What happens when you repeat a pattern over a span of time, be it a movement or even a thought? Does that pattern become a habit or does it eventually become unconscious? Let’s take a look at what muscle memory is, how it develops, and how personal trainers can help clients understand and build it.
By definition, muscle memory is the ability to repeat a specific muscular movement with improved efficiency and accuracy that is acquired through practice and repetition. When you are with your client in the beginning phases of their programming, you may find they are a little shaky at first, this may go double if they are beginners and have not been exposed to moving a weight in any given motion on a regular basis.
Where do you come in and start the process of building muscle memory for your client? How long does it take for this memory to develop? Perhaps most importantly, is it in the brain or is it in the muscle? Let’s dive in!
How Muscle Memory Works
Because muscle memory happens by repetition, starting your client with stabilizing movements would be ideal. Creating a strong foundation to prepare for greater challenges is key to progression. You may start your client off with a single-leg squat, a great movement to use in the beginning phase of your programming. This movement is used in many initial fitness assessments and for good reason: the pattern of the hip hinge coupled with balancing are used during later phases of your clients’ programming.
While having your client perform this motion, as they progress, you can have them hold an object to create more of a challenge, move the upper body at different angles or even toss a ball to them after the squat portion. Whatever you choose, the single-leg squat is a great starting point.
Developing muscle memory may be quicker for some than others. Some clients will develop it within a few training sessions, others may take weeks. Much depends on where they are when they begin. Individual muscle fibers may influence one’s capacity for quicker learning. Since no one person is the same as another, you will determine the amount of time you spend on one pattern as you go. Should you use a single leg squat as your preferred motion, you will know each time if they are catching on and whether to progress your client or keep practicing.
A few things to note would be:
-As they hip hinge, does their lumbar spine extend or remain neutral? Do you need to go back and reinforce this pattern?
-Are they losing balance as they move into the squat position?
-Are their ankles too stiff? Perhaps flexibility and mobility need to be readdressed.
-Are they fatiguing quickly? Maybe they have the motion down pat, but need more muscular endurance.
Wherever your client begins, assure them that consistency and repetition will get them where they need to be if they continue to practice. However, if they can accomplish the above, it’s time to add on the challenge!
Is Muscle Memory in the Mind or Body?
In the past decade, we’ve heard more and more about how important the mind-body connection is for becoming a “fitter” person. When reading a textbook to digest information that you will be tested on, you must consciously read and comprehend the information in order to retain the content. If you aren’t paying attention to what you are reading, all you are doing is looking at the words.
The same goes for weight training. You must focus on the pattern, make mental notes on how it feels, and be aware of key positions so you are doing it correctly and efficiently. The synergy of your mind focused on your body with your body learning the movement, will cause that movement to become second nature over time. Muscle memory is born.
Teaching your clients the importance of this connection at the onset of their programming will benefit you both. Not only will they be more focused, but they will also quickly see and feel progress when they apply this technique, and your job will be that much easier.
The more knowledge you arm your clients with, the greater success they are likely to have. Educate them on the concept of muscle memory, why repetition is fundamental to growth, and explain to them why they are repeating patterns. Once they program those muscles, it’s in there for the long haul!