What is Muscle Activation Techniques?

Have you ever had that nagging pain that persists no matter what you do? You get a deep tissue massage and then a week later it’s back. You work on strength, try running, but have to stop because your back is tight and achy? Do you ignore the pain and continue your activity because let’s face it, you are competitive! Working around pain, or adapting to pain and discomfort is more common than one may think. Our bodies are designed to figure out a way to “keep going”- this is called compensation.

These pains you may be experiencing are telling you something is wrong. It’s like the check engine light in your car. Nobody likes seeing that show up, but what does it mean? Something is not functioning properly! It tells you something is wrong but doesn’t necessarily tell you where the problem is coming from. Your body works similarly. Pain tells you something is wrong, but how do we know where the pain is coming from?

Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT) is a tool to help you figure out where your pain is coming from. It is a series of checks and balances intended to figure out which muscles are inhibited or perhaps dimmed a bit. The goal of MAT is to balance and restore muscular dysfunction.

How does it work?

MAT practitioners start by performing a series of range of motion tests. Practitioners are looking to find out WHY you are experiencing pain. A limitation in motion may be an indicator that one or more muscles that cross that axis, (or an axis nearby) may not be functioning properly. Our muscular system is very similar to a bridge. It has a suspension and a base. If the base or suspension is weak, then the bridge will collapse. When you feel pain or tightness, it is an indicator that your ‘bridge’ is trying to hang on for dear life! (That is that compensation I mentioned earlier). After a MAT practitioner has assessed your range of motion deficiencies, the next step is to apply force which restores the muscle that has not been firing properly. These forces being applied are done through palpations and isometric holds.

How does MAT “turn on/un-dim” muscles?

There are two parts to your nervous system- Central Nervous System (CNS) which is your spinal cord and your brain, and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) which are the nerves that connect your CNS to every other part of your body. MAT practitioners are applying a force which is sending signals via different PNS pathways to your CNS, which then sends signals back to the muscle which creates a relaxation/contraction effect. This in-depth process is called the Alpha-Gamma feedback loop. This process also happens when you go to the doctor and get the knee jerk test. The test is making sure you have the proper signals firing to send information to and from your muscles. As practitioners, the goal is to help “kickstart” those messages to and from the CNS. Ultimately, you need muscles to contract on demand at any point in time! If muscles are not functioning properly, this won’t happen.

Why am I experiencing pain in the first place?

When the muscular system has stress, trauma, or overuse, the result is inflammation. This may be why you are experiencing pain. Anytime there is inflammation, your muscles are not able to produce ample force for contraction. This is because ’those signals to and from the CNS have trouble connecting. It is similar to the battery in your car. The battery must receive signals through certain cables in order to supply power.

Can I exercise when I get MAT?

MAT is actually on the exercise continuum. During exercise, the goal is to vary your volume, load, tempos, and exercise variation in order to create adaptation for your body. MAT practitioners are doing the same thing by applying a force and eliciting a response from your body. Practitioners are monitoring your body’s ability to tolerate force and progressing these abilities as tolerance levels are changed. MAT can be done before, during, or after an exercise session depending on the threshold level of each person individually. The goal is to create stability at joints through muscle contraction. Often, a practitioner will utilize exercises during a MAT session to reinforce that muscle’s efficiency to function, especially when a new range of motion is created.

Who is MAT geared towards?

MAT is for everyone! From elite athletes, to weekend warriors, to children, to rehabilitation patients, MAT can help anyone who struggles with some sort of discomfort. MAT is also helpful even if you are not in pain or do not have an injury. MAT can simply be a “tune up.” As mentioned earlier, muscles are meant to contract on demand when needed. For example, if you were to trip down the stairs you need the muscles around your ankle to contract in order to prevent an injury. What happens to the person who doesn’t have efficient contraction on demand when they trip down the stairs? Typically, this is the person who potentially sprains their ankle. Nobody wants that. How can one be sure all their muscles are working efficiently to reduce the risk of injury? That’s where MAT is beneficial because it checks in with the muscular system to ensure it is ready to go.

Will MAT make me feel better in one session?

It depends. Everyone is different that the [JR24] answer is not black and white. Your threshold level and your set-point level determine your muscle’s ability to tolerate force, and your present physical condition of that muscle itself. If you have extremely low threshold and set-point levels, then your body will need time to adapt to this new stimulus. However, the opposite side of the spectrum holds true too. If you have exceeded these levels, your body may [JR25] need some time to relax from being overworked. There are other very important factors in determining the amount of MAT you need as well. These include daily physical and emotional stress, food intake, and activity level. The muscular system is constantly responding to these stressors and trying to find a balance. This is why [JR26] “tune up” sessions are always recommended. It is extremely helpful to check in with your muscular system as often as possible.

MAT does not treat or diagnose pain yet it aids in resolving issues by assessing, maintaining, and correcting muscular imbalances. A limitation in motion (joint restriction) means there may be loss of stability through that joint. Loss of stability means the muscle has lost its ability to contract efficiently. The goal of MAT is to regain muscle contractile efficiency. Whatever progress you are looking for; whether it is to sprint faster in your 40-yard dash or to sit at work without pain, MAT may be beneficial to you!

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