Understanding Muscle Memory Psychology

Understanding Muscle Memory Psychology

Have you noticed how effortlessly you perform some activities such as riding a bicycle or climbing the stairs? Sometimes, even if you haven’t done the activity in quite some time, you can easily go back to doing it at almost the same levels you used to perform.

This is because of muscle memory.

Muscle Memory Psychology is an important and highly misunderstood aspect of Martial Arts training.



Muscle memory is used in two different contexts. The two types of muscle memory are cellular muscle memory and neural muscle memory.

  • Cellular muscle memory mostly concerns bodybuilders and athletes.
  • Whereas neural muscle memory mostly concerns boxers and gymnasts.

Both types of muscle memory are important for Martial Artists.

Neural muscle memory is essential for greater reflexes. However, cellular muscle memory is essential for muscles to regain their previous levels of fitness after breaks from training.


Neural Muscle Memory

Neural muscle memory is the better-known type of muscle memory. Beginning at the brain as complex neural connections. Then extending to the rest of the body via the central nervous system.

This muscle memory is the memory of certain muscle movements which are controlled via neurons. Neural muscle memory is developed when a certain action is learned and repeated over time.

This allows certain movements to be executed with less ‘hesitation’.

Allowing complex motor skills, faster reactions, and movement of the body in 3D space with speed and accuracy.

Neural muscle memory is stored in Purkinje cells of the cerebellum. This part of the brain is responsible for encoding information and record whether the movements are correct or wrong.

The brain gradually focuses on the ‘correct’ movements and stores them as long-term memories. Once these movements are stored as long-term memories, less of the brain is utilized to execute the movement.

Therefore, that certain movement feels ‘natural’. This is an important key to muscle memory psychology.

Only the correct movements will be encoded as memories.

For example, if you’re performing a series of kick and you trip and fall, there will be no memory processed and stored from it. Instead, it will be discarded.

The body collects all the information and transmits it to the brain, where it is interpreted. Deciding how successful the movement was, the brain forms neural pathways to form these memories.

Once the brain forms a specific neural pathway and encodes all the associated memories, they persist for a long time. Even if the action is not executed for a long time. Unfortunately, over time the capabilities will become a bit ‘rusty’ as the neural pathways become weakened from disuse.


The key points of neural muscle memory are:
  • Repetition of the complex moves is essential for enhanced motor and neural skill development.
  • The development of complex neural muscle memory helps improve cognitive function.
  • Neural muscle memory once formed, require reinforcements to keep the neural connections strong.


How to develop neural muscle memory
  • Repetition

To develop and perfect muscle memory, lots of repetition is required. The more you repeat, the quicker the brain instructs the muscles to carry out certain activities. Practicing drills can help imprint the movements as muscle memory. When required, the movements can be executed without a moment of hesitation!

  • Learn slow

When repeating, all the repetitions should not be done in a matter of seconds or minutes. It’s important to start the regimen slowly so that the brain can process and record the movements properly. It also ensures that the slightest movement included in the technique will be noticed and remembered.

This can lead to an exponential improvement in technique.

By noticing the slightest movements, it’s easier to understand how the technique works. Over time, the tempo can be increased.

  • Short practice sessions

The practice sessions must be of optimal time intervals. To practice for hours, two or three times a week is not effective. Practicing once or twice daily is considerably more effective.

Another important key to muscle memory psychology is to stop when you’re starting to feel tired or the movements start to get sloppy.

This is because the brain does not discriminate between good and bad habits. If you repeat a bad habit enough times, it’ll be stored as muscle memory. Once learned, muscle memory is very hard to ‘unlearn’.

  • Be patient

Muscle memory cannot be achieved in a matter of hours or days. It takes a certain time for the movements to be integrated into muscle memory. Many people google “easy ways to be as fast at Bruce Lee.” In reality, there are no such cheat codes. There is no shortcut for time and repetition.


Cellular Muscle Memory

Cellular muscle memory is an aspect that is rather new and therefore seldom known by many athletes and Martial Artists. Studies have shown cellular muscle memory can help muscles to regain their previous levels of fitness after breaks from training. Cellular muscle memory can be a critical determining factor of whether or not a Martial Artist, who has not trained in some time, can reach their previous levels of skills.

