Movement and memory – how to remember movement faster

August 30, 2020

I get a lot of questions from students asking if they can use mnemonic techniques to improve their ability to remembering movement.

Exercise is good for your memory. But is memory good for exercise? Can we use memory techniques to improve our ability to remember physical exercises, or any movement?

Absolutely. I do it all the time.

Using memory techniques improves your short-term memory and allows you to learn movements faster, and it also  allows you to understand the movement on a deeper level. This means you also improve how well you are performing the movement.

First, let’s clarify what is movement. It may be broader than you think.You could be trying to learn exercises, tai chi, a martial art or dance. But you could also be learning smaller or subtle movements like playing an instrument, sign language or touch typing.

All these forms of movement can be learned with adaptions of the same basic memory idea – translate something that is not memorable into something that is.

Normally this translation uses visualized images or stories to picture the information being learned.Sometimes the requirement is to learn movement only, such as in tai chi. Often both the movement and its name need to be learned, such as in dance, music or martial arts.

Whatever the case you can use memory techniques to increase your memory power and learn faster.

Let’s look at the steps to do this.

The first step is to understand the movement

This can be done by running through a few questions. Not every question here will be relevant for every movement, so pick out the best for your exercise from this list.

Ask yourself:

  • Shape – Does the movement draw a shape in space?
  • Shape orientation – When looking at the shape drawn is it vertical, horizontal, 2D or 3D?
  • Pattern ground – Does the movement draw a pattern on the ground?
  • Pattern other – Does the movement draw a pattern in another plane? (ie on a vertical wall)
  • Feel – How does the movement feel? (smooth, sharp, zig zag, round)
  • Size – What is the size of the movement? Compare it to your body – eg the size of finger, or it comes up to half your height.
  • Size change – Does the size of the shape change or stay the same throughout the exercise?
  • Parts of the body – If several parts of your body move together are they simultaneous or does one lead and others follow?
  • Speed – What is the speed of the movement? Is it slow, fast, continuous, or does it have a rhythm that changes.
  • Association – Does the movement or the name remind you of anything you can visualize? The movement may remind you of something (eg a person teetering on a type rope) or the name of it may sound like something (eg sounds a bit like mouse)
  • Corrections – Is there anything with this step the teacher keeps telling me I need to work on?

The second step is to create a combined image.

Use the answers to the questions above to create a combined image to represent the information.

The last step is to attach the image to the movement and its name.


Let’s look at a Taekwondo example to understand how this works.

Chagi means kick in Korean, and for simplicity we will assume that on a previous occasion we have memorized this in a similar process. There is front kick, side kick, back kick, roundhouse kick and many others. They are all something Chagi.

A side kick in Taekwondo is called Yop Chagi. Without going into too much detail, Yop Chagi is :

One knee bends up high close to the chest, while the supporting foot turns so you do around a 90 degree turn with your body facing a new corner. The lifted knee then kicks out to the side (where your front was) while the standing foot (and body) rotates again nearly another 90 degrees. The foot is flexed back and the edge of the kicking foot is parallel to the floor/ceiling.

You need to learn the name and know the move Yop Chagi for your next Taekwondo exam.

First step – understand the movement.

First mentally run through a list similar to this and identify the answers (or notice when you don’t know the answer).

Often, just the act of this analysis will help you to remember the movement. This examination also leads to a deeper understanding of the movement as you analyse what it is you do. Sometimes it even helps as it identifies what you don’t know, does the leg move in an arc or does it kick up directly. Before running through the mnemonic learning technique, one may not have realised there was a choice.

