickball game! Why did you slide!?”

As I looked at my bruised and battered body, I couldn’t help but laugh.  It just…happened, just like it has happened a few other times this season during minor plays. No matter how hard I try to just have fun and not care about kickball, 10 years of Little League must have worn special pathways into my brain to force me to think “CLOSE PLAY! SLIDE! SACRIFICE YOURSELF!”

It’s something I have done SO many times in my life that it has honestly become part of my DNA.

I think of other instances too in which my brain reverted back to its automatic decision making processes:

  • Riding a bike!  It’s something I could do now even if I took 10 years off.
  • I remember spending hours learning Orchid’s 80-hit combo in Killer Instinct so that I could pull it off automatically in the arcade and destroy the competition.
  • When I shoot a foul shot in basketball, it’s always one spin, two bounces, then spin it in my hands, then shoot (usually a miss, as I’m not very good. ha!)
  • I can play certain songs on the piano with my eyes closed, but if I miss a note or have to start halfway through the song, it’s almost impossible for me to play it right.

As I was sitting there on the bench, looking at my bloody limbs, laughing at myself for not being able to turn off the switch, I thought about this concept of “muscle memory” and “automatic response,” and if we could apply them to making us healthier.

The answer, of course, is: “Yeah. DUH.”

What is muscle memory?

Muscle Memory

Muscle memory is the act of completing a particular physical or mental task with such repetition that your body then learns to complete the task more efficiently, using less brain power.

Your muscles don’t actually have brains, but rather your brains have learned to quickly call upon these quick procedure lists to get certain tasks done as quickly and efficiently as possible.  The more often you complete these tasks, the less “processing power” your brain needs to complete the task, the more automatic it becomes. Think of it sort of like a cache.

Think about the first time you played any video game. You were epically clumsy at first, having to learn how the controls work. You had to learn how to :

  • Look left and right
  • Pick up your gun/sword
  • Jump and roll
  • Move, strafe, and dodge enemies
  • Attack, defend, cast spells

Then, after just a few hours of gameplay, your muscle memory starts to develop. After a few days or weeks, these things seem effortless:

  • Defeat a boss by thoughtlessly connecting a combo of rolling, attacking, defending, and spell casting.
  • Make it through the dungeon by taking on hordes of enemies, using items and strafing effortlessly.

Muscle memory isn’t just for video games. It helps us with all sorts of stuff: driving, catching baseballs, cutting vegetables, playing musical instruments…things that require plenty of thought, movement, and focus.

When it comes to getting healthy in real life, this concept of an “automatic response” is absolutely key for a healthy life.

Unfortunately, it can adverse effects as well:

  • If you spend months and months learning to squat improperly, it’s VERY difficult to get yourself to break those bad ‘habits’ and reteach yourself to squat the right way.
  • If you learn to play a song incorrectly (or any other activity), you are teaching your body “this is the right way to do this,” even if it’s the wrong way!
  • When you get busy at work, if your brain immediately and instinctively deals with stress by requiring candy and a soda, your brain has been trained to say: “this is my most efficient path to happy.”

Although we’re really talking about habit-building here when it comes to our life, thinking of it in terms of muscle memory can help us understand how why we’ve failed in the past and how to break through those barriers.

Muscle Memory in Life

drive thru

A few weeks back, a friend had his life turned upside-down.

“Steve, I’m trying to be healthy, but I hadn’t built up enough of a “muscle memory” for healthy living during the slow months. Now that things are crazy, I’m reverting back to my normal unhealthy behavior.”

For him, his “default” was two foot long subs from subway and ice cream.  This was how his body learned to cope with stress.

For NF Team Member Staci, her OLD way of dealing with stress was an entire box of Kraft Mac N’ Cheese.  Now, because she’s spent years developing her “muscle memory,” she deals with stress and chaos with going to the gym.

We are creatures of habit.  The things that we do on a daily basis, the way we walk, the way we talk, the way we sleep (or not sleep), the things that make us happy or sad, are all results of hundreds and hundreds of repetitions of these activities.

When we try to build NEW habits, forge new pathways in our brain, it’s a lot of freaking work.

For example, instead of hitting up the Drive-Thru at McDonalds, we have to remember to:

  • Go to the grocery store
  • Pick out the right vegetables and chicken
  • Drive home, prepare the vegetables
  • Cook the chicken
  • Set the table
  • Eat

If you don’t have those habits ingrained, just reading that list must have felt exhausting.

