Muscle Memory Explained: What It Is + How It Works

Once you start working out, you will likely be introduced to a number of fitness concepts, or you will overhear people talking at your gym about training principles. For example, you might hear about progressive overload or physiological adaptations.

Another term that you may encounter in the context of working out is muscle memory.

But, what is muscle memory? Is muscle memory real? How does muscle memory work, and how do you develop muscle memory?

In this article, we will discuss what muscle memory is, beginning with the muscle memory definition and then moving into a deeper exploration of how it works.

More specifically, we will cover the following: 

  • What Is Muscle Memory?
  • How Does Muscle Memory Work?
  • What Are the Benefits of Muscle Memory?

Let’s jump in!

Sprinters out of the blocks.

What Is Muscle Memory?

When you first start working out, even the most basic exercises, such as push-ups or squats, can take a tremendous amount of conscious effort. You have to think about all of the little aspects that go into proper form and technique. 

However, over time, it will become easier to perform these movements, not just because your muscles have gotten stronger but also because your neuromuscular system is accustomed to the movement patterns required for the exercises.

Let’s check out the muscle memory definition:

Muscle memory refers to a neurological process that occurs after learning certain motor skills or movement patterns that allows you to remember how to execute these motor skills without conscious effort. 

In this way, muscle memory functions somewhat like programming your brain to carry out specific movement skills on autopilot. It is a form of skill retention for motor skills.

Thus, the benefit of muscle memory is that you can execute movement patterns that you have practiced, initially through deliberate and conscious focus, but now without needing to invest conscious attention to them. 

A person doing a squat.

This frees up mental space to focus on other aspects of the motor skill or just allow your body to move on autopilot so that you can use your brain for whatever else you desire.

When muscle memory is effective, the motor skill retention caused by muscle memory may last for your entire lifetime as long as you do not suffer from any neurological or physical conditions that impede the neuromuscular connections or movement patterns necessary for the given motor skill.

How Does Muscle Memory Work?

Before we try to look at scientific evidence to discern if muscle memory is real, let’s explore how muscle memory works in theory.

Muscle memory works by training your brain through repetition to master a particular movement pattern or motor skill.

Common examples of the types of activities that may involve muscle memory are performing weightlifting exercises or various types of physical activity such as swinging a golf club, riding a bicycle, doing a burpee, or exploding out of the blocks at the start of a sprinting race.

A person swinging a golf club.

But muscle memory can extend beyond exercise and physical activity. 

For example, playing a musical instrument involves muscle memory, shoveling snow involves muscle memory, and even something as simple as climbing stairs involves muscle memory.

Learning is the process of forming new neural connections in your brain, whether you are learning an intellectual concept or a motor skill.

The way that muscle memory works is that through repeated practice of performing a specific action over and over, the neurons associated with carrying out that movement pattern “learn“ how to execute the movement the way that you have continued to reinforce the movement pattern.

This is an important point because we can train our brains to learn improper movement mechanics or movement techniques for motor skills if we are repeatedly performing the action with flaws in our technique and execution.

For this reason, it can actually be more difficult to “unlearn“ improper movement mechanics for a certain motor skill to relearn the skill properly.

For example, if you have been doing squats for years but never learned how to properly sit your hips back in order to keep your knees from coming forward beyond your toes, it could be challenging to correct your form.

People hiking on a trail.

This is because of the muscle memory that has been “cemented“ into your brain by performing countless repetitions with improper squat mechanics.

Needless to say, what occurs during the process of muscle memory is that strong neural connections are made between the central nervous system (particularly the cerebellum and basal ganglia at the back of your brain) and your muscles.

With continued reinforcement, these neuromuscular connections become so strong and patterned that they no longer require higher thinking and attention in order to execute the movements.

For a crude analogy of muscle memory, imagine a scenario in which you are in a forest and trying to get from point A to point B.

