Is Muscle Memory Real? Here's How it Works in Shooting

Holster Draw with MantisX

You've heard that it takes 10,000 hours to master something, but did you know it takes at least 20 hours to not be frustrated with that same skill when starting out.  

So what do we do after the frustration, but before the mastery?  

How do we go from one extreme to the other? 

How do we get to the point where it feels like second nature?  

We practice perfectly, over and over again. 

These repetitions create what is commonly known as 'muscle memory' but there is a scientific term for this process called myelination.  So while muscle memory is not real in the sense that muscles have behavioral memory the idea behind it can be developed over time.

Different skills will take different amounts of time to engrain and will be retained for different amounts of time.  This is unique for each individual.  The more time you spend doing something the longer it will last, but the more complex the movement the harder it is to learn and maintain.  That is why some skills are perishable and others are more durable.  

We have all heard the phrase “like riding a bike”, which is a perfect example of a skill most of us learned really well and rather young, so it stuck.  Even if you don’t ride a bike for a decade or two when you get on you still have your ability to balance and seemingly your muscle memory kicks in and it’s like you never stopped riding.  This is a well myelinated path on a fairly easy skill, it is easy to regain and feels like it comes back instantly.  

Now, say you were great on your bike as a kid, could go off jumps, ride a halfpipe, and pop a wheelie.  After all those years of not riding a bike those skills may not come back so easily or even at all depending on if your mind can let you as an adult.

Muscle Memory Means Myelination      

 Myelination occurs through our central nervous system and is the process our brain undergoes as we develop a skill. Each repetition adds an insulating layer to our neural pathways helping us to perform this action the same way each time.  

Let's go back to the example of riding a bike, once you have mastered the balance portion it is rather hard to undo.  Our bodies have been balancing us all our lives, so the skill wasn’t new, just the application.  Since balance is already myelinated, making that subset to balance on a bike then at some point ‘clicks’ which strengthens the myelin sheath around the neural pathway and boom, we can forever balance on a bike.

MyelinationMyelination is ultimately habit based and the process can work for any action. When we repeat the action over and over again our brain knows it is a pathway we are trying not only to make but to strengthen so we can ultimately get better and faster at the repeated action. 

In fact, a myelinated path sends the brain’s signal over 100 times faster than on a non-myelinated path.  However, this doesn’t mean we have to practice quickly, rather the opposite is true.  Having slow and deliberate perfect practice allows us to build up this perfect pathway so that when we reach automatic action our brain has no choice but to choose the correct path.  

It is important to know that incorrect movements will still be mapped and creates an alternate route, one that isn't quite right, so if you become aware mid-action that it is not perfect it is best to stop the action, reset, and start over.  

Never writing that incorrect path means you don't have to work to erase it either.

We went over the example skill of riding a bike and that the process of myelination occurs, reinforcing that neural pathway which improves the speed and engrains the path for that action.  However we did not discuss why we want to myelinate and create that muscle memory.  The reason we want it to occur is because it increases the chance of us getting the action right, which is what gives us the outcome we want.

To explain the why behind this we can look at the filing cabinet analogy, think of each repetition as a  file in a file cabinet.  Each correct repetition has a checkmark on it and each incorrect repetition has an x on it.  Now, if you reach into the filing cabinet and pull out a file randomly there is a statistical chance of if you grab a checkmark or an x, by having more perfectly practiced repetitions you increase the chances of grabbing a file with a checkmark on it.  What this means is the more perfect practice that occurs the more likely a perfect repetition will occur when the skill is summoned. 

Getting all those files to be checkmarks can only be done through consistent, perfect practice which needs to be accomplished by creating habits.

How Myelination (Muscle Memory) applies to Firearms Training

When it comes to myelination, or muscle memory, in firearms training, what is really being encouraged here is perfect repetitions.  These perfect repetitions have a lot going on though, it means hard skills like fundamentals are applied properly but it also brings in soft skills like mentality during training.  Hence, the often used adage “train like you fight”.

Firearms training comes with a lot of moving parts, what is physically being done, the mentality needed, the mental impact of the scenario being prepared for, the consequences of that scenario playing out in the real world, and more.  Not to mention that the vast majority of things are simulated in some way, as they should be for safety reasons.  Training classes are a tremendous experience and absolutely necessary but there is not often enough time in a single class to own a skill.  Which means it is up to every shooter to practice if they want to keep that skill in their repertoire.

Being a good shooter means applying the fundamentals extremely well in a short timeframe, accurately.  Sounds a lot like well built myelination doesn’t it?  But how does a shooter get there? Dry fire of course.

