If you are familiar with Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, it suggests that there are different learning styles. Among the seven distinct types of learners identified in the theory, bodily-kinesthetic learners have the closest affinity towards BJJ practitioners. These types of learners develop certain sets of skills by using repetitive movements over and over again.
In a gist, this is how muscle memory is developed and honed. Muscle memory is best described when movements were made from procedural memory. By definition, muscle memory is a type of long term cognitive memory created through a symphony of related and repetitious neural and muscular activities. Simply put, it is a product of continuous complex and repetitive motion.
Muscle Memory and Jiu Jitsu
A structured BJJ class involves discussion of a technique, and then followed by doing reps. The instructor will typically correct, recalibrate and fine tune minor and major mistakes the students are making when performing the techniques. Once the proper details to the movements have been learned, it is common in different academies to drill a situation which the technique can be applicable.
During the whole process of a BJJ class, muscle memory is at work. This is the reason why proper technique should always be learned first. Ever heard of the adage “You are what you repeatedly do”? That was a quote from Aristotle explaining how excellence is not an act but actually a habit. Well, it can also work both ways. If you don’t pay attention to details and you are sloppy with things that you repeat, it has the danger of turning things into a wrong habit.
The good thing about muscle memory is that you can outclass, and even outsmart your opponents, as reaction time becomes quicker. You can stay two to three moves ahead. It’s as if playing blitz chess against a Pokémon named Slowpoke. Unfortunately, you can’t create shortcuts when molding the perfect “A” game. It takes a lot of time, effort and dedication in order to refine your techniques based on your body type and preference. This is also the same reason why serious competitors prefer functional exercises over irrelevant isolation exercises. These workouts are programmed to mimic movements during an actual jiu jitsu match, and at the same time develop related muscle groups.
If your BJJ class lasts an hour or two, and you go to class 2-3 times in a week, it is just not enough to master a technique in the shortest possible time. It is important to take supplementary mat time in order to ingrain the movements into your system. Do you ever wonder why Keenan Cornelius is tearing his competition in Purple and Brown? If you lived the BJJ lifestyle 24/7 by training 3 times a day and even living in a house filled with other high caliber jiu jitsu athletes, it’s a no brainer how easy your body can adapt jiu jitsu as a knee jerk instinct.
I’m not saying though that you quit your job and sleep on the mats for the rest of your life. That is just too impractical for most people. The point is, the more that you do things correctly, the better you can be on these areas. For a more practical alternative in turning specific moves to second nature, open mats can help you improve your game a lot. Attending open mats, doing flow rolling and situational partner drills, can give your system the time it needs to process and digest information until you can do things effortlessly.
If you enter the mats packed with 20 warm bodies, it is hard for the instructor to correct your movements to the last detail. Open mats is not only a period of drilling but it can also be a time where you can tweak your movements to maximize efficiency. Open mats can also be the time to inquire about certain alternatives that you can choose to add to your arsenal. But most importantly, open mats is the time where you can add more reps to whatever it is you are working on.
Benefits of Muscle Memory
Other than precision and accuracy of your movements, muscle memory also helps in decreasing the effort in doing certain movements. It’s the body’s natural way of coping with a stressful environment. The more that you do a certain movement, muscles burn fewer calories over time in an effort to achieve balance. As you learn a technique, or any particular movement, it is normal to feel awkward (and even easily exhausted) about it at first. It is the continuous repetitions that help your body become fully acquainted with the timing and motion.
Jiu jitsu is a culmination of not just muscular but also of mental activity. Using leverage and timing in order to hit the proper technique, it is important that you do things over and over again to gain mastery. Mat time contributes a large chunk to your success in jiu jitsu especially during competitions. Behind the use of your mat time is your muscle memory improving or degenerating. Now, how many reps have you done today?
I’m a Filipino BJJ practitioner from Manila. I started practicing Judo in 2008. After discovering my flawed newaza, I decided to join New Breed back in 2010. Now, I am practicing the Gentle Art under professor Mike Ancheta with Hevtek United-Ancheta Jiu Jitsu. I compete every once in a while in local tourneys in under -70kg division. I work as a freelance writer, SEO manager and an overall web guy by day. I am also the founder of Manila Kimonos and blogger for OSS and Roll (Ossandroll.blogspot.com).