How Many Reps for Muscle Memory?

     How many reps was that again? 
     I was watching a gun training DVD last week, and the featured, world-famous instructor issued the statement, "It takes 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions to burn a movement into your body's muscle memory."
     There were those magic numbers again, I thought. "Three thousand to five thousand." Again and again. It has become muscle memory chakra just to regurgitate those very stats. I've heard those numbers repeated hundreds of times through the last 30 years. I certainly have heard it repeated by police trainers. The week before, I read the words of Officer Tom Crydell (I've changed the name here) writing in the Tactical Response Magazine police journal, "Excellence then is not an act, but a habit." It has been said that it requires 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions to develop "muscle memory" or a subconscious response to an external stimuli.
     "While we know that our brain is the only part of our body that has the ability to retain memory, the consistent application and practice of these active listening skills allows us the ability to incorporate them into our daily communication patterns and ensure that they are available to us during critical hostage negotiation processes."

     "It has been said.…" - these famous words again. In this example, Tom has extrapolated the numbers to audible listening skills. He suggests we practice … listening … 5,000 times? To what exactly? How exactly?
     Then we hear the numbers again from hundreds of martial arts instructors. I fear they have heard police quote the stats, and they think that we are some reliable sources. But the numbers also lead the enforcement, military, and martial fields into sports. A famous golf instructor said, "It has also been determined that it takes between 3,000 and 5,000 repetitions of a movement pattern to learn an exercise."
     A baseball training academy said, "Hitting instructors have noted that it takes between 3,000 and 5,000 repetitions to ingrain the muscle memory needed to hit a baseball." 
     I have even read about a horse jockey school applying these mysterious numbers over to training horses! I await news from the flea circus! Brace yourself for this one, "Experts have established that it takes from 40,000 to 50,000 repetitions of a certain motor task to achieve the complete stabilization and automation of one's technique."  
     Yes, 40,000 to 50,000 say the experts. Old experts anyway. But even major, respected research papers that quote that line and figure fail to identify who these experts are. But the more common examples of how the "3,000-to-5,000-reps" concept has permeated and fermented into the professional training psyche. Sounds like a lot of reps, even for horses and fleas. But it can get worse; one of my student's physical trainers told him it took 8,000 repetitions to adequately learn a new physical move. Now we are up to 8,000! I know not this mysterious trainer or from where this new number originates, just that he is out …working and photosensitizing.
     For a common citizen, this seems like an unimportant statistic, except for sports coaches, to ponder; but to a professional trainer of police, soldiers, and security specialists, the idea of implementing 3,000 or more repetitions is overwhelming given the budgetary restraints of training time and money. Expectations are lowered. Courses are dumbed down to ape-man level, all under the crushing idea that a single physical tactic will take 3,000 to – now 8,000 – repetitions to become effective. Quote these figures to many training administrators, and some will throw their hands up in anguish, toss in the towel, and surrender to the inept stupidity of man. The curse of the layman.
     "Layman" means a person who is a non-expert in a given field of knowledge. While one might be the king of the rifle range, a trophy-winning pistol shooter, might be able to explain the chemical mixture of pepper spray in a rainstorm, or win a UFC fight, most of us are laymen in the related fields of psychology, physiology, and motor skill learning.
     As you can see from these given examples, the 3,000 to 5,000 stats follow the opening layman remarks, "Everyone knows that.…" or "It has been said," or "It has been determined." All warning-flag statements to me. Well, I had to ask myself, "Where do these magic numbers actually come from?" Ever the skeptic of dogma, I took a deeper look. I learned that while many laymen hear these numbers regurgitated, few if any, know the true story and facts behind them, and guess what? When you do discover the truth? Almost every layman is wrong.

