How to Develop Muscle Memory
Special Forces Guys, Emergency Medical and First Responders, SWAT entry officers and experienced trainers all have the skill, but what does it take for the average defensive shooter to develop muscle memory and the ability to react in time of crisis?
It's a question that hundreds of blog posts have tried to answer over the years and more recently is seeing whole books devoted to the subject. We know the concept of "muscle memory" exists in legitimate survival scenarios and utilizing large muscles in physical situations. But how much of it is myth and how much of it is reality.
Muscle vs. Memory argument
First, it's important to understand, that from the most basic physiological perspective, it is less about muscles and more about memory. Sure, the muscles carry out the action, but it is the response triggered by a synapse firing in the brain. The fact that it happens almost without thinking and without delay makes it seem even more local to your extremities. Rest assured it is more like comparing your brain to a stick of RAM in a computer that allows your computer to recall that action quickly without waiting to spin up the hard drive.
Secondly: blindly following what is easy, is almost never the best routine. In fact, it is often the worst possible tactic. For the development of accurate, beneficial "muscle memory" one must understand the actual mechanics of the procedure and work on it slowly until it can be repeated without error. AFTER, and only after, the proper technique is learned, should the brain and muscles be put into harmony to practice on speed, reaction, timing and implementation.
Thirdly: repetition has less to do with refining reactionary work, than does legitimate real world training.
How Muscle Memory Works With Concealed Carry
Your spouse decides one day that they are going to rearrange all the drawers and cabinets in your kitchen. All of the sudden, the forks and knives are in the drawer on your kitchen island instead of under the far left cabinet. The plates are under the counter where you have to bend down to get one instead of reaching above the stove. The glasses and mugs are on the opposite side of the kitchen.
How long would it take you to re-learn where everything is? Days. Even then, you would find yourself consistently opening the wrong drawer only to find the opposite of what you want in the drawer.
But here is where this example makes the most sense: After a day or two (maybe three or four if you're like me), you start to open the wrong drawer and before you even look down, you know you've made a mistake. Then it starts to improve to where you only make half the trip through the kitchen before you realize you're going to the wrong drawer. Eventually, you get to the point where you are making an active full-stop in your brain to think, before you even move, where you actually want to end up and why.
You might never be able to keep your spouse from re-working the kitchen utensil placement once every year, but if you train with the proper techniques you can certainly control how you react when a defensive shooting scenario unfolds.
So here's the takeaway:
Understand that you are developing brain capacity, not muscle reaction
Study the right techniques and develop a gameplan
Add variance, unrealistic scenarios AND realistic scenarios and train by keeping yourself guessing.
Use all your senses
Recognize that reactions to environmental stimulus are combinations of processing input and stored responses. Develop your ability to understand each input as things happen. What triggers when you see something in your periphery? How do you react when you hear a loud disorienting sound? What happens when there are others involved? What does your body do when you reach for your gun and it's not the firearm you remember?
For lack of a better example: this is why special forces groups train tired, hungry, in bogs, underwater and in inclement weather. They are desiring to be able to perform, regardless of the input they are receiving or the duress they might experience.
Become an Expert
Learn what the moving parts are for a given scenario.
Take the bird’s eye view, the helicopter approach; try to visualize what is happening in different places around you to understand the potential input sources and how they are viewed and potentially reacted to by others involved.
Do this drill for hundreds of potential scenarios. Use a pen and paper. Refine your notes. Understand why someone will do what they do, and write down exactly what you will do in a given scenario. Ask for feedback from trusted sources. Study your notes and become an expert from multiple vantage points.
Use the tools you expect to have available
Find the right tools. Learn their design. Get intimately familiar with them. No one wants to be in a knife fight. But if you are, you want to make sure you at least have the knife you know and trained with, rather than being knife-less up against a guy with a knife. A gun fight is the same thing: know your weapon. Most importantly: have a knife. Have a gun.
Know those tools. Be able to understand how to perform reactionary procedures and how to recognize the need to perform them. Drawing your weapon from its holster; clearing a jam; loading a magazine or cylinder; actuating the safety; performing a double tap, or whatever it might be.
Practice / Train / Develop over time
Actually put in the work. Take what you have learned from the prior exercises and put them into practice.
Don't do rote, ritual drills. Do meaningful specific drills. Do them for short periods of time and do them over time. Don't be afraid to only do them in sets of two or three. For example you want to practice drawing from your holster.
Change up your routine
Mix it up. Don't do the same drills over and over. Find new ways to put stress on yourself. Do so safely, but, simply put: challenge yourself. Try just holding your firearm one armed for 20 minutes on target. Not that I'm suggesting that will help you develop a tactical advantage, but I am suggesting you test your capacity by doing drills that help develop your holistic planning and your physical capability.
Set goals and develop a purpose
Put yourself through legitimate test runs and hold yourself accountable. Set impossible standards and whittle away at the goal until you truly have developed the best possible capabilities in defensive shooting.
Muscle memory is little more than utilizing a legitimate plan, while understanding how it actually develops and pushing yourself to develop each point on the plan.
In the end, muscle memory as spelled out above, is less about muscles and more about memory. Start with the right memory and do all you can to hold yourself to a high standard; there is an incredible tactical advantage to be gained through purposeful, correct training.
About The Author
Benjamin Worthen is a former Gunsmith of more than 20 years. He now works as a writer in the firearms industry and as a marketing consultant for several industries including the Political and Firearms arenas. He has worked in consulting capacities and as a contract vendor for the military and law enforcement agencies and as a firearms designer and engineer for proof of concept pieces and custom firearms. He is a vocal supporter of Second Amendment rights.