Instructors in martial arts very often use the term ‘muscle memory’, but they often cannot actually explain what it means. In this article I will try to explain my views on this topic.
I will begin with some definitions for muscle memory, motor skills and subconscious reactions.
These definitions have been taken from Wikipedia.
“Muscle memory has been used synonymously with motor learning, which is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort”
We have two types of motor learning relating to Gross motor skills and Fine motor skills:
“Gross motor skills involve movement of the arms, legs, feet, or entire body. This includes actions such as running, crawling, walking, swimming, and other activities that involve larger muscles”
“Fine motor skills are the small movements that occur in the hands, wrists, fingers, feet, toes, lips and tongue. They are the smaller actions that occur such as picking up objects between the thumb and finger, using a pencil to write carefully, holding a fork and using it to eat, and other small muscle tasks that occur on a daily basis.”
“Occurring without conscious perception, or with only slight perception, on the part of the individual: said of mental processes and reaction”
As we can see from these definitions our muscles can learn or maybe it is better to say that they can synchronise with the brain to perform tasks, with maximum efficiency. This learning process increases the speed at which we can execute practiced movements, which is why when we first start to learn how to punch or kick our movements are sluggish and clumsy. With time and repetition our moves start to become quicker, stronger and more precise. These moves become more natural and we do not need to concentrate so hard on how to perform them.
All of this is due to our system of connections between the brain and muscles via a network of nerves. Our nervous system is a bit like a muscle, when put through training it gets stronger and bigger; our impulses can travel quicker as the amount of connections dedicated to each of the tasks is increased. In time our brain also learns how to recruit more muscle fibres to support a movement.
Our brain creates a plan of action which can be performed by our muscles, so we are able to perform defending or attacking combinations. When we develop muscle memory our ability to perform these tasks improved.
In the context of martial arts however there is a slight problem with muscle memory. Whilst it allows us to perform a task quickly and is good for predictable situations in martial arts every situation will be subtly different. The dynamic nature of fighting makes it difficult to know what will happen next and be able to plan a prescribed response.
That is why it is so important to develop subconscious reactions, where we do not have to choose the right move to block an attack. Our brain should be trained to switch between tasks without thinking about them. It is a kind of muscle memory for the brain to spot small signals and to choose the appropriate reaction for our muscles. A good example of this will be how we automatically protect our eyes. When an object is travelling at speed towards our eye, we do not think to close our eyelid; it happens much quicker, our hands travel up to catch the object or cover our head without thinking about it. We are usually able to think about what happened after the event has occurred. This kind of response is what we are looking for in martial arts. If we can master our response to stimuli without the involvement of conscious thought we will become better fighters. This state of mind is called ‘Mushin’, which means an empty mind in Japanese.
Combining an empty mind with muscle memory allows us to easily switch between defence and attack, deciding which technique to use in a split second.
In summary, muscle memory is a combination of brain activity synchronised with muscles via a network of nerves.
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