THE MIRACLE OF “MUSCLE MEMORY”
The physical body with which each of us has been blessed is a wonderfully complex piece of machinery; a finely balanced, powerful, dynamic, versatile, perfectly tuned well oiled machine; a machine we take for granted until something goes wrong. And things do go wrong for we are not all perfect. We have no control over our genetics or the imperfections we may have inherited at birth. Likewise injury, diet, and unwise lifestyle choices have taken their toll. But many of the things that go wrong with us physically are simply the result of years of repetitive bad habit. By continuous bad habit we have overwritten our own hard-drive, and our once perfect specimen of physical power and grace and beauty has fallen victim to the very inboard mechanism nature endowed to maintain us in perfectly balanced synchronicity. Muscle memory.
Muscle memory has been well researched, with dozens of medical science sports exercise studies undertaken (most especially in relation to strength training). An in depth study into muscle memory will lead us deep into the complex realms of neuroplasticity (brain plasticity), neuropsychology, synaptic transmission, activity-dependent mechanisms, and the “Law of Facilitation”.
I am by no means suggesting that one needs to know “all about” muscle memory, however I do believe that a basic understanding of muscle memory can be helpful not just for any sportsman and their coach, but is of equal importance to Ving Chun students, as I described again in my book “The Invincible Man” 2018
”... one of my personal goals in training (a goal all Wing Chun practitioners should strive for, in my opinion) is to have my body act spontaneously to a stimuli in a (particular) fashion, and the point about resistance training is that it creates a muscular response to resistance that is the opposite to the response one should be developing for Wing Chun skill. Repetition “burns” a neurological pathway, and once a track has been burned, the bodies automatic response to the resistance of force, is to take the path of least resistance. That is, follow the pathway already burned. The more times the muscle(s) not required for a specific task are triggered during the performing of that task, the harder it becomes to stop those muscle(s) from being triggered! The result of improper muscle use, or to many muscles being used, is excessive use of energy and loss of power. This is in accordance with neurological law, (regularity in natural physiological occurrences), in particular the “Law of Facilitation”. Therefore it is established that since Wing Chun should enhance the skill of moving or destroying force without muscular resistance, and that using resistance training to establish neurological pathways to trigger an incorrect automatic muscular response is detrimental to ones Wing Chun training and contrary to the aforementioned principle of “Conservation Of Energy”, then any drills that promote pushing, pulling or any type of resistance to force, should be avoided by the Wing Chun enthusiast.” Excerpt from "Wing Chun's Chi Sau Stands Up", Earle, Fight Times magazine – 2002
So, keeping it simple, at its core the concept is relatively simple to understand. Muscle memory is a natural physiological/neurological phenomenon. In this regard think of your brains neural circuitry as a hard-drive containing movement maps built up since birth that enable you to carry out all physical activities. As a baby learning to crawl, learning to feed yourself with a spoon, bending, twisting, walking, running, waving; any and all of those natural movements that as an adult you take for granted. Skills such as playing the piano, the guitar, or any instrument, or any other skill, are built upon repetitive action. Now reflexive or habitual these automatic movements are the result of the miracle known as muscle memory. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that muscle memory also plays a role in the training of animals, for example in the training of dogs and horses).
Thus it can be seen that all actions, all skills, are learned. And it is also true that some learned reflexive actions, or habits, may be inappropriate for particular purposes or in certain situations. In fact most learned actions can be improved upon. For example we may be able to sprint for 100 meters, but good feedback from a knowledgeable coach can improve our sprinting technique and take seconds of our time. To make such valuable and sustainable gains requires us to undertake hours of repetitive practice with an intense focus on quality of movement to overwrite the movement maps previously stored in our hard-drive and establish new neurological pathways.
Quality of Movement
Each sport has unique characteristics, thus to develop muscle memory that will best benefit us our training should focus on the movements and muscular responses that best simulate the requirements of our particular sport. For example, one-dimensional sports such as sprinting require very little agility because the participants focus solely on acceleration and linear speed while sports such as tennis and basketball require rapid acceleration, deceleration, and split second changes in direction. Thus ones training should utilize repetitive drills that support their unique activity by building muscle memory that will not only enhance their ability but also protect against injury. However it’s not just about quantity of repetition but quality of movement. Not just to improve ones movement but to develop new patterns of movement. New ideas. Which brings me to the practice of Ving Chun and its foundation, Siu Nim Tau.
A New Idea
Siu Nim Tau. Little Idea. It is generally accepted that there are three movements that form the nucleus of the Ving Chun system; bong sau, tahn sau, and fuk sau. These three movements may feel strange to you but they shouldn’t, for unless you have a joint mobility issue, a physical disability, or an injury, you should be able to perform these movements effortlessly. They are based on simple movements, natural human body movements. Movements that you probably do numerous times throughout your day without giving them a second thought. Movements that through repetitive training you might upgrade for Ving Chun purposes by establishing new neurological superhighways, essentially creating “new” movements.
What does this mean in relation to muscle memory? Consider muscle memory as meaning that we begin with a new idea, an idea to adapt or improve a movement so that it is better suited for another task. Perhaps even an entirely new movement. And as we continuously repeat the movement the new idea grows smaller and smaller until eventually it dissolves from the physical or conscious external realm, into the internal realm I refer to as superconscious mind.
Meanwhile, the nervous system has established neural connections that enable improved function wherein the practiced movement has become dominant; it is now the new default or “go to” movement. Physiologically it may not be a new movement at all, it may simply be a new way of doing an old movement; a way better suited to a new task. Refined and fit for purpose, it is now more effective, more efficient, as information travels faster along the new superhighway.
Mind Body Balance
I have heard it said that “muscle memory always overrides your own intention”, however this is not true, cannot be true, certainly not if one has developed the new idea to the point of achieving mind body balance. Further, it cannot be true since intention and muscle memory are two separate, yet equally essential parts of the whole. Intent is not physical, it is idea. Only when acted upon is idea manifested in physical action. Muscle memory is physical, yet not visible. It provides the pathway, the superhighway. for the idea, the two working in harmony. It is the result which is visible.
Thus one might think of intent, as being about desire to achieve an outcome, while muscle memory is about efficiency in achieving the desired outcome. Therefore training muscle memory will not override your intention, but will enable, enhance, facilitate your mental intent and physical movement (your response), in the fastest, most efficient, and most effective manner.
Recommended reading “The Invincible Man”, Volume 1, Notes 9 through 12.