At first, you need to use a map and compass to navigate where you are going. Using your orienteering skills and counting pieces between checkpoints, and continually checking in on your direction, you can eventually get to where you want to go. 

However, the entire process requires concentration and continuous assessment of whether you are going the right way. There will be trees to walk around and fallen logs to step over, and you won’t really know where you are going as you take each step forward.

Over time, you keep hiking through this exact same course until, eventually, there is a clear trail from where you have continually trampled the pathway along the course.

A person hiking.

Now, you no longer need to pull out your map and compass or count the number of steps you are taking to know how far you have traveled. 

Rather, you can look up and enjoy the scenery, staying along the path without any significant conscious effort.

Muscle memory functions the same way. 

When you are first learning a skill, you may not even be entirely sure what the movement pattern is supposed to look or feel like. 

You may need to watch a video or a demonstration or read instructions for what steps to take with your body (consulting the map and compass), and you have to stay present the entire time you are performing the movement so that you can think about all the steps involved. 

For example, if you are performing a squat, you will need to think about your foot placement, your breathing mechanics, how your knees are tracking, keeping a flat back, etc.

However, with every day that you do your squat workouts, you are building the “trail“ or pathway so that, eventually, you can bang out a set of squats without needing to think about each little aspect of your posture and movement.

A person playing a guitar.

Now, much like cruising along the trail, getting to enjoy the scenery, you can listen to music or an audiobook and still be performing proper squats.

Muscle memory allows you to perform a motor skill without needing to relearn the movement pattern every time you do the activity.

For example, if you are playing guitar, once you learn the proper fingering for each of the cords, you don’t have to think about how to place each individual finger along the frets as you play a song.

Additionally, because of muscle memory, if you step away from the activity for some time, all or some of the learning that you established will stay in your brain so that you do not have to start from square one.

A common example of this is riding a bike. 

When children first learn to ride a two-wheeler, they have to spend a lot of time thinking about balancing and remembering to continuously pedals the bike so that they do not topple over. 

Once you’ve learned how to ride a bike, even if you take the entire winter and spring off from cycling because of cold weather, when you dust off your bike for the first bike ride of the summer, you should be good to go right off the bat or after just a couple of pedal strokes to wake up the muscle memory you’ve established previously.

A father helping his daughter ride a bike.

What Are the Benefits of Muscle Memory?

As mentioned, muscle memory involves skill retention so that you do not have to relearn an activity continuously or need to invest conscious effort and attention into performing the movement pattern every single time you do the motor skill.

This saves time and frees up mental space for more advanced functioning.

Your speed and accuracy for the motor skill will also improve due to muscle memory because you can focus your efforts on optimizing your performance rather than just getting through the rudimentary steps of the motion.

As mentioned, another muscle memory benefit is that if you have to take time away from the activity due to injury, illness, or some other cause, you can pick back up without having to relearn the entire movement pattern.

Another potential benefit of muscle memory is that it seems to allow athletes to rebuild muscle faster after time off from exercise.

A person doing a back squat.

For example, after detraining or taking time off in a weightlifting program, the nuclei in your muscle fibers, termed myonuclei, will be primed for muscle protein synthesis, which is the process that leads to hypertrophy or muscle growth.

Indeed, studies have found that trained athletes who take time off from consistent exercise are able to regain muscular strength and cardiovascular fitness faster than untrained individuals who are just getting in shape for the first time.

In other words, research indicates that returning to pre-break fitness is faster than the initial time course to get to that level.

For example, one study found that elderly men who stopped training for 12 weeks were able to regain strength relatively quickly. 

After the 12 weeks of detraining, they lost about 30% of their strength, and the muscle size (type I and II fiber cross-sectional areas) returned to pretraining values. 

So, is muscle memory real? Overall, studies suggest that muscle memory is indeed real and can benefit athletes at various stages of training.

For more information about how muscles develop over time, check out our guide to muscle maturity here.

A woman doing a bicep curl.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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