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Muscle Memory or Long-term Potentiation?

Posted 31st October 2015 by Josh Schouten

The secret to all the GAINZ you are seeking is right beneath your skin, are you ready to unlock this secret?

“Long-term potentiation” (LTP) is the process in which the connection between two nerve cells is strengthened.  You might like to think about LTP are muscle memory.

We often compare the nervous system to a computer network, but individual nerve cells are not static hardware elements.  Rather, they are highly adaptable; they are also constantly remodeling themselves in response to how they are used.  Our motivations and our movements dictate how the nerves adapt, communicate and grow stronger.  Specifically, repeated stimulation sets in motion a cascading number of changes in the post-synaptic membrane that makes our nervous system faster and stronger.

To appreciate the depth of LTP, it helps to know that the nervous system is comprised of billions of incredibly sophisticated nerve cells called neurons. Our cells pass electrochemical messages to one another across synapses, the gap between the cells. Don’t think for a minute that synapses are just dumb gaps however; cell membranes at these sites are amazingly intricate structures, packed full of thousands of receptors that respond and adapt to chemical influences of upstream pre-synaptic neurons.

Subjectively, the LTP experience can feel like a breakthrough; new tasks and skills often feel hard, hard, hard, hard, hard, hard, and then suddenly easy.  You struggle to complete your reps and wonder if you’ll ever grasp the skill and technique required to successful master a movement.  Then, just when you think that you can’t stand it anymore, the difficulties suddenly dissolve and you’ve got it.  It takes time and patience, but those who take the right steps quickly make progress compared to those who jump straight in at the deep end without learning to swim.

LTP is most dramatic in the early stage of learning movement, after days/weeks/month of repetition; suddenly you will just “get it.”  The difficult sequence of movements and coordination suddenly become easy and automatic.  Hand a child a musical instrument, persuade them to repeat a passage a few times each week and one morning they will wake up and know it instinctively. The process feels and looks magical.

Every time we learn a new fact or practice a new skill, we create a microscopic physical transformation in the body.  When we begin to appreciate that learning consists of actual, measurable changes to cell membranes it makes sense that all education is physical. The purpose of your training should be to challenge yourself to adapt and grow stronger, not just to do as many repetitions as you can by making the movement easier (I hate kipping)!  The athletes who make the most progress are those who consistently spend time training the most challenging” version of the movement they are capable of, not the most difficult level.

When we take this idea into the gym, we should see that LTP is perfectly congruent with what we already know about physical training. No matter what your physical game, success will always depend on a strong base of muscle endurance, mobility, agility, a solid level of strength that protects us from injury, and an open mind to listen to our coaches and work on improving technique – as strength and skill is all based on a foundation of practiced repetitions, learning and memory.

Learning and muscle memory are not just cognitive functions that take place in the brain; they are intimately involved in everything that we do with out bodies, physiology to strength training, from poetry to energy system training.  Just as LTP helps a child remember the musical notes to play, it helps us to remember the physical experience of being strong, fast and fit.  Getting fit and healthy is a process of learning new sensations and strengthening neural pathways, getting out of shape is a process of forgetting.

The nervous system is sculpted by activity, shaped and molded by the things that you repeatedly do.  Repetition remodels our brains; activity becomes structure. Every repetition that you perform sculpts your nervous system and in turn, all the other processes in your body.  The neurons themselves don’t particularly care which circuits get strengthened and which go dormant.  They simply respond to the way they are being used.  This means that we can potentiate almost anything we want.  Practice burning calories and you’ll get better at burning calories.  Practice building muscle and recovering from workouts and you’ll get better at these skills as well.  You can use LTP to sculpt strength, endurance, agility, or any other physical performance quality that you desire.  You can also do poor quality repetitions; practicing poor movement patterns negatively strengthens the wrong circuit that can lead to injury.

LTP is both a blessing and a curse, as it does not always work in our favour.  It’s a blessing when the right circuits get potentiated and the right skills are developed over time.  But the reps that we do in life are not always the ones that will give us good performance, skill and grace.  Bad coaching and bad repetitions can potentiate weakness, inefficient and injurious outcomes.  Do some things over and over again and eventually, you’ll own it (or it will own you).  The habit that LTP gives us can be incredibly strong and many require intensive counter repetitions to break.  It’s much easy to paint on a blank canvas than it is to paint over an existing picture, that is – It’s easier to teach someone something new than it is to reteach him or her how to change poor technique.

The lesson here is that it’s critical to begin the learning process with as much precision and patience as possible.  Whatever you’re after, try to get it right at the outset, as the first moments are crucial.  If you begin the learning process with a series of high quality experiences, your nervous system will lock into place and you’ll own the skill that you’re after.

In a group environment fears and insecurities can sometimes lead us to rushing the learning process and biting off a lot more than we can chew.  We don’t stop and think how rushing the learning process can impact our progress or lead to injury.  The child with the musical instrument will never master a passage of music unless they first learn how to play the required notes.  Learning is a journey and there are not shortcuts.



1. Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality DVD series by Robert Sapolsky, 2005 The Teaching Company

2. Exuberant Animal: The Power of Health, Play and Joyful Movement by Frank Forencich, 2006