Here’s another example: instead sitting at home watching TV, we decide we want to learn to squat:

  • Step under the bar properly
  • Pinch shoulder blades back and rest the bar properly across back
  • Remember to squat deep
  • Knees lined up with toes
  • Explode back up with proper form

Phew!  In both instances, there are a LOT of changes and a lot of things happening – I got tired just typing those lists out.

The automatic stuff (McDonald’s, watching tv) comes easy. We’ve always done them and they require little effort. They may even feel like second nature. The second part is new and requires a tremendous amount of work. And let’s face it: there can be some roadblocks the first few times around.

I remember sucking the first time I tried to cook a grown up meal, and I remember being absolutely terrible at squats.

Now?  It’s second nature.  Going to the gym and doing a deep squat is part of my DNA, just like sliding into home.  If I need to whip up a healthy meal, I can do so in a matter of minutes and it’s delicious!  It just took practice, lots and lots of practice.

But now it’s like brushing my teeth.

The good news is, now that I’ve set these “healthy options” to be my automatic default…when things get hectic or crazy or life changes, I automatically fall back on these habits, which keep me afloat.

I remember when traveling around the world, exercise became my “Constant” (thanks for the analogy, Lost!).

So, how do we build our life muscle memory and give us HEALTHY habits to fall back on?

How do we make healthy our constant when everything else falls apart?

How to Build muscle Memory in Life

soccer practice

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliershe discusses the concept of mastery: in his research, he found that most experts had spent at least 10,000 hours to master their craft.

The important part of that equation: it’s not JUST 10,000 hours of practice, but 10,000 hours of GOOD practice:

  • Playing the same crappy song with poor form on violin over and over for 10,000 hours means you’re going to be REALLLLLY good at playing the violin poorly.
  • Compare that to actively working on your technique, having a coach or teacher critique you, and focusing on improving all aspects of playing.

In order for us to build this “muscle memory” in our life, we don’t need to spend anywhere near 10,000 hours of practice living healthy, but we do need to practice. Without actually regularly doing the activity (practicing), you will never feel like your new healthy activity is second nature.

In order to do that, you need to:

  • Pick ONE or TWO new automatic-habits you’d like to create, no more!
  • Make it easy to complete the new activity. Minimize the steps between you and this new life habit you’re looking to build. Find ways for you to complete the new activity using mimnimal willpower.

Let’s give you some examples for those four things:

1) Pick one or two new memories:  Instead of completely switching your workout from machines and treadmills to barbell movements (which can be very overwhelming), just swap out ONE movement.  Instead of the leg press, learn to squat.  And then in three weeks, once you feel good about squatting, you can add in the overhead press.

I recently took up the violin and wanted to start playing more (so I can suck less), so I bought a cheap $10 violin stand to set it up next to my desk, improving my batcave.  Instead of having to take it out of the case, tune it, set it up, and then play…I can pick it up quickly and play for five minutes at a time when I need a break from writing…like right now!

Okay I’m back 🙂

We have finite amounts of willpower, and if we try to start too many things at once, we can overload our circuits and fail.  Better to get one new thing down (like brushing your teeth), and then move on to the next thing.

2) Minimize steps for the new activity: If you are trying to become a healthy cook, there are a lot of steps involved.  As Tim Ferriss points out in the Four Hour Chef, minimize the steps between you and your new cooking habit: buy pre-cut vegetables, use paper plates and plastic knives and forks (no dishes!), and so on.  When I was learning to cook/like vegetables, I picked ONE veggie (asparagus) and focused on cooking that right. Only then did I move on to my next vegetable.

Want to become a runner each morning? Sleep in your running clothes, put your alarm across the room, and put your running shoes next to the alarm.  You’re already halfway there, might

3) Remove the need to REMEMBER what you need to do: I renamed the alarm on my phone “MEDITATE SUCKA,” so when it wakes me up in the morning, my phone reminds me to meditate for 2 minutes (thank you Calm.com)

Surround your apartment with mental cues.  I wanted to make working on handstands an automatic habits for me, a part of my DNA.  So, now after I wake up, I have to walk past a section of my wall with a simple post-it note on it that says “HANDSTANDS.” It’s a simple mental cue that tells me what to do without having to remember myself.

4) Remove the need for willpower: I mentioned willpower before.  We all know we need to eat better and exercise more, but we oftentimes don’t do it.  So when we’re looking to rewire our DNA and second nature, we need to be strategic.

If you are always tired after work and skipping your workouts, why not exercise in the morning, before the work day mentally wears you down?

If you struggle with unhealthy eating during times of stress, perform “the purge,” and remove all junk food from your house. It’s a lot tougher to eat poorly when you need to drive 10 minutes to go get it.