Muscle hypertrophy (growth and increase of size of muscle cells) can be ‘remembered’ by muscle fibers. Therefore, muscle fibers that have been large at a certain time, and then lost mass can regain mass much faster than naive muscle fibers.

Cellular muscle memory can be explained by a relatively new cell biological model.

Based on one of the most reliable methods for identifying myonuclei (nuclei of muscle fibers/cells).

According to this model, previously untrained cells, when subjected to a hypertrophic growth stimulant, recruit myonuclei from activated satellite cells (muscle stem cells). When subsequently subjected to atrophy (muscle regeneration), a great number of myonuclei is retained.

Muscle fibers that have retained a greater number of myonuclei grow faster when subjected to exercise overload. The retained myonuclei essentially acts as a ‘memory’ of the previous levels of strength and mass.

Since myonuclei is stable for at least 15 years or even become permanent, cellular muscle memory can last for a very long time. However, it can be difficult to recruit myonuclei in the elderly.

Understanding muscle memory psychology is an important key in helping a Martial Artist efficiently train their body. Knowing how to practice properly can result in a quicker ability in learning new skills. When time has been spent away from the dojo, those skills can be regained much faster.


Any experience you can share from time off and results you’ve seen when you’ve returned to your training program?


If the concept of muscle memory training is new for you, any tweaks you might make in your current exercise program?


  1. Shan

    Thank you for explaining the concept of muscle memory; it makes a lot of sense to me. When I was much younger, I trained as a gymnast for many years however I did not train with the same intensity all year round as the sport was seasonal. Even though this was the case, during the off season when I did not train as heavily, I did not lose the skills and abilities I learned or the progress I had made with each new season however getting ‘back into the grove’ took some time and most often I suffered through several days of body aches. 

    I now understand why repeating the wrong movements created a sort of habit and took so much time to correct, especially with movements that need to be almost second nature to complete without injury. 

    1. Lee Goupil

      Thanks for reading Shan.

      For me personally when I get back to something that I used to do often the hardest thing for me to do is slow down. 

      I’m so anxious to get back to the level that I was and unfortunately that can be counter productive for reintroducing muscle memory. 

      Take Care 

  2. PeterMinea

    Hey Lee!

    It’s interesting to find out that there exists also a memory of muscles, and that it is divided into two different types!

    After all, if there are inanimate objects (like mattresses) that are able to have a memory, why couldn’t our muscles have their own memory too? Muscles are a part of us.

    You made an educative presentation of the two types of muscle memory – the neural and the cellular. And I think I can also agree by personal experience about the cellular muscle memory: while I didn’t practice athletism, I used to make long trips on foot (like long distances in a pretty short time), being also able to start such a trip after a period of interruption. So the cellular memory should have operated somehow in my body too.

    You are doing an interesting research, keep it up!

    Kind regards, Peter

  3. vesna7777

    What an interesting article! It is so beneficial for people who practice on regular basis but also for those who don’t 🙂 
    I wasn’t aware that repetition of certain moves cause neural skill development or helps improving cognitive functions. 
    Damn, there are no excuses any more for starting some work out, I will start from Monday 🙂
    Thanks for sharing

  4. marcuscbb

    Hi I really enjoyed this post on muscle memory psychology. I found the information contained in the article very fascinating I never knew if you’re performing a series of kick and you trip and fall, there will be no memory processed and stored from it. Instead, it will be discarded. Thankyou for the insight.

    1. Lee Goupil

      Thanks Marcus, that was actually a great find for myself as well that I discovered while researching. 

      Adults and the children I trained consistently do actions counter productive to developing muscle memory. 

      Along with my own training I felt this would be a great subject to do research on and share what I know and learned with readers. 

  5. Andrew

    Hi Lee,

    I really enjoyed reading your article about muscle memory. I workout regularly and I am reasonably strong for my age and size, however, due to pressure of work, I sometimes have to take periods of up to 6 months off from the Gym. I find that although my strength is significantly lower (generally around 40%), after around 3 weeks I am back to roughly where I started. Unfortunately aerobic fitness takes significantly longer to return. Thanks again for a great article. Regards, Andrew

    1. Lee Goupil

      Thanks for reading Andrew 

      You’ll find aerobic conditioning should come back as well. 
      That’s a different process but I’d assume you train your cardio less which is why it takes longer for you to regain. 
      take care 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *