MOVEMENT MEMORY (and Learning vs. Reprogramming)

By Coach E

movement memory

The other day I was watching the kids while my wife had an appointment.

My 5 year old has academic time in the morning where she focuses on reading, writing and/or math.

This day we decided she’d practice her cursive writing. As she was working away, she asked for some help with a lowercase ‘d’.

I grasped the pen and started thinking about how to dot it for her… and couldn’t remember!

Oh no! Could father time be catching up with me?

But then I started actually writing it out and the ‘d’ came out perfectly.


I wrote it a few times and then I could properly dot it for her.

The action of writing a cursive ‘d’ was completely unconscious for me – I couldn’t consciously think of how to do it at all.

This got me thinking about how amazing our body’s memory for movement is.

movement memory - riding a bike

You know the old saying, “It’s just like riding a bike” implying that once you learn how to ride a bike, you never forget (which is mostly true).

This is the power of ‘movement memory’, also known as ‘procedural memory’ – once learned, these types of memories are longer lasting and more quickly recalled.

There are some theories as to why this is but we’re not 100% sure. We just know it’s true.

While this is super helpful as in the example I shared, it can also be problematic when dysfunctional and/or damaging movement patterns are learned and etched into our neuromuscular system.

Because then, whenever this movement pattern is performed, it will be done in the way that it was learned…

… until we reprogram the pattern to update the old ‘movement memory’.

To reprogram requires bringing the movement we want to change back into consciousness where we think about things like where we want our weight distribution across our feet when we squat to be, or to retract the scapulae as we lower down into a Pushup and protract as we raise up as opposed to keeping them pinched down and back the entire time.

scapular movements shoulder rotation

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Every rep for thousands of reps will require this conscious attention for successful reprogramming.

That’s part of the reason why the routines and workouts in my programs are relatively short – they require your full attention and you can’t just tune out and ‘feel the burn’, which adds an element of mental fatigue to account for.

There are two takeaways here:

1) When you’re learning a new movement, invest the effort to get the details right because if you do, it’ll be stored in your neuromuscular system for the long-term, whether it’s a a new Precision Movement exercise, a new sport technique or a new dance move.

Otherwise, it’ll take a lot more time and effort to reprogram it once you burn it into your ‘movement memory’.

2) If you’re trying to reprogram a movement, know that it will require thousands of reps where you’re thinking about performing it in the way you want.

motor learning

According to Schmidt in his book ‘Motor Learning and Performance’, it takes anywhere from 300-500 reps to build a movement pattern or ten times the number (3,000-5,000 reps) to reprogram one.

Don’t get hung up on these #’s – they’re not set in stone or verified across all movements and people. They’re just a rough ballpark figure to illustrate a point. It’s my stance that the greater the attention and effort you give when you’re reprogramming and the better the instructions you follow, the less time it’ll take.

Doing some quick math, if you’re doing an exercise for 3 sets x 10 reps twice a week…

It’ll take just 5 weeks to perform 300 reps (to learn)…

And 50 weeks to get to 3,000 reps (to reprogram).

So the return on investment (ROI) on going slow and devoting your full attention to learning movements at the beginning is crystal clear.

A final word on those who after reading this may have thought, “Dammit this is going to take me forever to reprogram the way I move!” – yes, it’ll take a while – perhaps a year or more – but in that time you’ll be improving and heck, that time is coming whether you like it or not so we might as well put it to good use, no?

About the Author

Eric Wong (aka Coach E) is the founder of Precision Movement and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent his early career training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers. He now dedicates himself to helping active people eliminate pain and improve mobility. He lives in Toronto (Go Leafs Go!) with his wife and two kids and drinks black coffee at work and IPAs at play. Click here to learn more about Eric.