Muscle Memory Explained – A Guest Post by Dr. Golf Geek

by Guest Post on March 18, 2011

Here is the thing:

Muscles can’t remember.

And not just in the way a husband can’t remember an anniversary, or my daughter can’t remember who broke the vase.

They can’t remember anything.

There are no nerve cells (or neurons) in muscles to speak of; the nerves running to the muscles are the communicating cables of the nerve cells lying in the spinal cord.

Contrast that with the billion nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Or even with the hundred million neurons in the gut.

How can muscle have memory when it doesn’t even have anything like the neuron content of the gut, let alone the brain?

So is muscle memory a figure of speech, a myth?

You wouldn’t think that if you were to believe golf books and magazines.

They speak frequently of muscle memory; the concept is broadly accepted by golfers, with few dissenting voices. Despite a comprehensive grounding in anatomy and physiology I went along with the majority view…at first.

But as time wore on, the little dissenting voice in my head got harder and harder to ignore.

When I eventually gave in to that voice, I found myself doubting anyone who advocated muscle memory. After all, if they were wrong about that, what else could they be wrong about?

So muscle memory is a myth, right?

Well…not exactly.

Not at all, in fact.

So what has led to my change of heart?

Iíve spent time with physiotherapists as they teach people to walk again after losing a portion of the brain due to a stroke. Those first few clumsy steps, often with the aid of a large metal frame to take their weight, that ever-so-slowly become less clumsy.

How has this happened? Nerve cells don’t grow back; when a neuron is gone, it’s gone forever. Some cells are, admittedly, not dead but “stunned” by the stroke; some function returns as these cells recover.

But this doesn’t explain what I’ve witnessed; time and again people improve their ability to function long after the stunned area of the brain recovers.

At the time of discharge, many of them have improved to the point where all they need is a stick.

And relate this to our experience as golfers; is the 200th time we pick up a golf club the same as the first? Are those jerkily awkward first swings no different from the swing we now make?

There is, of course, a difference; as the movement becomes more familiar, so it becomes less awkward and stilted.

What has led to this?

Could it be…muscle memory?

But how can this be?

It seems that muscle memory does exist, but not in the way we might think.

Muscle memory doesn’t reside in the muscles as we might have been led to believe; instead, as with all memory, it lives in the brain.

Muscle memory is memory for muscles, rather than memory in muscles.

And if something happens to impair the brain we have difficulty performing familiar tasks. It doesn’t even have to be as permanent or as catastrophic as a stroke, either.

Ever tried to get your key in the lock at home after a few drinks? There’s a task you usually perform without any difficulty which suddenly becomes harder than hitting a low fade from a hook lie…with a 1 iron.

Alcohol inhibits the brain as a whole, but appears to affect an area known as the cerebellum in particular. Although memory is an extremely complex series of connections which occur all over the brain, muscle memory appears to be concentrated in the cerebellum.

When we repeat a movement over time, we develop a memory for that movement. As we perform any given task we appear to be “encoding” it. In essence, we’re programming our brain, teaching it the necessary movements as we perform them. This stage uses more conscious control, and as a result needs a lot of input from the “thinking” and “feeling” centers of the brain.

At this point, the memory is fragile.

It can easily be corrupted and the incorrect information stored, so it’s to our benefit to stop training before we get tired and our execution gets sloppy.

When we make a new movement for the first time, we’re clumsy and awkward.

This is because we have to think consciously about what we’re trying to do. The brain performs better when left to its own devices on complex tasks, which is why we’re told to focus on the target rather than attempting to control our movements consciously†as we swing.

After we’ve finished practicing and put our clubs down for the day, our brain then sets to work consolidating what it’s learned. Although it’s not at all clear it how achieves this, the end result is the movement takes less conscious effort the next time we make it. And so on, until we reach the point where swinging a club needs no conscious thought on our part.

This †memory is long term; cycling is often learned in childhood and then abandoned later in the teenage years. And yet adults are able to pick up a bike and cycle with only a few initial wobbles. Indeed, the phrase “it’s like riding a bike” is commonly used (in the UK at least) to describe any process that can be performed relatively effortlessly after a long lay-off.

This is as an illustration of muscle memory in action.

Skilled movements like the golf swing appear to be learned in two distinct phases, an initial “fast” phase and a subsequent “slow” phase. The initial phase is faster as the body works out how best to carry out the movement; the second phase occurs more slowly as the body works to improve its structure, to better perform the desired movement.

Muscle memory therefore exists, and is hugely important for golfers.

It’s more misnomer than myth.

The name suggests it’s memory within muscle; in reality like all other memories it’s stored in the brain. Muscle memory is essential for learning any complex movement such as the golf swing. It’s stored when the movement is repeated over time, and eventually allows the movement to be performed without having to think about it.

This is what makes muscle memory so important for golf and golfers. As Bobby Jones best once said “You swing your best when you have the fewest things to think about.”

