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Your Muscles Aren’t Just Strong. They’re Smart Too!

By Christian Roemer
You’ve likely heard of the term “muscle memory” before, but did it leave you wondering what exactly it means? Did you immediately imagine little brains attached to your muscles? Did you grow paranoid wondering if some day your biceps would become sentient and start working out all by themselves, one day leaving you for bigger, stronger arms? Luckily our biceps are with us for the long haul, and fortunately, our muscles don’t have individual brains. So that means you don’t have to worry about your calves every getting frisky and turning every step you take into a hurdle-type bounce. That also doesn’t mean your muscles aren’t smart. Here’s how muscle memory works and why it’s important in your everyday life.


Muscles don’t move on their own. Your brain sends signals down through your spinal cord, through a mass of interconnected nerve cells that tell your muscles when to move. Your muscles don’t do anything on their own – your brain is always the main show-runner. Your muscles contract when your brain tells them to, and voila, you’ve got movement. So how does muscle memory factor into that back and forth communication? Well, it gets a little complicated. Science isn’t completely settled on exactly how regular memory works – much less how muscle memory works. So, keeping that in mind, we have to tread somewhat lightly when talking about how smart--or not smart – your muscles are.


Ok, so it’s pretty obvious that something is happening when you do something tons of times and it gets easier and easier to do – even up to the point where it becomes automatic. For example, you never really forget how to ride a bike, and once you can ride a bike well enough, you can do it and talk at the same time. That’s no simple feat! Your brain’s ability to turn some normal, everyday function into something that you can do unconsciously is what most people consider muscle memory. Since we know that muscles don’t actually move on their own, what’s actually going on? Well, here’s where it gets tricky. Some science suggests that using your muscles actually changes their biological makeup. Your body creates certain markers that make it so that certain tasks become easier in the future. That means riding a bike as a child might change the composition of your muscles for the rest of your life, so that as soon as you hop back on the saddle, your legs and brain know exactly what to do. Aside from your muscles storing certain proteins so that they can use them again later, true muscle memory lies in the nerves that send the signals to muscles from your brain. Your nerves have a long stem, and that stem is coated with what’s called the myelin sheath. The myelin sheath is what insulates your nerve cells and makes sure that your brain’s signals are making it to the muscles as intended. When you do a certain exercise or activity, your body actually sends extra fatty tissue to reinforce your myelin sheaths, making them more efficient. That’s where muscle memory comes into play. Doing an activity reinforces the nerves that go from your brain to the muscle. This makes the connection more secure, stronger, and more efficient. It ensures that the electrical impulses your brain sends out make it all the way to the muscle quickly and without any loss of signal. That’s why practicing something is so important to becoming good at it. You’re changing your body’s biology to make yourself more efficient at doing that thing. When the connection between your brain and the muscle tissue is stronger, you don’t have to concentrate as hard to get the signal where it needs to go.


Doing a task a bunch of times increases the connection in your nerves between your brain and muscles, making it more efficient to complete a task. That’s the science behind what’s really going on with muscle memory.
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