Muscle Memory, Muscle Confusion, and Discipleship.

I might as well admit this from the get go…I don’t exercise. If there is some credit dished out for simply wanting to, well, then I would get a lot of credit, because, well, I do really want to. I think about exercising almost incessantly, seriously. I imagine myself sweating on a treadmill losing calories with my iPod strapped to my bulging bicep running with a stride that looks effortlessly Olympic-like.

Sometimes when I’m sitting at home watching U.F.C. on Spike I’ll lunge from the couch throwing myself on the floor to spastically perform pushups. I punish myself until I couldn’t possibly do one more. Shaking and spent, I crawl back to the couch, reclining into the cushions trembling a bit from the muscle spasms. It’s funny, really. If you were to see it voyeuristically through the window, it would look as if I was having a seizure while being chased by bandits. Frantic.

So when it comes to exercise and fitness, I’m not one to speak.

That being said, I have been intrigued recently with muscles. I’ve heard a couple terms on the news that have piqued my curiosity.

Muscle Memory and Muscle Confusion.

I was watching ESPN a few weeks ago and they were doing a piece on Tim Tebow, former Heisman quarterback for the Florida Gators and current backup quarterback for the Denver Broncos. He has been a talking point for the last couple years in the news because of his unique mixture of physical strength and mental toughness combined with his awkward throwing motion and less than ideal in-the-pocket instincts. Some believed that despite his uber-talent he wouldn’t be drafted because of the bad athletic habits he developed over the years with his throwing technique. Talk radio even said that he would have to abandon the quarterback position and try to learn the line-backer position or something crazy like that.

The brief documentary catalogued the extensive lengths he was going to in order to reverse his muscular instincts (what his muscles do when he isn’t thinking about them). He would throw the football up to 1,500 times a day trying to unlearn certain “muscular memories” and to retrain those muscles to function differently “by default”. It is easy to do the right thing when you’re in a training facility practicing the drill, but it is another thing all together to be in a game-time situation and to execute the drill “by default”. They showed the progress of his arm over the months of grueling throwing exercises. Inch by inch he has been retraining his muscle memory to act according to “correct techniques” instead of “learned habits”.

This was intriguing to me.

Yesterday, I was talking to a buddy and he brought up this whole idea of “muscle confusion” and the belief that in exercise the more you confuse your muscles with a variety of exercises instead of the same routines, the stronger and healthier it is for your body.

Many exercise programs are tapping into this “newfound” technique which, truth-be-told, isn’t all that new. They are finding that muscles respond with increased mass as well as increased strength to the programs that emphasize “muscle confusion” as opposed to “standardized routines” of exercise. When you break down the muscle and take it to the limit and then change the angle of the pressure or the frequency of the pressure, your muscles don’t have the ability to build up a tolerance or immunity to the predictable pressure. It is this confusion that leads to greater strength and faster growth.

I have seen both “muscle memory” and “muscle confusion” at work in my discipleship over the years. There are several learned habits that I’ve been trying to reverse for years to no avail. No matter how much I kick against the goads, I walk the same cow path I’ve always instinctively taken. I’ve enacted cow-tipping techniques. I’ve butchered sacred cows. But at the end of the day, the cow path is my default. Muscle memory dies hard.

And yet, I’ve seen small incremental changes down through the years. Yet in almost every case, the change has been wrought by God taking me through a set of “muscle-confusion” situations. I hate these times because they feel so disturbing and disorienting. Honestly, they are so painfully “uncalled for” that I sometimes wonder if it is Satan or God due to how disruptive these times are in my life. I open the Bible and when I look at my life and then I look at the pages of script in front of me telling me a different story, I’m confused. It is this “confusion” that messes with my “memory” and the categories I’ve become accustomed to and faithfully abided by.

But as I lean into the confusion, I find myself growing stronger. And even though everything inside of me is screaming to return to my “default setting”, I know my muscular instincts are driven by self-preservation more than self-sacrifice. As I reject their routines and lean into the unpredictable call of God, I find a newfound strength fill my life.

This is discipleship…the un-training and re-training of the flesh and spirit. As we move from the memory of the Flesh into the confusion of the Spirit, it is then that we begin the pilgrimage of really following God. Whatever we called it before this radical conversion is probably something closer to a religion of our own making.


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