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?
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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