If you struggle with stopping at fast food on the way home (from another fast food restaurant), alter your work path. Like a pavlovian response, certain cues and sensory changes can be a HUGE help. So change it up!  Drive home a different way, or walk home down a different street.  Break the cycle.

The point with all of the above is like practice – you are training your body/brain as a whole to build automatic healthy habits: the automatic “default” that you’ll fall back on when the sh** hits the fan and life gets busy.

IMPORTANT: Momentum is a powerful thing. If you can’t follow through on all of your healthy habits when life gets crazy, pick one or two that you CAN and stick with those.  Tread water, and “just keep swimming” for as long as you need to, so that you don’t need to start back at square one when you get going again.

Let’s Play Memory!

Memory game

We humans are incredible pieces of technology.

Not only are we capable of great things, but we’re capable of rewiring our own brains and muscles.  It just takes practice.  A lot of practice. A lot of high-quality practice.  And the best way to do that is to focus on high quality practice for ONE new activity you want to build into your system.

There will come a time in your life when things will get hectic (you might already be there).  By focusing on those healthy life muscle memory patterns TODAY, you are setting yourself up to succeed when life throws you a curveball.

I have a hunch that no matter how often I tell myself to not slide in kickball, if it’s a close play I will automatically sacrifice myself to get the run.  I can’t help it – like a cheetah chasing a gazelle, it’s just hardwired to my DNA now.

I want to hear from you:

What’s one new activity you want to establish, and what tactics are you going to use to ensure you succeed?

Change your DNA, change your habits, change your fate.

-Steve

PS: One last reminder that Early Bird pricing for Camp Nerd Fitness (“We hold you in our hearts…”) ends tomorrow, Friday, at Midnight!  Join us at the biggest event in NF history – see you there 🙂

###

photo source: Chapendra: xbox, Kelis: original-memory, Vivid Lime: Drive-Thru, Brian Littmann: Soccer, Rich Brooks: Memory Cards

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  • Anaticula

    My new habit is meets with a couple of the points you made. I decided to learn to swim, so first thing when I wake up I head to the gym pool. By going there at 5am before I have time to even think about anything else it keeps me from finding reasons to not go. Also, I hired a trainer to teach me to swim so that I’ll be swimming correctly instead of reinforcing bad habits or learning to do it wrong.

  • peggysr

    I just want to nitpick on one tiny thing. You can’t rewire DNA; it’s
    the nature half of the nature vs nurture equation. This is a terrific
    post, and I’m inspired by it, but I’m rewiring my learned responses, not
    the DNA I was born with, which can’t be changed.

  • zlycher

    This post couples really well with Steve’s famous “Optimus Prime” post. I personally like to set my goals in 7-10 week blocks. Every 7-10 weeks I evaluate my previous batch of goals and assign new ones. Now some of this stuff can be big, but many goals I set are “muscle memory” in nature. After a few weeks I just do it naturally!

  • http://ladyknightintraining.tumblr.com Morgan Lavandowska

    Wow this is exactly what I needed. I’ve been working on discipline and had the idea to start months where I focused on one thing at a time. Next month was going to be fitness but maybe instead I’ll switch it to biweekly and one new healthy habit to focus on, so making it more of a SMART goal than a general one. Great article.

  • NicTheRugger

    “MEDITATE SUCKA.” I couldn’t help but laugh at that one. One (non-fitness) habit I want to develop is writing daily. Whether it’s a short story, a journal entry, or two pages of a book. I’m going to make a post-it-note and stick it on my journal saying “Did you write today?” Or something like that. Yay habit changing!

  • Brandy Oliver

    Great timing for this post. I have recently been thinking about muscle memory & habits. About 15 years ago, I was a tournament archer. Due to location & living arrangements, I gave it up. Just a couple weeks ago, I got my bow out & ready to shoot. I wondered how awful I would be. Third shot was dead on, after 15 years!
    So, that sort of prompted me to realize how consistency and routine could really help me long term & to analyze what’s going on right now.
    I had gotten into the routine of running and working out after work every day. I’ve been injured for a while and I’ve lost that routine. Now that I’m hopefully on the road to recovery, (still can’t run though & that’s my main stress relief!), I’m going to challenge myself to get back in that routine. I can start by doing my physical therapy at home exercises right after work.
    I’ve been reading different things on muscle memory & trained responses, so it was cool to get your take on it, all nerded out & relateable for me! 🙂

  • csar

    Not suggesting that “muscle memory” is actually a genetic modification, but you CAN “rewire” your DNA, i.e. activate or deactivate some genes. Look up epigenetics, it’s a very fascinating field of research 🙂

  • Amber @ Busy, Bold, Blessed

    Whenever I want to go to the gym in the morning, I know that I have to pack my bag, put together my lunch, and everything has to be ready to roll, so when I get up I can get ready in 5 minutes. And then I’m less likely to blow it off, because I don’t want to waste the time I already spent prepping.

