What Is Muscle Memory and How To Build It When Bodybuilding
September 14, 2021
Having a good memory comes in handy for a bunch of stuff like remembering where you put your keys. Much like the brain, the muscles have a way to build up a memory as well. This can take you from carefully thinking about every exercise to completing your workout on autopilot with perfect form. If you want to know exactly how to build muscle memory when bodybuilding, you need to pay attention. It’s not that hard, but it does take a fair bit of repetition.
So what is muscle memory?
Did you ever do something that involved physical labor for a day, then not do it again for a long period of time? Take chopping wood with an ax, for example. By the end of that day you were probably as proficient as Paul Bunyan and could chop your way through a tornado.
Fast forward a year later and you have not picked up an ax one single time. Then you go to your neighbor’s house one Saturday morning to help him chop wood. You pick up the ax and within five minutes you’re right on cue like you haven’t missed a beat. That is called muscle memory.
The exact same thing can occur in the weight room. You lift weights for a while, then get lazy and fall off the wagon. Several months later, you get an invitation to your 25-year class reunion, so you feel motivated to get back into the gym. You start a program and are quickly able to get right back into the groove you were once in. That’s muscle memory.
Follow the right procedure to build it
Here’s what’s interesting. You don’t need to get fancy when it comes to learning how to build muscle memory. It just happens through repetitive movement. This is clearly evidenced by the chopping wood example. And the same can be said about your work on the gym floor.
The key is repetition. How many repetitions to build muscle memory? The answer to that question is vague. It really depends on the person and the amount of time you dedicate to working out. Think of it like this. Any skill that you learn takes practice and persistence, such as playing the guitar.
You might take lessons or teach yourself and become very good, then stop playing altogether. Three months down the road, you pick up the guitar and start wailing away like you never missed a step. It all comes back to you relatively easily.
Someone else might follow the same path that you did, but it takes them a few days or weeks to get their mojo back. Just as this is very individual, so is muscle memory. The bottom line is, it may take you regular sets of 10 to 12 reps through four weeks to build up muscle memory and it may take someone else half that time.
You won’t know until you take time off from your exercise or workout program and start again. Then you’ll see how easy it is to get back into the groove.
Work out on a regular basis
Obviously, it is going to benefit you to work out on a regular schedule to get the best results for your muscle memory. If you do one training session, take a bunch of weeks or months off, and then do the same exact session again, you will struggle.
But if you do the same pattern of exercises for several weeks in a row, then do something else and come back to them months down the road, you will be able to pick them up quickly.
Utilize complex movement patterns to enhance the effect
A biceps curl is a pretty straightforward exercise to learn and remember. If you do it for a while, then take time off and do it again, it will still be relatively easy.
But if you want to boost your muscle memory, incorporate more complex movement patterns into your workouts. These involve moving in different planes, using multiple muscles and joints, and using your brain to concentrate harder.
Doing these for a series of weeks will make you even more able to remember the simpler drills down the road because they are regressions. Plus, it will make your body more in tune with movement, so you won’t struggle as much when you pick up the complex patterns again.
The answer to how many reps you need to do in order to build muscle memory in this case is less is more. When you do a complex movement pattern like a single-leg handwalk push-up, for example, you are working a lot harder and you have to concentrate much more. Plus, you are activating a lot more of your body. So the reps can be more like 5 or 6 per set.
So when can I work on autopilot?
By learning how to build muscle memory, you will be able to get into good shape faster when you have had a long layoff from exercise. That is the key benefit of it and the main reason why you should focus on it. Just keep working out and keep a check on your form and you won’t even realize it in a matter of weeks you’ll of already begun to develop bodybuilding muscle memory.
P.S If you are starting out or coming back from a break and need some extra help with how to build muscle effectively then take a look at our 101 on how to build muscle below.