Muscle Activation Techniques™ (MAT) is a very specific, non-medical, mechanically based process of evaluating and treating muscular imbalance and dysfunction. The goal of MAT is to increase the contractile capability of your muscles, resulting in increased strength, stability, range of motion, and reduced muscle and joint pain. MAT is an effective treatment for injury recovery and rehabilitation, as well as chronic pain management for a variety of neuromuscular disorders.
How does MAT work in practice? Other bodywork modalities that address muscle and joint dysfunction primarily focus on “releasing,” or “loosening” muscles. Your physical therapist or massage therapist or other professional you are working with will identify tight muscles or limited range of motion and then proceed to knead, massage, or stretch those muscles in an attempt to increase range of motion and get rid of the feeling of pain and tightness that you are experiencing.
MAT is unique in that we view tight muscles and limited range of motion not as the primary culprits of pain and discomfort, but rather as symptoms caused by muscle dysfunction somewhere else in the body. By using a series of assessments a MAT practitioner will identify the muscles which are not working properly and then proceed to increase their ability to function, thereby allowing the tight muscles to relax.
For instance, imagine you wake up one morning and you are unable to bend over and touch your toes. This is assuming that at some point previously you were able to touch your toes. Try as you might, as you bend forward at the waist your lower back, hamstrings, and calves tighten up and prevent you from touching your toes. You think to yourself, “my hamstrings are tight, I need to stretch more.” Or, “my back is tight, I need to get a massage.” So you stretch a little bit or you get a massage and you feel better afterward and when you wake up the next morning you try to touch your toes again and you can’t do it.
The reason you still can’t touch your toes is because by stretching and massage you addressed the symptom, but not the cause. You experience muscle tightness not because you’re a bad person and you don’t stretch enough, but because it’s your body’s way of preventing you from moving into a position where you will be unable to support yourself. Your lower back and hamstrings tighten up and prevent you from touching your toes because if you actually managed to get down there your other muscles would be too weak to support your spine and you may end up with a herniated disk. Muscle tightness is a protective measure your body puts into place in order to save you from injury.
An MAT practitioner will identify the specific muscles which are not doing their job properly and improve their ability to function. An MAT session is essentially a personal training session, but instead of doing a comprehensive, full body work out, you will work just your weakest muscles, one muscle at a time. Targeting your weakest muscles is key because of a phenomenon called muscle compensation. If one of our muscles becomes stressed, overworked, injured, etc., then that muscle is able to effectively turn itself off to prevent itself becoming further injured. Since we have over three hundred skeletal muscles that can be considered “bone-movers,” we have a fair number of options for working around an injury.
A good example of muscle compensation is limping. You’re walking down the sidewalk, and a piece of it jumps out and grabs your foot and down you go. You bang your knee and when you dust yourself off and try to walk normally you find that it’s painful. But if you take a smaller step with that leg and dip a little bit, you can manage to make it home, fix yourself a drink, and feel sorry for yourself. You have created a workaround to a mechanical problem created by the injury. Every physical movement we execute is a mechanical puzzle that our brains will solve using whatever muscles they have available at the time. Which is pretty amazing when you think about it. When your car has a mechanical failure it can’t create a new way of moving to get you to your destination. You have to pull over and call a tow truck.
Muscle compensation is a short-term solution to a mechanical movement problem, and it is a great survival mechanism. Back in our hunter-gatherer days, if you happened to stumble and injure your knee while running from a tiger, muscle compensation would have increased your chances of escaping and surviving long enough to pass your genes on to the next generation. However, if the injury is severe enough, or you repeatedly re-injure the same muscles so that they don’t have a chance to recover, it is possible that the short term solution your brain created to work around the mechanical problem will become your new permanent way of moving. After approximately eight weeks of relying on a compensation pattern your brain will “forget” about the “proper” way of doing things. The compensation pattern is usually not the most efficient way of moving, and over months and years can eventually lead to more dramatic compensation patterns and further muscle and joint dysfunction due to the added stress placed upon them. MAT practitioners typically refer to this state as “muscular imbalance,” which means the person is experiencing asymmetrical tension throughout their muscular system.