     Approximately. About. Most. Three words always gingerly placed in and around all statistical studies. Next comes my anecdotal approximate/about/most position based on my own personal teaching experience. I shall start with the aforementioned warning-flag phrase, "everyone knows," but I do strongly believe that "everyone really knows" that people come in all shapes, sizes, strengths, and skills. In the last two decades, I have taught hand, stick, knife, and gun tactics to thousands of people worldwide. As I look over a crowd of practitioners in seminars now, I am well aware that each student will have a different learning repetition ratio. One might really "get" something with only 75 reps; another person may take 6,000. Another, even 10,000. Thus, these statistical means and averages are created inside a broad continuum. I myself, with black belts in several martial arts, have noted that I can obtain a healthy working knowledge on a new takedown or movement within about 150 exercises. But start me on ice skating, and it will take decades.
     No matter how long or short it requires to first burn a pattern into one’s muscle memory, all skills are perishable and need to be exercised with some frequency that is – once again - different for each person. Generalized means studies for the masses may be established as general guidelines for such refreshment. Remember, the "masters," be they in golf, cooking, baseball, piano, or karate … practice forever. The masters lose count and just practice for practice's sake. That's why they are masters. Something is going on within them that is more than just repetition numbers.
     "When I went to jump school, they TOLD us what to do if we ended up on top of another jumper's chute. (Realize you are on a chute and run off as fast as possible.) You do not have any way to train even one time for that scenario, even though it means your and the other jumper's life and death. Yet it has happened to me, and I have seen it happen to many others; and everyone was able to remember what we were TOLD, and we did it and lived. How did we do it without 3,000-5,000 reps to develop muscle memory in order to save our own lives?" - Jim Hartigan
     Do I believe wholeheartedly in these Schmidt numbers? No. I think they are high for both new and correctional training. But such individuality aside, we have leaned here that some respected experts report the averaged numbers 300 to 500 repetitions are needed to learn something new, not 3,000 to 5,000 (or 8,000). I remain fascinated that no one questioned these low or high numbers, and I remain fascinated that so many people picked the wrong end of this study to quote and re-quote! Look at the pessimistic results of their error.

     I think in the end it is very situational. It depends upon:
  • The task.
  • The person.
  • The situation.
     Yes, you can train new people or people new to a certain movement with at least a mere 10 percent of time and effort that the previously abused layman figures suggest. Ten percent! Trainers! Start your engines! You may now pick up those towels you've previously tossed in abject surrender!

And How Many Hours?

     EVERYBODY knows Malcolm Gladwell! He has produced some of the biggest bestseller books in the last 10 years. Tipping Point, Outliers, and so on. They are far-reaching books sold in many languages. One of the popular topics he covered was the "10,000 Hours to Mastery" concept. He called it “the magic number of greatness.” Another popular expert, Geoff Colvin, glommed onto the number in his book, Talent is Overrated. But Gladwell words spread further and wider. Since the Gladwell books, the 10,000-hours quote has become quite a fad thrown-down figure for expertise. All kinds of people use it for all kinds of fields as a universal number, and many have written all kinds of concrete essays and training manuals on the idea of 10,000 hours.

     The 10,000-hours concept actually comes from a study of violin and piano players done in the early 1990s by a psychologist, Anders Ericsson. But … Ericsson himself, it should be noted, never used the term 10,000-hours rule. In a 2012 paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, he ascribed the phrase's popularity to a chapter in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which, he wrote, misconstrued the conclusions of the violin study,” reports David Epstein in the The Sports Gene.
     No one has ever done a real-time, official clock study on the 10,000-hours idea, not Ericsson and certainly not Gladwell or Colvin. It is a figure more or less grasped from the air, but some studies are now just in the works. One chess player in a strict time study reached mastery at 3,000 hours. Some have worked for 25,000 and have not achieved the common consensus of chess mastery.
     The 10,000-hours crowd find their misconstrued origin in musical students. But what about athletic performance? “Studies of athletes have tended to find that the top competitors require far less than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach elite status,” reports The Sports Gene.
     Donald Thomas is often used as an example that wounds the 10,000-hours myth because he won world championships in high jumping after eight months of what his coaches called distracted training. Left alone to practice, Thomas would wander off to the nearby basketball court and shoot baskets. He came nowhere near any sort of 10,000 mark yet broke amazing records.

     Robert Bragg Jr., manager of fitness, force, and firearms training for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission's academy, said, "Forget the claims that it takes 3,000 reps to learn a new physical technique or 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery, Bragg advises. "People have different abilities and learn at different rates. Yes, repetition is essential--you've got to get the reps in--but what you do before and after the repetition may be more important to learning than the mere repetition itself."
He recommends this approach: "Form a mental image of the movements you want to make. Imagine and feel the movements before you do them. Then do them. Then analyze how you did. How close did your performance match your imagination? Was your attention focused on the right things? That makes a valuable rep, not just going through the motions.
      'This can be a laborious process, much harder than thinking you can just do a lot of reps and magically get better. It takes mental work to learn a physical skill. But at some point, you'll find that your performance becomes reliably automatic and can be replicated without conscious thought when you're under real-world stress. That's not to say, though, that you reach a point where you can afford to stop learning. Motor learning is a process that never ends."
     If you are using the 10,000-hour mastery concept in your training speeches? I suggest you stop. You are spreading false information and a misconstrued myth. What should you say? How's about “practice a whole lot and never stop.” And “everybody's different.”
Read The Sports Gene
Extensive European Report on the 10 Thousand Hour Rule

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