    My alarm should say “DON’T YOU DARE HIT THAT SNOOZE BUTTON SUCKA” …next thing I should work on for sure!

  • edrych

    I’ve got “Get Out of Bed Mutha F***a” haha I laughed when I saw that too

  • Amy

    My diet has been really out of control lately so this will definitely be my focus. I am going to try and eat one smoothy and one large green salad every day. I’m gonna focus on fruits and veggies that I actually really love such as watermelon, cucumbers, grapes, tomatoes. My problem is losing focus after a few days, I either get bored or completely forget.

  • Largirl

    I admit, when I saw the advice on how to start running I just smiled because that’s exactly what I’ve been struggling with. I’m definitely doing that. Thanks Steve!

  • Adrian Smith

    I like this. I’m going to develop two habits: fasted workouts (working out is already a habit), and daily meditation. The first one should be pretty easy to accomplish if I put a reminder on the refrigerator door; no breakfast unless I’m sweating for it. The second one can probably be accomplished with a recurring alarm on my phone. Easy peasy.

  • saraphinaonwheels

    One habit I have worked on has been shopping ‘the ring’ at the store. If you shop within the ring, you are getting junk food, the same corn/soy/oil/sugar based instant-open-a-bag crap in every row. When I shop the outside, I get the fresh, must-be-cooked items that are healthy. Also, it’s easy for me to say, “I’m too busy.” Duh, three kids, wife, dogs, and livestock, we are all busy. But I have a written goal of one hour a day of ‘art’. I don’t care what project I chose, spinning yarn, making jewelry, reading poetry, weaving, it just matters that it is art. I have to say, it feels great to tell my husband that I did my workout, kept the house going, and even created a little beauty that day! I know the feeling of pride makes me want to do it again!

  • Petar

    I’ve got something to add about point 4 on willpower. Avoiding temptation by changing routes, for example, is good. But it’s not, as Steve would say, anti-fragile. You’ll be confronted with an easy choice at some point. You’ve got to steel your resolve for that, develop the willpower to say no instead of just avoiding.

    I read a study a while back about people trying to give up smoking. There was a control group and a group which did unrelated exercises each day for two weeks before attempting to give up (those exercises were small activities they wouldn’t normally do, but nor were they tough – meditate for two minutes, squeeze a stress ball 100 times etc etc). The second group had more success giving up as they had more willpower to resist smoking. By constantly forcing themselves to complete a small task, they built up more willpower for breaking the tougher habits.

    So if you find yourself failing and taking the easy choice, start changing something smaller and less mentally draining. Im going to start by writing my progress in a notebook after each work-out. A few weeks of that, then I’ll try cooking a healthy evening meal every other night (I’m really lazy concerning cooking).

  • Amandapants

    I’d really like to start getting up BEFORE my kids wake me up, so I can have time to at least warm up my body and get the morning stiffness out. To do this I need to do two things: go to bed earlier, and actually get up when my alarm goes off. I’ll start with going to bed earlier since that’s easier than getting up earlier haha. Here goes!

  • Sparky

    So I’ve been lurking on this site for around six months now, and this particular article set off a trigger for me. I’m aspiring to be a Liscensed Massage Therapist and I’ve been taught about muscle memoury, so this subject is something I’m already familiar with, though I’m going to go ahead and talk about my experiences rather than what I’ve learned, so here goes;

    I’ve been battling depression for effectively 20 years now (and I’m only 27) and over the last few years I’ve been learning ways to love myself. I’m currently helping a long-time friend fight with her depression issues and I introduced this article to her (she’s one of my Jedi Council members and has been supporting my nerdy fitness endevours since my journey as a rebel began) and I felt the desire to share this with the community. Though tis doesnt exactly partaint to getting fit,what I’ve come to do on a regular occurance over the past year (on my journey to hating myself less) is to kiss my body and thank it every time I’m in the shower. Now I’m using my knowledge and this article to encourage my friend to post a note on HER mirror to hug herself every time she sees herself! So thanks Steve and everyone at NerFit (that’s what I call it, because it’s “NerFit or Nothing!”) for the support and advice 🙂

  • http://www.strengthstandards.co strength standards

    21 days to crate a new habit right? The most important thing is starting, as you go on it drives deep into the brain. Just like learning how to play an instrument. When I started to learn guitar it took me months to play the basic chords fluently. Same goes to everything in life.

  • Goran Dimic

    Muscle memory is also very important in martial arts! I practice wing chun kung fu, and there is actually an old term called, loosely translated, “hand brain” or “hands memory” – through continuous practice and training, one starts to develop muscle memory which allows body to react quick and naturally, before eyes and brain start to rationalize the movements happening. As Bruce Lee said: “I do not fear the man who did 10 000 techniques once, a formidable opponent is the one who did 1 technique 10 000 times.”

  • Sparky

    So I’ve been lurking on this site for around six months now, and this particular article set off a trigger for me. I’m aspiring to be a Liscensed Massage Therapist and I’ve been taught about muscle memoury, so this subject is something I’m already familiar with, though I’m going to go ahead and talk about my experiences rather than what I’ve learned, so here goes;

    I’ve been battling depression for effectively 20 years now (and I’m only 27) and over the last few years I’ve been learning ways to love myself. I’m currently helping a long-time friend fight with her depression issues and I introduced this article to her (she’s one of my Jedi Council members and has been supporting my nerdy fitness endevours since my journey as a rebel began) and I felt the desire to share this with the community. Though tis doesnt exactly pertain to getting fit, it does involve leveling up my life. what I’ve come to do on a regular occurance over the past year (on my journey to hating myself less) is to kiss my body and thank it every time I’m in the shower. Now I’m using my knowledge and this article to encourage my friend to post a note on HER mirror to hug herself every time she sees herself! So thanks Steve and everyone at NerFit (that’s what I call it, z  
    because it’s “NerFit or Nothing!”) for the support and advice 🙂

  • http://beahealthygeek.com/ Mike Sweetman

    I’m always diving for balls during family baseball games…I know how you feel!

    I also enjoy building healthy habits each month by challenging myself to improve my fitness or nutrition. The idea is each month I’m taking a small step toward my healthy lifestyle change as you suggest!

    Thanks for the awesome tips to help me on my journey…but I’m really hoping you don’t play that horrible memory board game in your free time, I’d suggest Fantasy Flights Star Wars X-Wing game…lots to remember in that game! 🙂

    Another great post! Thanks…

  • http://www.flecksoflex.com/ Lex

    What a great post! I want to get myself up early in the morning to work out. Waking up early has always been a struggle!

  • Jeremy

    actually, look up epigenetics, the study of changes in gene expression and methylation. No change in the specific nucleotides, but gene expression can affect DNA for generations! So in that sense you really can rewire DNA. It’s pretty cool stuff!

  • http://KrakenBarbell.com Nate

    Muscle memory is no joke! Fortunately, if you do the 10,000hrs of good practice you get better. Unfortunately, if you do 10,000hrs of bad practice (or no-practice) you get worse. Generally, It’s easier to rack up 10,000hrs of no practice. It’s crazy to see how as toddlers we could all squat down just fine then life happens. you turn 20,30, 40 or whatever age you start working out again and lookie here, I don’t know how to squat anymore!

    -Nate from KrakenBarbell.com

  • KatSings

    I love your articles!!! Here’s my problem. I have great self discipline. I’ve been working out every morning early for 10 years. Very good form and muscle memory. but I have two herniated discs in my neck and there are certain things, especially with weight and resistance training that I can not do unless I want to end up having surgery i.e. push ups, pull ups, any lifting weight above my head,etc. And believe me, every so often I push the envelope and go for it wth push ups and overhead tricep kickbacks. Tried ond of your beginner circuit workouts just recently with simple easy stuff, but threw my neck out and it put me down for 3 weeks.
    I’m almost 49. I’m 5’4″ 127 lbs. I’m a very clean eater. I want to be back at 115 but could live with 120 if I could reduce my body fat (so much harder as I get older, specially with all these workout limitations). I know for a fact from past experience that interval running is very effective for me. But I’m having trouble getting started, as the last few times I’ve tried I’ve gotten horrible shin splints. I’ve gone so far as to get expert advice on proper footwear. Unfortunately I still got shin splints last time I tried. I’m warming up first, wrapping my shins in ace bandages for warmth, and icing afterwards, no dice! Any suggestions on how I can get started and push through even if I do get the shin splints?
    Thanks from a huge NerdFitness fan!!
    Kat

  • Bob Dobbins

    My attention span was not that great. I thought this was going to be about how out of sync I feel when I run after I bike a lot. But it looked like an impressive article. Keep up the good work.

  • turanjr

    Good story, thank you

    Best paleo recipe

  • Ludwig

    Is your article based upon a scientific artikel which I can find?