Muscle Activation Technique (MAT) uses unique process to identify and reactivate inhibited muscles. This article is a somewhat technical explanation of how Muscle Activation Techniques works by considering:
- Why muscles become inhibited
- What inhibited muscles do and don’t do
- How MAT identifies inhibited muscles
To learn more general information about MAT, read Muscle Activation Techniques: Everything You Need to Know and Muscle Activation Techniques for Golf.
Why Do Muscles Become Inhibited?
Muscle inhibition has three immediate effects:
- poor neuromuscular communication
We’ll address these points below
Communication between the Brain and Muscles
Muscle inhibition decreases communication between the brain and the muscles. To get the most from your muscles, it is important that this communication is a two-way street. That means:
- The brain sends messages to the muscles telling them to contract (via motor neurons): the efferent system
- The brain receives information from the muscles about how much they’re being stretched, how fast they’re moving, and how much force they’re exerting (via sensory neurons): the afferent system
Both sending and receiving are crucial. If the brain doesn’t know what the muscle is doing, it’s going to try to protect the muscle. And the easiest way to protect a muscle is to keep it from moving where it can be injured.
This means that the brain will tell the muscle to contract (i.e., shorten), and then try not to move. This is muscle inhibition, and it can be experienced as tightness.
This is an important discovery of MAT: a muscle’s tightness is a clue that the brain has inhibited that muscle from moving as a protective mechanism. It makes us question whether stretching an inhibited muscle is really the way to go. Shouldn’t we demonstrate to the brain (so to speak) that the muscle is ready to be released before moving it to extremes of motion?
But why would the brain inhibit a muscle? What signals to the brain that a muscle is unfit to move?
Inflammation and Inhibition
Inflammation is the primary cause of muscle inhibition. Inflammation can be caused by a number of factors, including:
- lack of nutrients
Most of us are familiar with inflammation, whether it’s from twisting an ankle or working out too hard. And there are three things you’ll recognize about inflamed muscle tissue:
- hyper-sensitivity to pain
In short, inflamed muscles hurt, and they don’t want to move.
Hypersensitivity and Pain
To understand why inflamed tissue is especially sensitive, we’ll need to dive into the muscle. Your muscles contain fibers (called intrafusal fibres) that communicate information to the central nervous system (CNS). Intrafusal fibers inform the CNS about the muscle’s:
- amount of stretch (i.e., how much it’s contracting or being passively stretched), and
- the speed it is being moved (again, whether passively or actively)
These intrafusal fibers have a central section, which is noncontractile, but the ends are contractile. When the ends contract, they pull on the middle section, increasing its tension.
The gamma motor system controls the contractions of the intrafusal fibres, and it receives information from the brain about when and how much to contract. But the non-contractile section sends messages via the 1a sensory fibres. This information is about how much and how quickly it is being stretched.
So the gamma motor system can keep an intrafusal muscle fiber in a state of constant tension, which we’d call tightness. And because those fibers are already so tight, any slight force or movement is going to be translated as larger. This is why muscles that remain in this contracted, inflexible state are also hyper-sensitive.
But this also points back to the poor communication between inflamed muscles and the central nervous system. The information sent from the muscles is communicating inflated figures (so to speak). Small motion will be interpreted by these muscle spindles as larger (and therefore unsafe for damaged tissue).
Inflammation and Weakness
It might make sense that, if the brain thinks a muscle is unsafe to use, it won’t use it as much. And an underused muscle is going to be experienced as weakness.
How Muscle Activation Techniques Works against Inflexibility and Weakness
At this point, we’re able to see why MAT focuses on immobility and weakness: these are intertwined.
A muscle with a limited range of motion also has limited contractile abilities. These muscles don’t want to contract a lot, and when they do, they can’t contract that well.
This is why a MAT session begins with a comparative assessment of mobility. We want to see if your range of motion is the same on both side of your body.
If not, then we begin testing all of the specific muscles that can produce that movement. This is a process, since many muscles can produce the same general movement. For example, all of these muscles contribute to external rotation of the hip:
- superior and inferior gemellus
- internal and external obturator
- quadratus femoris
So we’d test each of those muscles, find the ones that are inhibited, and get those working again.
Muscolino, Joseph E. Kinesiology: The Skeletal System and Muscle Function. 3rd ed. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2018.
Palastanga, Nigel, Derek Field, and Roger Soames. Anatomy and Human Movement: Structure and Function. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2006.
Roskopf, Greg. Jumpstart Into MAT: How to Use Muscle Activation Techniques to Increase Range of Motion, Accelerate Recovery, and Unleash the Body’s Healing Power. Muscle Activation Techniques, 2020.