Muscle Memory and Massage Therapy, Santa Barbara

Muscle memory is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with motor learning.

What causes muscle memory?

Muscle memory is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with motor learning. … This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems.

How long do you have muscle memory?

According to a number of sources, it takes about 3 to 6 months for you to lose your muscle SIZE. The muscle fibers no longer need to store the same amount of energy, so they shrink in order to reduce energy wastage. When reactivated, they can return to their original size fairly quickly.

How do you develop muscle memory?

  1. (Lots of) Practice Makes Perfect. …
  2. Learn slow, forget slow. …
  3. Long vs. short practice sessions. …
  4. Muscle memory doesn’t discriminate between good and bad habits. …
  5. Break songs up into bite-sized pieces. …
  6. Muscle memory resides in the brain. …
  7. Learning strum patterns is groovy. …
  8. Be patient.

Where is muscle memory stored?

Muscle memory is not a memory stored in your muscles, of course, but memories stored in your brain that are much like a cache of frequently enacted tasks for your muscles.

Muscle memory is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with motor learning. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Examples of muscle memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, entering a PIN, playing a musical instrument,[1]poker,[2] martial arts or even dancing.


History

The origins of research for the acquisition of motor skills stem from philosophers such as PlatoAristotle and Galen. After the break from tradition of the pre-1900s view of introspection, psychologists emphasized research and more scientific methods in observing behaviours.[3]Thereafter, numerous studies exploring the role of motor learning were conducted. Such studies included the research of handwriting, and various practice methods to maximize motor learning.[4]

Retention

The retention of motor skills, now referred to as muscle memory, also began to be of great interest in the early 1900s. Most motor skills are thought to be acquired through practice; however, mere observation of the skill has led to learning as well.[5] Research suggests we do not start off with a blank slate with regard to motor memory although we do learn most of our motor memory repertoire during our lifetime.[6]Movements such as facial expressions, which are thought to be learned, can actually be observed in children who are blind; thus there is some evidence for motor memory being genetically pre-wired.[6]

In the early stages of empirical research of motor memory Edward Thorndike, a leading pioneer in the study of motor memory, was among the first to acknowledge learning can occur without conscious awareness.[7] One of the earliest and most notable studies regarding the retention of motor skills was by Hill, Rejall, and Thorndike, who showed savings in relearning typing skills after a 25-year period with no practice.[4] Findings related to the retention of learned motor skills have been continuously replicated in studies, suggesting that through subsequent practice, motor learning is stored in the brain as memory. This is why performing skills such as riding a bike or driving a car are effortlessly and ‘subconsciously’ executed, even if someone had not performed these skills in a long period of time.[4]

Physiology

Motor behavior

When first learning a motor task, movement is often slow, stiff and easily disrupted without attention. With practice, execution of motor task becomes smoother, there is a decrease in limb stiffness, and muscle activity necessary to the task is performed without conscious effort.[8]

Muscle memory encoding

The neuroanatomy of memory is widespread throughout the brain; however, the pathways important to motor memory are separate from the medial temporal lobe pathways associated with declarative memory.[9] As with declarative memory, motor memory is theorized to have two stages: a short-term memory encoding stage, which is fragile and susceptible to damage, and a long-term memory consolidation stage, which is more stable.[10]

The memory encoding stage is often referred to as motor learning, and requires an increase in brain activity in motor areas as well as an increase in attention. Brain areas active during motor learning include the motor and somatosensory cortices; however, these areas of activation decrease once the motor skill is learned. The prefrontal and frontal cortices are also active during this stage due to the need for increased attention on the task being learned.[8]

The main area involved in motor learning is the cerebellum. Some models of cerebellar-dependent motor learning, in particular the Marr-Albus model, propose a single plasticity mechanism involving the cerebellar long-term depression (LTD) of the parallel fiber synapses onto Purkinje cells. These modifications in synapse activity would mediate motor input with motor outputs critical to inducing motor learning.[11]However, conflicting evidence suggests that a single plasticity mechanism is not sufficient and a multiple plasticity mechanism is needed to account for the storage of motor memories over time. Regardless of the mechanism, studies of cerebellar-dependent motor tasks show that cerebral cortical plasticity is crucial for motor learning, even if not necessarily for storage.[12]