Use of Dry Fire to Myelinate Muscle Memory

It should be no surprise that it is easier to achieve deliberate, perfect reps during dry fire than it is during live fire.  In fact, you can even make an argument that dry fire’s main goal is to myelinate.  We remove the bang portion and allow our central nervous system to calm down and focus on the repetitive action, making that habitual path so deep and fast that when the bang comes back it doesn’t even matter.

Those slow, deliberate dry fire reps give the body the time and opportunity to map that path very intricately.  Going quickly means we may miss some nuances, but going slow allows more to be absorbed.  Just like looking out the window in a car.

Take Advantage of Myelination and Create Muscle Memory

The more you dry fire the quicker you improve, and this is due to the high amount of consistency this type of practice can bring you.  If you conceal carry, there are two opportunities everyday to have a practice snack.  When you put on and take off your holster take the time to practice 5 perfect draws, perfect sight pictures, perfect garment clear, or perfect target transition, etc.  Do it safely of course, but take advantage of that extra 1 minute of practice every morning and evening when the gun is already in your hands.

Safe gun handling and manipulation is full of perishable skills so if you do not continue to practice they will begin to fade. Not completely though as that path can be warmed back up.  Think of draw times, if you work at it you can really whittle the time down, but once you ease up on that hard practice the time creeps back up.  It will be easier to get back to peak performance but the work still has to be done.  

Understanding how myelination creates what we call muscle memory means it’s possible to take advantage of that process and make it work for you.

Unsurprisingly the first way to make it work for you is consistency.  Do it often, even if for small increments, and sometimes for longer ones.  Just keep it up, make that neural path relevant and ready to be called upon at any time.

Another way to take advantage of the process is to watch it happen in a mirror or played back on video, your subconscious mind will make small corrections and see nuances it hadn’t before.  That third person view gives a new layer of information that can be used to refine the neural pathway.

As stated before the slow deliberate reps will help the process engrain, and is expressed by the common saying of “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” that we so often hear in the shooting community.  Don’t forget to stop incorrect reps though, we want to put as few of those into the filing cabinet as possible.

If you have not been doing micro drills, muscle memory is a great reason to start them.  Micro drill just means breaking a skill down and practicing a specific piece of it.  For example, rather than going through the entire presentation process a micro drill would be to only go to grip.  Just getting your hand to the exact place it needs to be to start your master grip can become muscle memory and will set up the rest of the skill to execute perfectly.

Lastly, dry fire can be used to create muscle memory for those skills we don’t get to do much of on range.  If your fundamentals are solid, new add on skills will be introduced.  Learning to walk and shoot at the same time, turning, use of cover, weapons transitions, etc. can all be practiced dry to engrain them.  Things that are easy when done separately now become a little more difficult when you put them together.  Take the time to practice these new skills with the objective of myelination in mind, talk yourself through it and help your neural pathway develop.

Why We Want Muscle Memory

Muscle memory applies to a lot of actions and skills but when we are talking about the use in firearms, what we are looking for is the reassurance that if and when the time comes we will go into auto-pilot, rise to the occasion and perform perfectly to be our own hero.  

Unfortunately that is not likely to be the case, we actually fall to our lowest level of training.  So rather than thinking “ah I’ve got this skill down pat, I’m good to go” your mindset should be more of “I have no idea if or when this is going to happen but I’m going to be as prepared as I possibly can and practice every chance I get”.  

All of this brings up a good question though, how do you know if the practice is perfect?  

Now we have to take this with a grain of salt, as you cannot expect to be perfect while learning something new.  So practicing it to as perfect as your ability can do is a good goal to set.  You may start with a dull blade and practice will sharpen it over time, just make sure the template is blade shaped.  Take the time to review what the ideal is, keep it in mind as you talk yourself through performing the new skill, afterwards ask yourself if you achieved the ideal state.

Being self accountable is only a portion of striving for perfection, training aids can also be useful.  As stated before, watching yourself is a great way to gain a new perspective.  Visual feedback tools like laser cartridges and laser pistols give an approximate point of impact and barrel movement.  When using laser tools remember to look for dots not dashes to indicate a good trigger press.

Digital tools like MantisX and BlackbeardX are able to track muzzle movement and grade each trigger press to then give actionable feedback on how to improve your technique.   These systems will tell you exactly what you are doing for each repetition and can help bring awareness to actions you did not realize were occurring.  Every additional piece of information allows your body to access the skill process and refine it just a bit.  

Then go test it out live fire, did you achieve what you set out to do?  If so you are on the right track, if not go back to the drawing board to figure out where the path went wrong and practice to forge a new one.

As we practice we improve, and that means more and more of the action becomes second nature and your brain has to actively think about it just a little bit less each time.  This happens because our memory for skills, or procedural memory, is stored in the unconscious mind which is why the skill seems to happen automatically.

So what are you waiting for?  Go use some science to make yourself a better shooter.

Kayla House
Kayla House