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Muscle Memory: How the Body and Mind Work Together to Remember Climbing Moves

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Paige Claassen works her way through the beta-intensive Algorithm (5.14d), Discovery Wall, the Fins, Idaho.

Towards the end of September, I drove home from another two-day trip to Rifle with my friend Neely. We were revelling in the perfect autumn temps and consistent breezes that had helped us both make serious progress on our respective projects. After burning through my power attempting Shadow Boxing (5.14d), my primary project, I’d given Apocalypse Now, a textbook Rifle 5.13c a whirl. Neely looked over to me on the drive. “It’s interesting, at the beginning of Apocalypse, you found a sequence that worked really well for you, and on your next try, you did the sequence the exact same way, without hesitating,” she remarked. I didn’t even remember the holds she described, let alone the sequence. My body just “remembered.”

In fact, muscle memory is somewhat of a misnomer. Some studies theorize that muscle cells don’t disappear, even when muscles shrink. This could be why picking a sport back up after years away is never as difficult as learning from scratch. However, as it applies to the shorter timeline of climbing, say the few weeks that you’re trying your project, muscle memory is a process that occurs in the brain. Through repetition, our brain fine tunes the information sent to the muscles. Memory for skills, such as an intricate body position on a climb, is a distinct system. Skill memory is stored differently than fact memory, for example, your knowledge that the earth is round and climate change is real. This could explain why I was able to repeat my beta on Apocalypse Now without recalling the holds or sequence.

In practical terms, muscle memory acts as a beta log stored deep in the brain. I find muscle memory is most important for foot movements, which are often the crux of a route. On Shadow Boxing, for example, it’s relatively obvious where your hands should go, but not the feet. On this route, there aren’t many footholds, which leaves me the option of smearing. The problem with smearing is that you can smear pretty much anywhere, although nowhere is very good. So how do I remember where to smear? Muscle memory. When I find a smear that works, I’ll put a small chalk tick on that spot before rehearsing the move over and over. My body learns the move, and next time I know exactly where to put my foot, even though the tick is gone.

Through repetition, I’m fine tuning my beta log. I want my beta log to be as accurate and specific as possible, and I’m sure you do too. Here are a few practical tips to consciously enhance and reinforce our subconscious muscle memory.

1. Learn

First, take the time to find good beta. Sounds simple enough, right? One of the biggest mistakes I make on projects is to ignore the “easier” parts of a route and only focus on how I’m going to get through the tough sections. Unfortunately, I’m wearing down my reserves on the mellower terrain because I didn’t take the time to find the path of least resistance. Instead, aim to find the easiest beta for each section of the route, no matter the difficulty. Once you’ve decided on a sequence, stick to it. Make it a point to learn the sequence correctly. In this way, you’re training your brain to send the correct signal to your muscles down the road. While this may take more legwork up front, your muscles will thank you down the road when you’re giving redpoint burns.

A word of warning, muscle memory can act against us, too. Repeat the wrong beta too many times, and you’ll have to invest considerable energy to replace your incorrect muscle memory with your new sequence. For this reason, I follow an unusual doctrine when working a project. If I’m not fresh enough to complete moves in good form, I won’t give another burn that day. Even though another attempt could help build my stamina, the risk of learning moves incorrectly is too high. I only try my project once or twice a day. I give 110% on those burns, leaving me drained when I lower to the ground. But I won’t try again when I’m tired. Instead, I’ll let my muscles soak in those bits of beta I rehearsed when I was still fresh and use my last dregs of energy for a different, easier route.

2. Rehearse

Next, when you get down from the wall, rehearse what you learned. I almost never return to the ground without learning something new about the route I was on. In Rifle, Neely encouraged me to record my recap of the new beta I learned on my phone. At home, during the week, I can listen to those voice memos and remember, “oh yeah, I found that new divot in the wall that allowed me to bump my foot up an inch, making the clip easier.” Rehearsing beta in our heads can reinforce the muscle memory we developed on the wall. It’s all in the brain after all, remember?

Another trick I’ve utilized over the years is to draw beta maps of my projects. I was an eager student, but there weren’t many Econ lectures I sat through without drawing beta maps of Grand Ol’ Opry (5.14b) in my notebook. This exercise forces the brain to recall each hold, foot placement, clip, and body position, and then write it down. It also gives you a resource to look back on if you have to step away from a project for an extended period of time. Plus, you never know how many friends will ask to use that beta map (hint, it’s a lot).

3. Execute

Each of these strategies will help you return to the rock more prepared than you left it. The beta is fresh in your mind, your muscles have rehearsed the moves, and you’re ready to execute. At this point, I recommend deep, loud breathing to distract the mind while you’re on the wall. Your muscles know what to do, because your subconscious brain is giving orders based on repetition. Now you just need to calm down the anxious thoughts, and let your body do what it’s been trained for.

Next week, from the time of writing, I’m headed back to Rifle. Once I’ve exhausted myself on my main project, I’ll hop back on Apocalypse Now in hopes that my brain will send my muscles the correct messages to trigger my muscle memory. 

If you’re serious about climbing harder grades with reduced fatigue, then improving your footwork will help you accomplish your goals—and send your projects. Climbing Magazine and pro climber Paige Claassen have teamed up to create Precision Footwork, a 7-week online course which focuses solely on footwork, one of the most crucial—but all too often overlooked—aspects of rock climbing. Learn more and sign up here.