The basal ganglia also play an important role in memory and learning, in particular in reference to stimulus-response associations and the formation of habits. The basal ganglia-cerebellar connections are thought to increase with time when learning a motor task.[13]

Muscle memory consolidation

Muscle memory consolidation involves the continuous evolution of neural processes after practicing a task has stopped. The exact mechanism of motor memory consolidation within the brain is controversial. However, most theories assume that there is a general redistribution of information across the brain from encoding to consolidation. Hebb’s rule states that “synaptic connectivity changes as a function of repetitive firing.” In this case, that would mean that the high amount of stimulation coming from practicing a movement would cause the repetition of firing in certain motor networks, presumably leading to an increase in the efficiency of exciting these motor networks over time.[12]

Though the exact location of muscle memory storage is not known, studies have suggested that it is the inter-regional connections that play the most important role in advancing motor memory encoding to consolidation, rather than decreases in overall regional activity. These studies have shown a weakened connection from the cerebellum to the primary motor area with practice, it is presumed, because of a decreased need for error correction from the cerebellum. However, the connection between the basal ganglia and the primary motor area is strengthened, suggesting the basal ganglia play an important role in the motor memory consolidation process.[12]

Strength training and adaptations

See also: Muscle memory (strength training)

When participating in any sport, new motor skills and movement combinations are frequently being used and repeated. All sports require some degree of strength, endurance training, and skilled reaching in order to be successful in the required tasks. Muscle memory related to strength training involves elements of both motor learning, described below, and long-lasting changes in the muscle tissue.

Evidence has shown that increases in strength occur well before muscle hypertrophy, and decreases in strength due to detraining or ceasing to repeat the exercise over an extended period of time precede muscle atrophy.[14] To be specific, strength training enhances motor neuron excitability and induces synaptogenesis, both of which would help in enhancing communication between the nervous system and the muscles themselves.[14]

A navy man performs strength training exercises.

However, neuromuscular efficacy is not altered within a two-week time period following cessation of the muscle usage; instead, it is merely the neuron‘s ability to excite the muscle that declines in correlation with the muscle’s decrease in strength.[15] This confirms that muscle strength is first influenced by the inner neural circuitry, rather than by external physiological changes in the muscle size.

Previously untrained muscles acquire newly formed nuclei by fusion of satellite cells preceding the hypertrophy. Subsequent detraining leads to atrophy but no loss of myo-nuclei. The elevated number of nuclei in muscle fibers that had experienced a hypertrophic episode would provide a mechanism for muscle memory, explaining the long-lasting effects of training and the ease with which previously trained individuals are more easily retrained.[16]

On subsequent detraining, the fibers maintain an elevated number of nuclei that might provide resistance to atrophy; on retraining, a gain in size can be obtained by a moderate increase in the protein synthesis rate of each of these many nuclei, skipping the step of adding newly formed nuclei. This shortcut may contribute to the relative ease of retraining compared with the first training of individuals with no previous training history.[16]

Reorganization of motor maps within the cortex are not altered in either strength or endurance training. However, within the motor cortex, endurance induces angiogenesis within as little as three weeks to increase blood flow to the involved regions.[14] In addition, neurotropic factors within the motor cortex are upregulated in response to endurance training to promote neural survival.[14]

Skilled motor tasks have been divided into two distinct phases: a fast-learning phase, in which an optimal plan for performance is established, and a slow-learning phase, in which longer-term structural modifications are made on specific motor modules.[17] Even a small amount of training may be enough to induce neural processes that continue to evolve even after the training has stopped, which provides a potential basis for consolidation of the task. In addition, studying mice while they are learning a new complex reaching task, has found that “motor learning leads to rapid formation of dendritic spines (spinogenesis) in the motor cortex contralateral to the reaching forelimb”.[18]However, motor cortex reorganization itself does not occur at a uniform rate across training periods. It has been suggested that the synaptogenesis and motor map reorganization merely represent the consolidation, and not the acquisition itself, of a specific motor task.[19]Furthermore, the degree of plasticity in various locations (namely motor cortex versus spinal cord) is dependent on the behavioural demands and nature of the task (i.e., skilled reaching versus strength training).[14]

