What Is Muscle Memory Anyway?

by John Diaz

We’ve all likely heard the term muscle memory at some point or another. Trainers and coaches like to throw it out all the time, but what is muscle memory anyway? Do people with big muscles really have more memories stored away? And what about people with minuscule muscles are they memory gig deficient. Has a scrawny guy just not lived enough? Wouldn’t it be funny if the bigger your muscle got the more of an information repository you’d actually become. Mr. Universe the smartest man on earth. Okay, you get it, so do muscles even have memory cells? Is it just a dumb term? Or is there something more to it?  Let’s take a closer look at this term muscle memory.

Man brain  lit up - Ultimate Health Personal Training Center - Los Angeles, CA

The term “muscle memory” is synonymous with motor learning, essentially, consolidating a motor task to memory through repetition.  When you learn a skill, say throwing a ball, the repetitive action begins to encode in memory by causing certain motor networks to repeatedly fire eventually becoming more efficient.  This is the easiest part of the memory chain to break. If you were to change the way to release the ball at this time you would unlearn what you had learned before.  Eventually the memory is consolidated, meaning you no longer have to think about the skill to perform. Examples of this would be riding a bike, walking up and down stairs, and driving a car.

There are no actual memory cells in muscle tissue. There have been hypothesis of a body memory and even a cellular memory, but nothing actually scientifically proven. So, muscle memory is actually just another type of brain memory like language or facial recognition.  Whether it took you 300, 500 or 10,000 repetitions of practice to get this skill down, once encoding finishes then it consolidates.  These mechanical function memories are then actually stored in the Purkinje cells of the cerebellum.  The cerebellum is about the size of a kiwi and located in the back of the brain. Though only making up 10% of the brain’s mass it holds half of all brain neurons by volume.  Clearly, there is a lot going on there. It is worth noting that motor command doesn’t originate in the cerebellum, but rather refined there.

Next time you are trying to learn a new skill like say, a golf swing, remember that practice makes perfect. Just remember that this only works to your benefit if you got the motion down right in the first place otherwise you are reinforcing a wrong technique. Once you get past encoding it will consolidate making it harder to correct later. So, learn how to do it right from the start, practice with consistent repetition, refine and in no time you’ll be a star.

There is another use for the term “muscle memory” to define the fact that when someone who has exercised a good deal in the past gets back into it their muscles can regrow bigger and faster than a non-trained individual. This type of memory is actually due to myo-nuclei which develop in response to stimulus, but don’t decline in number due to detraining.   

So, next time you’re out dinning and you see a big Sampson type there is no need to feel inadequate unless of course you try to eat his lunch in which case you will be making a new memory, a very bad memory. 


1)      En.wikipeida.org/wiki/muscle_memory

2)      www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way

3)      www.menshealth.co.uk/ - What is Muscle Memory

4)      Neuroscience.uth.tmc.edu/s3 Chapter5 Cerebellum