Because if you have been hanging around (ha) at Skylab quite a bit you will have heard me mention muscle memory quite a lot. So what is this mysterious thing called muscle memory and why do you need it?

So let’s start with a definition:

Muscle memory is the ability to reproduce a particular movement without conscious thought, acquired as a result of frequent repetition of that movement. For example typing relies heavily on muscle memory. The secret to learning how to type is to do it over and over again until you have developed muscle memory

So let’s see how this all relates to aerial… First off we need to understand that there are two types of muscle memory, with physiological differences between the two, so let’s take a closer look at both of these:

1.) The kind that helps you get your aerial repertoire back if you have had a training break.

2.) The kind that means you can still do aerial after years and years of not doing it.

The type of muscle memory that makes retraining much easier than the first time you start off

For example you’ve trained aerial for a while – you’ve gotten stronger, then you take a break for a bit, yes you lose a bit of strength but you probably noticed that you seemed to regain strength and size much quicker than the first time around. This is a scientifically verified phenomenon known as ‘muscle memory’, but what exactly is going on?

The science behind it…

The first effect training has on your muscles is not actually growth – it’s to create more nuclei. Through further training and proper diet, these nuclei synthesise new muscle proteins and the muscle fibres grow larger, and yes you get buff. So the key to muscle size and strength is these nuclei and the more nuclei you have the more protein you are able to turn into muscle.

The effects of stopping training

Once you stop training the muscle fibres are resistant to atrophy thanks to the increased amount of nuclei. If you stop training for a much longer time (say 3 months) protein degradation rates exceed protein synthesis rates and the muscles shrink in size… but the important part is that the nuclei aren’t lost.

The good new is…

At some time later when training is resumed, the muscles rapidly grow in size because the step of adding nuclei is ‘skipped’ – once they have been woken up again they can set about synthesising protein pretty sharpish and therefore muscle size increases rapidly.

This is why retraining is easier than the first training performed by those with no previous training history. Good to know the work we’re putting in now will pay dividends for the rest of our lives huh!

And also good to know taking a break is not going to set you back…

So although a couple of weeks of holiday is enough to slightly reduce the size of your muscles, you can rest easy knowing that you’ll probably find it easier to get going again when you know that returning to your previous state of fitness will be much quicker than the first time.

The type of muscle memory that means you can still do aerial after years and years of not doing it.

Muscle memory is the act of completing a particular physical or mental task with such repetition that your body then learns to complete the task more efficiently, using less brain power.

This is not a memory of the muscle but a memory in the brain of a certain muscle movement. After repetition of a certain movement many times the brain learns to do the movement as quickly and efficiently as possible. It needs less processing power and the movement becomes automatic.

It’s all in your head!

These memories are stored in the Perkinje cells of the cerebellum, where the brain encodes information and records whether certain movements are right or wrong. The brain gradually focuses more energy on the correct action and stores it in your long-term memory.

There are three stages in the learning process:

  1. Cognitive Stage: The cognitive stage begins when the learner is first introduced to the skill. This is where the understanding of the skill is to be learned. Individuals focus on how to do the skill rather than actually practising it. This is achieved by watching, thinking, analysing and visualising.
  2. Associative Stage: The associative stage is where the practice of the skill begins. The learner may not be able to perform the skill with a high level but they have an understanding of how it is done.
  3. Autonomous Stage: The autonomous stage is characterised by executing the skill automatically with no conscious thought. The individual can perform the skill fluently and instinctively.

Your ‘aerial body’

Once a movement has been stored in the long term memory then you need to use less of the brain to repeat it, which is when the movement starts to feel natural, instinctual and almost automatic – like you could almost do it in your sleep. This is when I can tell that students have gained what I term as their ‘aerial body’ – once you’ve done a trick over and over your body just knows what to do.

Why this makes you safer

You become safer for two reasons: firstly you become safer at falling – if you make a mistake and fall out of a move your body instantly knows where to put the leg or hand to catch and land safely so as to avoid injury.

It also means that you start to self correct. So if you do your preparation incorrectly, there’s going to be like a red light flashing. Your body’s gonna say, ‘hey this doesn’t feel quite normal – make sure before you let go of your hand, you check where your leg is’ (type of thing) before you execute the move.

It is at this point that I feel happy to let students train by themselves (obviously still working with a spotter). Up until this point we need to spend the time repeating movements over and over in order to build up the muscle memory and train the aerial awareness and train the aerial body.

The importance of correct muscle memory

It is also important to note that just because movements feel natural and you’ve successfully logged a muscle memory to your subconscious, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing it right. For example if you are learning to ride a bike. There is only really one technique to get it right – so the muscle patterns ingrained in your cerebellum are correct.

Learn good technique

But what about learning aerial? There are so many variables and ways to do it wrong (that bend in your leg was intentional right?) that an hour spent training can possibly work to ingrain bad muscle memories. Sadly the only way to correct this is with hours spent doing it right. Anyone who has ever been to one of my Aerial Fit classes will hear me correcting all the time – straight leg straddles pleeeaase! And no micro bending lol!

So make sure when you start training that you learn good technique. Listen to what your teacher says, pay attention to corrections they may tell you, apply the techniques they teach. Make sure you build in good muscle memory at the beginning as this will always pay off in the end.

Three top tips for training muscle memory:

  1. Use correct form: If you don’t use correct form at the start of your training, any flaws in your technique will become bad habits. It will take a long time to break these bad habits, which is why we start training the fundamentals first.
  2. Have expert insight: Work with a professional teacher who can dissect and analyse your performance and point out your bad habits as you’re more unlikely not to be able to see them.
  3. Practice: Practice, practice and more practice is the key. The more you practice the sooner it will become engaged into a muscle memory. The sooner it becomes a muscle memory, the sooner the action will become natural and instinctual and you will be able to spend more focus on improving both your movement and performance.

So my aerial friends that’s it for today. If you liked this post please, like, share and feel free to comment below as I always love to hear what you have to say about it too.