When I was a young athlete, eager to succeed as a hurdler, I learned about the importance of developing muscle memory. Muscle memory is basically your muscles’ ability to remember certain movements. You develop it by practicing the precise movement you want to master…over and over and over again.
Let’s take hurdling, for example. Although my form isn’t perfect, I’ve included a picture to help illustrate what happens when an athlete goes over a hurdle.
1) The front leg (or “lead leg”) lifts up with a slight bend in the knee.
2) The opposite arm comes forward, while the other arm goes back (unlike this picture, both arms should be bent to about 90 degrees).
3) The athlete drives the knee of their back leg (“trail leg”) out and around in a circular motion.
4) The lead leg lands on the ground.
5) The trail leg finishes circling forward directly into the next step in the athlete’s stride.
When it was time to learn how to hurdle, our coach taught us drill after drill to familiarize our muscles with each phase of the movement. The purpose was to develop proficiency and speed through the entire movement. We’d do drills that focused on the trail-leg movement, others that emphasized quickness, still others that targeted the upper body, and more. The goal: to be so comfortable with each aspect of hurdling that when we raced, we didn’t need to think about what to do, because our bodies already knew.
Using Muscle Memory to Learn Skills
Developing muscle memory is necessary when learning new skills. Several months ago, I started CrossFit. As you may or may not know, CrossFit consists of a variety of movements including different lifts, gymnastics, and more. Being a competitive person, I wanted to succeed in every movement right away. I realize, however, that my body needs to learn how to do these things…and that’s okay.
My first example: Butterfly Pull-Ups. This type of pull-up incorporates a technique that helps athletes perform a larger number of pull-ups in a shorter amount of time than it would take to do strict pull-ups. When I first hopped on the bar to attempt this movement, I did not succeed. I then contemplated what I could do to develop the appropriate muscle memory, so my body could perform this exercise effectively. I watched videos of others doing the movement to familiarize myself with the recommended technique and understand how successful individuals were moving.
To begin developing muscle memory, I practiced moving my body in the butterfly motion off of the bar, figuring if I became comfortable with the movement bar-free, it would translate to success on the bar. Today, I can do butterfly pull-ups.
Next is a skill called double-unders–a jump rope exercise. The key difference is that instead of swinging the rope around once per jump, you swing it twice. Thus, the rope passes under your feet two times each jump. The muscle memory I focused on in this movement was in my wrists. My wrists needed to learn how to whip the rope around faster than they were accustomed to. I practiced holding on to nothing, using training devices, and even jumping and tapping my thighs to get the rhythm. Today, I’m much better at this movement than when I started and am looking to keep improving.
Go for It!
Are you wanting to learn something new? It’s not too late to teach your body new skills by developing muscle memory. See how you can break the skill down into parts, and practice each part over and over again. When ready, put the parts together and see what happens. Even if you already know how to do a movement, keep practicing and doing drills. This can help increase your ability, leading to improved performance.
If you’re eager to master a skill, I understand how you feel. Don’t give up, and remember that while training, you’re teaching your muscles. Be a patient teacher, and understand that mastery takes time. Celebrate the small steps of progress in your journey, and keep going! You can do it, one drill at a time.
With God, all things are possible!