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Muscle memory and Pilates

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

Muscle memory and Pilates

You may have heard it said that Muscles have memories. It’s true they do; and its one of the best reasons for taking up Pilates.

What is muscle memory?

The dictionary definition is:

“…….. the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement:

"Typing, relies heavily on muscle memory" · "the secret to learning a technique like this is to do it over and over again until you have developed muscle memory"

If you consider that your lifestyle may involve regularly sitting down for long periods, coupled with the “forward head” position of looking at a screen/mobile phone/TV; shoulders rounded forwards; spine slouching. Sound familiar?

Your body becomes accustomed to these repetitive practices and eventually it becomes the body’s’ default position. This is a part of muscle memory. Amongst other things, one of the consequences of the prolonged sitting and forward head syndrome, is tight, shortened hamstrings, which leads to decreased range of movement and can lead to other musk-skeletal issues such as decreased spinal range and also back pain. So, it’s really important what habits you teach your muscles.

How does muscle memory work?

Your muscles have both physiological memory and a neurological memory. The neurological memory, is tied to the recall of learned activity, while the other form, physiological, is related to the regrowth of actual muscle tissue.

The neurological side is motor learning that occurs in the central nervous system, which is comprised of your brain and spinal cord. Through continued repetition of certain movements, your brain and spinal cord — working both in tandem and independently— create strong efficient neural pathways to transmit the appropriate signals to whatever body part needs to be activated.

The physiological side of muscle memory has to do with the ability to quickly regain lost muscle. This is often seen in people who frequent the gym, then have a prolonged break in their routine. While they may lose muscle mass due to their inactivity, it will typically return more quickly than when they start a regular routine again. This type of muscle memory also means your brain no longer has to think so much about the movement. As you progress through a regular routine your brain is still working hard, but your movements become more fluid and consistent; the movement becomes autonomous.

This is like Pilates; you learn the foundation movements and through the application of the principles of control, precision, coordination, focus, breath and flow. Your movement patterns become autonomous – you reap the benefits.

Muscle memory is achieved when you reach the autonomous stage. Your performance is now smooth and accurate, and your brain’s main activity has switched to automatic functioning. But you need to be conscious about the movement patterns that you develop. Be mindful that there will be constraints for each individual due to your height, weight and fitness level etc. There will be modifications that need to be made in accordance with these constraints.

How can muscle memory be used to your benefit?

Pilates is an all over body fitness conditioning - it provides the creation of good muscle memory. The act of focusing on the correct muscle recruitment with precision and control affords both reconditioning and rehabilitation.

Pilates is often described as a mind-body workout. Conscious movement patterns reduce the risk of injury and lead to better results. Conscious movement patterns focus on engaging the correct muscles to do the job efficiently and help to rebalance movement; stretching those muscles that are tight and activating those that are slack. By slowing down, connecting with your breath pattern and enhancing your awareness of “how” you are moving, you will be creating mindful movement.

Pilates encourages full range muscle movements. The repetitive nature of applying the Pilates approach is consistent to creating good muscle memory; and good muscle memory applies itself to improving movement in other sports or everyday activities. Sporting disciplines such as football, tennis, golf as well as dance, athletics and others, can involve complexed movement patterns. By engaging in Pilates exercise you can gain an improved strength and stability to optimise your movement patterns along with a myriad of other advantages that benefit the entire human body, including the mind.

But, as with all forms of exercise, it isn’t a magic potion. You can’t just show up and “go through the motions”, and expect results: it takes effort.

It takes regular practice and application of the exercise principles over a period of time.

Put the work in. Your hard work will pay dividends.

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