  • Shape – Looking at the kicking leg, there is a horizontal line drawn as the leg is pulled up bent toward the chest, as the kick happens this line extends out. This can be at different heights but in my mind it looks like a right angle is drawn.
  • Shape orientation – Vertical and horizontal, feels like a 2D shape for the kicking leg, but when you add the rotation of the supporting leg it has a 3D feel.
  • Pattern ground – The supporting foot draws a half circle (semicircle) on the floor as you turn.
  • Pattern other – The kicking leg draws a 90 degree angle in vertical space up to mid body.
  • Feel – First part feels smooth, the kicking feels quick.
  • Size – Comes up at least half way on my body.
  • Size Change – The size of the kicking leg movement (90 degree shape) stays the same.
  • Parts of the body – There is consecutive movement, not all at once
  • Speed – Rhythm changes throughout the movement.
  • Association – Movement reminds me of a 90 degree ruler angle. When I brainstorm the name Yop it reminds me of hop, slop, pop and other rhyming words. Because it is Yop I would likely go with a variation on one of theses linked with something to remind me of the y. Like Yellow and hop, Yop.
  • Corrections – there are two : Make sure to kick directly to the side.
    Use a good flicking action with my leg.

Second step – create a combined image.

Some of these questions will help in memorizing the move and its name, and in addition all of them are good questions for really understanding a movement (which is a vital part of remembering it).

  • Name image – Lets deal with the name first – Yop. To make the name I came up with two images – yellow and hop.
  • Movement image – Kicking leg image. For me the 90 degree shape of the kicking leg is a pretty clear image. I see a right angle ruler. This right angle has two lines – the leg drawn up to the chest vertical line, and then kicking out to the side for the horizontal line.
  • Supporting foot image  – Simultaneously, I can clearly see that the supporting foot moves in a semicircle. Seeing as I have imagined the kicking leg as a right angle ruler, I will make the supporting foot a half circle ruler.

These images are then joined together – I see a semicircle ruler flat on the floor with a right angle ruler rising vertically from its centre then going out horizontal at hip height.

My main focus is on the kicking leg image.

Third step – attach the image to the movement and its name.

Finally I link this all together onto the movement.

I stand in the room and do the movement slow motion. As my supporting leg turns I imagine it is standing on a half circle ruler. As my kicking leg starts to draw up to my chest I imagine the vertical line in my head. I also see my foot draw this vertical line with a yellow highlighter, yellow to remember the Y in Yop. As I kick my leg out to the side I see the yellow line drawing horizontally to create the right angle ruler. I am careful not to hop (for Yop) which would mess up my neatly drawn lines.

For my teacher’s corrections:

  • Make sure to kick directly to the side of me : I simply note that my right angle ruler needs to be not warped so the horizontal line is straight.
  • Use a good flicking action with my leg : I see the highlighter speed up the drawing process on the top horizontal line of the right angled ruler, with a flick upwards.

In my mind when the move is completed I imagine a straight right angle ruler balancing on the semicircle ruler which is flat on the ground. There is a yellow line drawn on the right angle and because I haven’t hopped this line is neatly drawn, with the top horizontal line flicked up at the end.

And that’s it. Sounds like a lot, but once you have the images it is simple – and memorable.

The next time I am at class I am more far likely to remember how to do Yop Chagi, and with the analysis done to remember it I am also more likely to do it well. I am also more likely to notice corrections the teacher gives about it that I did not previously understand.

Big learning projects

Often your learning will require you to repeat the same moves in different sequences. Think playing an instrument, dance, and martial arts. In this case it can be useful to formalize what we have done for each separate movement to create a movement vocabulary.

You can create a visual code of all the different ‘moves’ you come across.

Anytime you come across that move you can remember it using that image. You can link the images together in a story to remember long movement sequences.

This will be the topic of a future in-depth blog.

What is the take away?

Learning using memory techniques works. And not just for academic information. You can use mnemonics to learn anything faster, including movement.

Analysing what your body does is a vital first step. You must really understand what you know (and don’t know). Even this step alone would get you learning faster. Taking this analysis and turning it into images and then attaching them to the movement massively improves your ability to learn movements faster.

And as bonus, the whole process boosts your general memory and concentration.

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