Have you ever wondered why some people can swing a golf club like its a natural movement whereas others struggle to twist and miss the ball entirely? Or how a guitar player can progress from slowly strumming cords to playing full and fluid songs? If you’ve ever tried to learn a new skill, you’ve heard how “practice makes perfect” but have you considered why that’s the case? It’s called muscle memory and like most body mechanisms, it’s beneficial when it works correctly but has consequences when it doesn’t.
Brain activity and memory formation have always been an interest of mine ever since I was an undergrad working in the memory lab of the Health Psychology Dept. So imagine my excitement when I learned muscles form “memories” in a very similar way to how our brains retain knowledge- neurologically. When you decide to perform an action, specific neurons in your brain send an electrical impulse to motor neurons in your muscles telling them what to do. Once the action is performed by the muscle, a connection is made between the brain and the motor neuron. When a connection is newly developed, we have to pay attention to perform that movement and it will still be performed awkwardly. Repeat the action several times and it will become easier as the connection grows stronger. This is why it takes more than a few tries to learn complex skills like playing guitar or swinging a golf club. Precision, repeatability and consistency come only after a lot of repetition. Once that connection has been reinforced hundreds of times, it becomes automatic.
Our subconscious utilizes muscle memory to automate many types of everyday movements such as: walking, driving, riding a bike, typing on a keyboard, tongue placement while speaking, and almost any sport or physical activity. One problem arises when we start to do things on “autopilot” and we lose some awareness about what’s going on around us. For example when you are walking along and then suddenly miss a step because you weren’t focused on where you were going.
Another problem with muscle memory is if you develop bad movement habits and repeat them, they will become part of your muscle memory too. Poor habits can also be developed as a result of injuries, surgeries, or chronic tension. Our bodies adapt to remain functional in response to stress/ trauma and when one muscle can’t perform, our brain begins firing to new neurons to get the job done. Sometimes, even after the injury is healed, the alternate neuron connection has become so strong, it continues to fire instead of returning to a resting state and letting the original muscle perform the work. For example, when someone continues to limp or avoids bearing weight on their ankle long after it has healed. Pain is a strong reminder to move a certain way in the beginning of an injury but the muscles remember trying to protect that ankle and the neuron connection to walk with limp becomes very strong. When a muscle begins to help do another’s job along with its own, it becomes fatigued easily and more prone to injury.
Here’s a story to illustrate what I’m trying to explain, but with a slightly different scenario:
Betty Brains always calls on Glenda Glutes to help get her up the stairs. It’s one of Glenda’s main jobs to climb the stairs for Betty. However, one day Glenda is injured and can’t help Betty up the stairs so Betty calls Heidi Hip-Flexor. It may not be Heidi’s job to get Betty up the stairs but she helps get it done. The problem is, Glenda is out for more than a few days with her injury so Betty has to rely on Heidi for awhile. Suddenly, Glenda is back and ready to work but Betty continues to call Heidi to help her with the stairs because she’s used to calling her now. This leaves Glenda mostly out of work and makes her lazy and not want to work at all. Meanwhile, Heidi is super stressed out and literally working all day, every day.
(Do you see where I’m going with this story?)
So how can massage help with bad muscle memory habits? Soft tissue work, while beneficial, will sometimes only provide temporary relief from pain associated with the misfiring of the neuromuscular system (it controls the electric impulse between the brain and muscles that started this all). Some modalities however, such as Muscle Energy Techniques and Neuromuscular Therapy assist in rebooting the neurological functions and reset communication signals. Progress with long-term patterns is typically slow but entirely dependent upon the proactiveness of the client. There are 168 hours in a week. Your massage therapist gets you for only 1 hour, leaving 167 hours for old patterns to begin to dominate again. That’s why it’s important to be on board with your massage therapist and think about the changes and stretches they recommend between sessions so the body work can really take hold.