Just remember this memory is fragile in the early stages, and you should therefore stop your practice before you start to tire and get sloppy in your execution.

This may be difficult at first, you’ll probably start to get sloppy before you realize you’re tiring, but if even if you stop at this point you’ll protect your memory as much as possible.

Remember: with practice your focus should be on quality rather than quantity.

Pay attention to building your muscle memory and it will pay dividends on the course.

About the Author

Dr Geek is a golf-obsessed physician who uses his medical knowledge to suggest how you can improve at golf. If you sign up for his newsletter, you’ll get a copy of his eBook (worth $9.95) absolutely free. He’d love to welcome you to DrGolfGeek.com, so please swing by his site.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

John Graham March 18, 2011 at 11:00 am

Dr Geek,

Excellent post.

I will share this all over as it helps to lift the fog of all golfers.

The take away for me is that the brain has to be actively engaged in the learning process so that ‘muscle memory’ can be stored. I hear too many golfers describe their swing as an event not knowing or feeling anything that has occurred during the motion.

Is this a lack of application from the early learning stages?

JG

Mickey Matran, PGA March 18, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Dr. GREAT post!

I have always used the term, “Memory of sensation” stored in the brian not in the muscles! Rather than Muscle Memory. I love this post!

Thanks, mm

Terry Alverson March 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Excellent explanation of the brain’s role in muscle memory. I will use this to explain to my HS golfers why they cannot listen to the IPODs when practicing.

Jim Fitzgerald March 18, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Dr G,
For a lack-of-muscle-memory demonstration, I tried switching hands on the keyboard to type some of these words. Excellent article.

Nick Chertock March 18, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Great post Allan, I think you’ve nailed it. One problem: Your e-book suggested retail value should be more like $27 or maybe $97!

One way to prove that motor skill lies in the subconcious mind is the next time you are heading down a very long flight of stairs, try going as fast as you can, and then try to think about what your feet are doing. After you fall down the remaining flight of stairs, just explain to those around you that you got the yips.

Dr Geek March 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Thank you gentlemen for your comments. You’ve put a big dumb grin on this geek’s face.

John – the lack of awareness through the swing is a curious phenomenon. I think it’s grounded in fear – particularly fear of a bad outcome. As your average non-enlightened weekend golfer approaches the ball, they get more and more tense as they start to fear what will happen as the result of their swing. They glare at the ball, trying to will it into submission for a long period before metaphorically (and sometimes literally) closing their eyes and making a despairing swipe at the ball. The result is usually poor – their fears have ensured a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s how it was with me, anyway. As I committed to increasing my awareness so my shots improved and I became more confident. Lack of awareness is really just “closing your eyes” to the bodies’ own GPS, the proprioceptive (or kinaesthetic) system…which is also resident in the cerebellum.

MM – Mickey, if that phrase had been widely in use we wouldn’t have the confusion with muscle memory we have today. Another phrase in use is “Motor Learning”. Although this post may seem to jar with teachers like Carey Mumford who call “Muscle Memory” a myth, it actually makes the same point. It’s widely supposed the memory is in the muscles, which it just cannot be; as with all memory it resides in the brain. Your phrase “Memory of sensation” or the alternative “Motor Learning” would have avoided this…but then what would I have had to write about? ;-)

Terry – You’re absolutely right; no iPods during practice; before & after practice…absolutely! I regularly use music and some hypnosis to get me into my “peak performance state” (I’ve written before about being in The Zone whilst dancing) but never when practising. I now hit far fewer balls, but with far greater effect. If you’re not mentally tired (verging on exhaustion) after 50 balls you’re either a GrandMaster of golf…or you’ve not properly engaged your brain.

Dr Geek March 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Jim, I really like your method for demonstrating lack of muscle memory; it certainly seems a bit less painful than Nick’s! Thank you both for your kind words.

Nick – many thanks for the comments on my eBook; you never know, the price MAY head up with time…but for now it’s there as a not-so-wee thank-you for those who subscribe to my newsletter…for now!

I like your point about the yips – overloading the brain with conscious instruction can cause problems with even the most ingrained movements – I’ve had a couple of lectures on the functional anatomy of walking, and it’s *always* fun to watch everyone try to walk out of the room afterwards!

Thank you all for your comments…please feel free to direct anyone who argues about muscle memory to this article! Any questions let me know – I’d be delighted to help.

Pain Not Institute February 24, 2013 at 8:01 pm

So true ! Thanks for a great explanation. UT Dental School found that jaw pain
Was connected By Muscle memory to a memory of the patient to a stressful
Pain of a memory: bullying, post traumatic stress, grief, abuse, and other
Memories or trauma in their life . When pain of the memory is gone, often
Physical pain is gone. Thus began stress management and biofeedback added
To TMJ therapy. Remove the pain of a memory- remove pain in the body.

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