”Muscle memory” relates to the idea that our muscles “remember” certain movements or positions after many repetitions of a given movement or technique are performed. By tensing the muscles while performing these movements, or setting into a final position, the movement/positioning is more quickly “remembered” by the muscles and can therefore be recalled more quickly when needed.
Some may take this to mean that we must use a lot of tension when learning a new technique or movement, to more quickly get the body used to a new technique. But this is actually the opposite of what is true.
Training in a new technique must be done carefully. We must first use the minimal amount of tension in order for the muscles – and the mind – to assimilate the new movements. If we tense too early in our learning process, we simply memorize incorrect movements/techniques, in our bodies if not in our minds as well. And the more we practice incorrectly, the more work and time it will take to “unlearn” later (although, admittedly, many choose to simply not correct the technique or movement because they know it is so much work). Until we are sure that what we are doing is as correct as we can do it, we should keep both our bodies and our minds relaxed/flexible, to accommodate for any minor adjustments that may be needed.
I have so many times sighed in despair while watching people train who were trying very hard and actually making their karate worse, not just in spite of, rather specifically because of their effort. This is especially true where there is no instructor, but simply a senior student or coach leading the training on a regular basis. An instructor will design classes to help students develop their technique and application of those techniques. A coach drives the students to give that extra 10%, encouraging to go faster, harder, don’t give up, etc. A dojo with instructor(s) and coach(es) is ideal. A dojo with only instructor(s) is next best. But a dojo with only coach(s) can sometimes be downright detrimental to the development of the dojo and its members. At a minimum, the development of the dojo members would most likely stagnate. With no real guidance or quality instruction taking place, the body becomes very well accustomed to performing incorrect movements/techniques. Remember that “practice makes perfect” is not an entirely correct axiom. It is actually better stated that “practice makes permanent; only perfect practice makes perfect.”
No matter how good a person is, if he is good at incorrect performance, it is still incorrect. Our aim in training should not be to simply memorize new kata and mimic kumite performance of others without proper instruction as to what we should actually be doing. We should not simply train hard all the time and not think about how we may actually be setting our development back as a result of excess tension during incorrect movements/techniques. We must learn the techniques and movements while remaining relaxed and thinking about what we are doing. Then, once we have a good understanding of what we are doing, we can gradually add tension and let the muscles “remember” the technique/movement, so the body can react more instinctively when needed. Once we fully understand what how a technique or movement should be performed, we should repeat it many times and on a frequent basis. This process must not be rushed. In the modern age of satellite TV, faxes, cell phones and internet, many people are looking for the “quick fix”. If you really want to speed up your muscle-memory and advance more quickly, I suggest you seek out the instruction of a teacher who understands such concepts.
It should be obvious from looking at my website that I am not opposed to the use of the internet and other ways we can make our lives more efficient and productive. In fact, I just performed a quick search on the internet which resulted in thousands of articles dealing with “muscle memory” and “relaxation”. While some advocated always relaxing while, for example, playing the guitar, playing the piano or bowling, all of them that I looked at seemed to agree that relaxation was key in learning a new movement or skill. Here are a few examples among the many dealing with this subject:
*(post-script edit: all the links I had included when publishing in March 2003 are no longer active)
I recently wrote about “priorities” in a couple of my articles. One priority I often point out to students is that during training the priority ranking should be: technique (form), speed and power. Until one understands the correct form, practice at full-speed should not be attempted (remember that speed requires at least some tension, too). Until one can practice correct technique quickly while relatively relaxed, he/she should not try to add much power (tension). Applying these priorities during training, one should be able to develop more quickly.
Train hard; but also train right!
Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published March 2003)