September 23, 2020
If you're an athlete, you're probably familiar with muscle memory—it's why we keep practicing a movement when we want to get better at it. When we repeat a movement like swinging a golf club over and over, the neurons involved in controlling that movement develop stronger and more efficient connections. As a result, our golf swing becomes more automatic, reliable, and forceful the more often we practice.
We tend to think of muscle memory in the context of physical training, but the process of developing muscle memory is not limited to athletes or learning complex physical tasks. The same learning process is going on all the time in your nervous system, every day of your entire life, even if you sit at a desk all day and go home and watch TV at night.
Our nervous system likes to be as efficient as possible, because making fast decisions helps us survive. When our nervous system notices that we keep repeating the same movement or posture, it begins to make that movement or posture automatic.
Muscle memory was critical to our survival hundreds of thousands of years ago. Back then, only the fit survived, and the ability to move quickly and automatically under stress often meant the difference between life and death. For most of us today, our survival is not so dependent on being able to move quickly. However, the process of learning and automating muscular patterns is hardwired into our nervous system, so it occurs whether we want it to or not.
For the most part, developing muscle memory is beneficial. It allows us to move through our daily life efficiently without having to think about mundane tasks like how to brush our teeth or make breakfast.
But since our nervous system wants to help us be as efficient as possible, it will remember any movement or posture that we choose to repeat—even if the movement or posture is unnatural and could potentially cause pain and damage over time.
For example, if we sit slouched forward at our computer day after day, our nervous system learns to keep us in that slouched posture by keeping our chest and abdominal muscles contracted. Our muscles gradually get tighter each day, and our proprioceptive and vestibular systems allow us to get more and more comfortable in this unnatural position. Slouching forward begins to feel normal and even good, and sitting up straight takes effort and feels uncomfortable. We're usually unaware of this subconscious adaptation until, one day, it finally causes us pain.
The patterns of muscle memory that we develop throughout our lives are complex, and based on many different factors: our daily habits, physical training, stress level, any injuries we endure, whether we're right- or left-handed, and even our personalities. The way our muscles tighten up in reaction to all of these factors contributes to our posture, movement, and the way we perform as athletes.
You might be aware that you need to release certain muscles or make a change in how you're using your body, but be struggling to make it happen. That's because the traditional methods we use—like static stretching, massage, rolling, and strengthening—don't retrain the nervous system to release chronic muscle tension and change muscle memory.
The answer lies within our nervous system: pandiculation.
Pandiculation is the nervous system’s natural way of waking up our muscles and preparing us to move. Humans, along with all vertebrate animals, tend to automatically pandiculate when we wake up or when we’ve been sedentary for a while. If you’ve ever seen a dog or cat arch their back when they get up from a nap, or watched a baby stretch their arms and legs as they wake up, you’ve witnessed the pandicular response.
Pandiculation is the nervous system's automatic response to lack of movement and the sensation of tension building up in the muscles—which often go hand in hand. When we pandiculate, we contract the muscles that are tight or unmoving, and then gently release them.
Stretching and arching your back when you wake up might not seem that important, but it actually sends biofeedback to your nervous system about the level of contraction in your muscles. This helps to reset the baseline level of tension in your muscles and prevent the buildup of chronic muscle tension.
For most of us, our modern lifestyles are both sedentary and repetitive. We build up muscle tension by sitting down for much of the day, and when we do exercise, we tend to do the same things and not have much variety in our movement. Unfortunately, as we age and develop habitual ways of standing and moving, our natural pandicular response can’t counteract all the muscle tension we've built up. And as we gradually build up muscle tension and lose awareness and control of our muscles, our pandicular response can become inhibited.
Thomas Hanna, the founder of Clinical Somatic Education, studied neurophysiology and the effects of the pandicular response. In the 1970s and 80s, he developed a systematic way to use our natural pandicular response and make it even more effective—by slowing down the contraction and release, and by doing the movement voluntarily rather than relying on it to kick in as an automatic reaction.
The technique of voluntary pandiculation that Hanna developed is a highly specialized type of eccentric contraction (the action of muscles that are engaged while they lengthen under load). Picture what your biceps are doing as you lower a dumbbell, for example. The muscles are slowly lengthening, but are still engaged as long as you hold the weight.
A voluntary pandiculation is performed very slowly and consciously so that the nervous system is able to sense and integrate the biofeedback that the movement provides. The opposing muscles should not engage during the pandiculation. And the resistance must be applied so that the actively lengthening muscles are fully engaged throughout the range of motion. In the self-care exercises that Hanna developed, gravity provides the only resistance. This means you have to be in specific positions relative to gravity in order to pandiculate muscle groups correctly.
Hanna found that his groundbreaking technique of voluntary pandiculation quickly reduced muscle tension. And since it reduced muscle tension through learning rather than manipulation or stretching, the effects were long-lasting. He used pandiculation to help people relieve chronic pain conditions and postural issues, like back pain, joint pain, disc problems, scoliosis, rounded posture, functional leg length discrepancy, and more.
Hanna originally developed pandiculation to help people get out of pain and lead more functional lives, but athletes have discovered how it enhances their performance, prevents injuries, and extends their athletic career. By using pandiculation to release chronic muscle tension and retrain your muscle memory, you'll:
If you want to learn more about Clinical Somatics, visit https://somaticmovementcenter.com and check out The Pain Relief Secret, available on Amazon.
Founder & Training Director
Layn has spent his life immersed in the worlds of fitness and physical performance. As an athlete, he’s completed multiple endurance events such as the Texas Bandera 50k Trail Run, Austria’s Ironman 70.3, and the Alaskaman Extreme Ironman. He’s been coaching since 2008 with certifications in USA Weightlifting Level 1, CrossFit Level 1, Strong First L1, and the National Academy of Sports Medicine.