Muscle Memory
2003 Carey Mumford

Unexamined and unchallenged, the term, “Muscle Memory,” sounds plausible enough, and makes a catchy phrase to toss around. A second look, though, shows it to be a distinct misnomer. It is apparent, however that, historically,  it has been used as a hopeful, clever means to present an idea that was regarded as important. For whatever reasons, whoever originated the expression (unknown, at least by us), appears mainly to have wanted to stress something about the importance of habit development without using the word (“habit”).

Habit (the word) has largely been seen as a “dirty, ugly” thing. It sounds to most like something they want no part of. “If you have habits, they must be bad ones.” At least that's the way the word was used when and where this writer went to school. Those who failed had “bad” ones, and those who succeeded were simply “good students, with no mention of the word habit. So “habit” became associated with all things “bad.” No one ever told you, us, or anyone else, “Wow, you have really good habits!” Psychologically, “habit” is on the unwanted, “no-no” list.

It seems that whoever started the “muscle memory” deal wanted to get away from anything to do with the word - “habit” - especially its connotation. OK. So far so good. The problem is that it has generated a legion of myth-based perceptions that have seduced the pursuits of golfers and spawned a ton of advertising that has no reality in it. How long has it been since you saw an ad for a training device, for instance, that did not claim to build “muscle memory?” (An estimate is that several million dollars are forked over each year for items that claim to produce something that does not exist, in order “to improve one's game.”)

The myth that has evolved is that if you do something (presumably the same thing) enough times in succession (we suppose), your muscles will “memorize” the motion and you will “have it made.”  Sorry, but your muscles contain no gray matter, so they are genetically, physically and psychologically incapable of memorizing anything. We can condition our muscles so that they support whatever we are doing - but “memory?” No way! Conditioning and “memory” are two entirely different venues. The brain has the memory bank and the muscles are limited to conditioning. Of course, if you want to condition something, don't try to do it in isolation. First identify the kinds of habits you need (or want) and allow the conditioning path to be informed by that.

All of that, taken together, has evolved into other myths, like “it takes 21 days to develop a new habit,” or “it takes 60 repetitions,” or some other variation on those themes. Frankly, we do not know where those notions came from. (Even though, until we undertook serious investigation of the issues, we tended to accept those estimates, too). If there is research for either of those theories, we haven't been able to find it, and there is nothing in what is known of how human experience evolves into habits that would warrant such claims. Even research in biomechanics only claims that it “seeks to understand how the brain coordinates and controls a myriad of muscles in human locomotion.”

Best that can be found through general research is an inference that building habits takes, for each individual person, as long as it takes. It will be different for each person, too. Some may create a habit in five, some in ten, others in twenty or thirty (times, days, weeks, months, years, whatever time frame you want to measure by) and there is no established hierarchy for any of that to be found in research. There are far too many variables for anyone to insist that there is some kind of time frame, available to everyone, in which you can build a habit. There is a reliable process, but there is no fixed time frame.

Best wisdom says get rid of the words, the idea, the perception, the notion, the concept, that muscle memory carries a valid, worthwhile meaning. If you see the phrase, simply say in your head: “They mean to say it's something to do with habits and their development.” But watch it on the time frames. There aren't any – except yours and ours. Otherwise, our recommendation is keep working based on the myth and finally you will be able to cut off your head and let your muscles play a stressless, anxiety-free, automatic game. Ordinary reason should tell us that if the myth were true, someone would surely have reached the zenith of development by this point in time, especially with all the “gizmo's” out there to help “make it happen,” and all the time put in “beating balls” by the hundreds.

Also bear in mind that we had best know and understand what is available in research about how habits are formed. It isn't sufficient to just disclaim muscle memory. We have to go on to the step that helps us know how to develop mature habits from our best-learned skills.

We do it through the automatic principle and its primary management tool called “clear key. Shake the myth and go with the force.