I had another interesting discussion today with my students. The topic was the term "muscle memory". I want to share my thoughts on the topic with all of you. The most important thing you need to know is that muscle fibers have "no memory". If you pull out a muscle fiber and apply an electrical stimulus to it, you will see it contract. When you remove the electrical stimulus, it will relax. You can do this ten times, a hundred times, even a thousand times and every time it will do the same thing. That's all a muscle fiber does. There is nothing to memorize.
Learning requires a permanent change in the long-term memory of a motor program (i.e, the pattern and intensity of electrical signals to the muscles that create the movement). Motor programs are stored in long-term memory (LTM) and LTM is part of the brain. The problem is this: I hear people use the term "muscle memory" when they are talking about learning a motor program. This unfortunately leads to incorrect ideas about how we learn to perform movements. People believe all you need to do is move the body a few hundred times and the muscles will remember what to do. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Click on "read more" for an explanation of how movements are actually learned.
Learning a movement pattern requires the brain to be actively involved during the learning process. When the brain is involved it actively identifies relevant internal and external sensory information. Then, the brain selects the appropriate motor program from long-term memory for the desired movement. Once the motor program is selected, it is modified in short-term memory by taking into account the relevant internal and external sensory information. The brain then uses the motor program to send electrical signals down the spinal column and out the peripheral nervous system to muscles. This is when the muscles contract and movement occurs.
Learning occurs when you "deliberately practice" the entire process with the intent to improve the motor program. Deliberate practice increases the likelihood that a permanent change in the motor program occurs. This change is stored in long-term memory. It is not stored in any muscles.
Good teachers, coaches, instructors, and rehabilitation specialists must develop instructional activities that help the learner perform deliberate practice. We call these these specialized instructional activities "learning experiences".