One of the most important differences between beginning, intermediate, advanced, and expert martial artists is the level of muscle memory that is acquired. When a movement is repeated over time, long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Examples of muscle memory include riding a bike, typing on a keyboard, even handwriting, walking and talking.
Although the precise mechanism of muscle memory is unknown, what is theorized is that anyone learning a new activity, or practicing an old one has significant brain activity during this time. The walking child is gradually building neural pathways that will give the muscles a sense of muscle memory. In other words, even without thinking, the child is soon able to walk, and the muscles are completely accustomed to this process. The child doesn’t have to tell the body to walk; the body just knows how to do it, largely because neurons communicate with the muscles and say, “walk now.”
Muscle memory thus becomes an unconscious process. The muscles grow accustomed to certain types of movement. This is extremely important in kung fu training and is also why learning to do things right the first time is stressed. You want your muscle memory to reflect the correct way to do things, not the incorrect way. Your muscle memory can actually play against you if you’ve constantly been practicing something the wrong way.
Teaching kung fu to students who have trained at other martial arts schools is typically more difficult than teaching someone without training. It’s a lot harder to teach someone who’s learned a different fighting style for a few years because the first step is breaking them of the incorrect or incongruent habits they’ve acquired, which are now part of the muscle memory. This requires diligence on part of both the teacher and student to focus effort on changing muscle memory.
Most top level athletes and performers in a variety of fields believe that muscle memory is best developed when the same activities are practiced over and over again, with any corrections of form that are needed. Thus, there needs to be a focus on the “quality of the quantity” of training. This consistent and continual practice is what is required to develop kung fu fluency.
Beginning students are simply learning and internalizing the basic kung fu movements of stances, kicks, punches, etc. As students improve, they are good enough to apply what they’ve learned in sparring at an intermediate level – although they may appear clumsy and uncoordinated. At this point, these students typically still lack the muscle memory needed to adequately defend an opponent’s counter to their attack. After much more practice and development of muscle memory, the student’s abilities become advanced and are then adeptly able to counter their opponent’s counter. Because muscle memory doesn’t require conscious thought, it is smooth, quick, and powerful. The final step, to reach an expert level of skill, requires such a massive amount of muscle memory and reflexive skill that very little thought is used when sparring. The body just does what it has been programmed to do thru repetitive movements and the accumulation of muscle memory.