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The Lies of “Muscle Memory” and “Muscle Confusion”

Posted by Dr. Noah Dean on

Unless you’ve spent your entire life encapsulated in a South Pole glacier chances are you’ve heard the terms “muscle memory” and/or “muscle confusion”. From fanatical football coaches to passionate ping-pongers the words have saturated sports complexes, training rooms and even golf courses. However, neither term accurately describes any phenomenon that transpires in the human body.

In other words, neither “muscle memory” nor “muscle confusion” occurs.

(Enter look of disbelief here)

I remember the first time I was told such a bold contradiction to what I knew about sport. In an effort to impress my academic advisor I had tried to correlate implicit memory with muscle memory – and I’ll never forget his reaction. With a half-cocked smile he muttered “muscle memory doesn’t exist”.

Had he been anyone else in the world I would have just rolled my eyes and walked away. But this was not just anyone. Although I was new to Texas A&M University I was not new to THE Dr. Charles Shea. An absolute juggernaut in the world of Motor Neuroscience, Dr. Shea had published more articles, given more academic presentations and served as a leader in more societies than I had sweat glands. This man was a giant… and by default, someone whom I would be a fool to doubt.

“Really?!”, I asked. “How?!... Why?!...”

What followed was the most logical explanation I’ve ever heard in the context of human movement. Dr. Shea outlined how our skeletal muscles are nothing more than slaves to our central nervous system (CNS). A muscle can do one of two things: contract or relax – actions determined ONLY by the signals sent to them by our brain and/or spinal cord. To suggest a muscle itself can memorize or be confused is like saying a basketball will remember to go through a hoop after enough successful block shots... or be perplexed when it misses.

However, the CNS does adapt to repetition. So let’s review the reality of it all.

“Muscle Memory” - As a movement is continually practiced the more automatic the movement can become. In other words, the more we rehearse, the less neural activity is needed to carry out the same action. Of course one cannot practice a movement so often that it becomes purely automatic (that would be a reflex), but the point is clear nonetheless. In laymen’s terms, with practice, a person does not need to work (or think) as hard as they once did to perform the same movement. Muscular-neural adaptation or “MNA” is a much more accurate description of the phenomenon commonly referred to as “muscle memory”.

“Muscle Confusion” - P90X creator Tony Horton has been a big promoter of “muscle confusion”. A writer even claimed that Mr. Horton has developed a way to “surprise” the body. The truth is, what Mr. Horton indirectly suggests is that we should keep variance in our physical training to prevent a competence plateau in which we fail to improve at the rate our body is capable. Exercise regiments should be dynamic enough to address the many dimensions of fitness… in various methods.In other words, you can’t “confuse” a muscle… but you can change up your workout often enough that the body is in a constant state of trying to adapt. A fair, yet simplified, way of accurately referencing this idea is to suggest that athletes need “constant variance” for efficient physical improvement. (Sound familiar?!)

Thanks for your time.