Whether strength or endurance related, it is plausible that the majority of motor movements would require a skilled moving task of some form, whether it be maintaining proper form when paddling a canoe, or bench pressing a heavier weight. Endurance training assists the formation of these new neural representations within the motor cortex by up regulating neurotropic factors that could enhance the survival of the newer neural maps formed due to the skilled movement training.[14] Strength training results are seen in the spinal cord well before any physiological muscular adaptation is established through muscle hypertrophy or atrophy.[14] The results of endurance and strength training, and skilled reaching, therefore, combine to help each other maximize performance output.

More recently, research has suggested that epigenetics may play a distinct role in orchestrating a muscle memory phenomenon [20] Indeed, previously untrained human participants experienced a chronic period of resistance exercise training (7 weeks) that evoked significant increases in skeletal muscle mass of the vastus lateralis muscle, in the quadriceps muscle group. Following a similar period of physical in-activity (7 weeks), where strength and muscle mass returned to baseline, participants performed a secondary period of resistance exercise.[21] Importantly, these participants adapted in an enhanced manner, whereby the amount of skeletal muscle mass gained was greater in the second period of muscle growth then the first, suggesting a muscle memory concept. The researchers went on to examine the human epigenome in order to understand how DNA methylation may aid in creating this effect. During the first period of resistance exercise, the authors identify significant adaptations in the human methylome, whereby over 9,000 CpG sites were reported as being significantly hypomethylated, with these adaptations being sustained during the subsequent period of physical in-activity. However, upon secondary exposure to resistance exercise, a greater frequency of hypomethylated CpG sites was observed, where over 18,000 sites reported as being significantly hypomethylated. The authors went on to identify how these changes altered the expression of relevant transcripts, and subsequently correlated these changes with adaptations in skeletal muscle mass. Collectively, the authors conclude that skeletal muscle mass and muscle memory phenomenon is, at least in part, modulated due to changes in DNA methylation.[21] Further work is now needed to confirm and explore these findings.

Fine motor memory

Fine motor skills are often discussed in terms of transitive movements, which are those done when using tools (which could be as simple as a tooth brush or pencil).[22] Transitive movements have representations that become programmed to the premotor cortex, creating motor programs that result in the activation of the motor cortex and therefore the motor movements.[22] In a study testing the motor memory of patterned finger movements (a fine motor skill) it was found that retention of certain skills is susceptible to disruption if another task interferes with one’s motor memory.[1] However, such susceptibility can be reduced with time. For example, if a finger pattern is learned and another finger pattern is learned six hours later, the first pattern will still be remembered. But attempting to learn two such patterns one immediately after the other could cause the first one to be forgotten.[1] Furthermore, the heavy use of computers by recent generations has had both positive and negative effects. One of the main positive effects is an enhancement of children’s fine motor skills.[23] Repetitive behaviors, such as typing on a computer from a young age, can enhance such abilities. Therefore, children who learn to use computer keyboards at an early age could benefit from the early muscle memories.

massage for muscle memory
massage for muscle memory

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.

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 bodywork can really take hold.

Some of the more common benefits my client’s experience are reduced pain, stiffness and motion limitations. reduced muscular and emotional stress. increased flexibility and blood flow.

*Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider.
Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your condition.
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Nicola of Riktr Pro Massage is a practicing licensed insured professional LMT (Licensed Massage Therapist) and fine artist based in Santa Barbara, CA. Nicola has a wide range of female and male clients, including athletes, professionals, housewives, artists, landscapers, out of town visitors, people who are retired and students.

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