Understanding muscle compensation is crucial when recovering from an injury, because the process can mimic a passage from Catch 22. When you go to the physical therapist and they give you a rehab exercise to target specific muscles, often those same muscles will be overpowered by other stronger muscles due to compensation. The result is that your strong muscles get stronger, while your weak muscles never get a chance to participate in the exercise and slowly atrophy and become even weaker. This phenomenon is one of the reasons traditional rehab programs can be hit or miss. It’s not that they don’t work, or that the therapist doesn’t know what they’re doing, it’s just your brain is protecting your weak muscles and not signaling them to contract. MAT strives to bring those weak muscles into the fold so they have an opportunity participate with the strong muscles, allowing all the muscles to become stronger together.
The ultimate goal of MAT is to achieve symmetrical tension throughout the muscular system. Other modalities that concern themselves with muscle and joint dysfunction attempt to relieve tension, or release tension, or otherwise get rid of tension; which sounds great when you are experiencing the discomfort of muscular tension. But if we were actually able to get rid of all the tension in our bodies we would collapse on the floor. Muscular tension is what holds us up. Similar to a suspension bridge, where our bones are the struts and actual bridge and our muscles are the suspension cables, if we were to release the tension of the cables the bridge would collapse. When we experience that feeling of tightness in our muscles what we are really feeling is an imbalance of tension. When all of our muscles are pulling evenly and providing symmetrical tension throughout our bodies our subjective net experience of that tension is zero. When the muscles on the left side of our knee are pulling with the same amount of tension as the right side, there is an equal and opposite amount of force pulling in each direction and our joint maintains a nice, neutral position. When the muscles on the right side of the knee are not providing as much tension as those on the left, the tension is no longer symmetrical and the knee-joint has difficulty maintaining its neutral position. We experience this as tightness, pain, grinding, etc.
We can attempt to regain symmetrical tension by releasing”the tension of the muscles on the left side of the knee, the muscles which are working properly. This can be effective for relieving discomfort. But a muscles ability to produce tension is the definition of strength, so what we have really done is purposefully weaken muscles which were previously strong. This may make your knee feel better, but has also made it weaker, possibly setting you up for further injury.
Imagine a tent, one of those old school models with poles, string, and canvas. After setting up your tent, you find that it leans to the right. Ever the perfectionist, you know you won’t be able to fall asleep in the thing unless the poles are perfectly perpendicular to the ground. To make this happen you have two options: loosen the strings on the right side or tighten the strings on the left. You decide to loosen the strings on the right side, and then in the middle of the night the wind picks up and it starts to storm and you wake up smothered beneath a blanket of wet canvas. By loosening the right side you decreased the tension of the entire suspension system holding the tent up, weakening the entire structure enough that it could not withstand the added force of wind and rain. Had you instead tightened the left side of the tent until the central poles were perpendicular to the ground, the tent would have had a stronger structure and a better chance of holding up under the force of the storm.
Our bodies are a structural framework of bones held upright by an incredibly complex suspension system of muscles, and any suspension system will collapse for lack of tension. MAT is the only practice which uses this approach of “creating tension to relieve tension.” Our goal as practitioners is to restore symmetrical tension through increasing the “loose” muscles’ ability to produce tension and maintain the neutral position of the joint, and at the same time increase the overall strength of the muscles around the joint (and reduce the chance of subsequent injury).
Now that I’ve covered to gist of what MAT does, I’ll go into how MAT gets the brain to increase a muscle’s ability to contract. This is the point in my typical “What is MAT?” spiel that I start using words like “neurology,” and “neuromuscular,” and “neural pathways,” which tends to make people’s eyes glaze over and decide to just take my word for it. While I appreciate their trust, I also feel I haven’t really earned it yet. I could just as easily say “magic pixie dust.” So here I’ll try an oblique approach and introduce you to a substance called myelin.
Myelin is a whitish, fatty, waxy substance produced by our bodies to form an insulating sheath around our nerve fibers. The purpose of wrapping a nerve fiver with myelin is to increase the speed at which neural impulses are conducted. Not all of our nerve fibers are wrapped in myelin, and I’ll get to when and why and how some fibers get myelin and some don’t, but for now just think of nerves without myelin as a 1986 dial-up modem, and nerves with myelin as a next gen-broadband-wizbang-fiber optic-ethernet connection. The more myelin that the body wraps around the nerve, the faster the neural connection between the brain and the muscle.
We’ve all experienced how myelin works. Think of the last time you touched a hot stove without realizing it. The nerves connecting our brains to our sensory receptors for touch are wrapped in myelin, while the nerves connecting our brains to our pain receptors are not. When you put your hand on the hot stove, you probably yanked your hand away a second or two before you felt the pain from the burn. Or imagine the last time you stubbed your toe. You felt the impact of banging the chair leg, and then had enough time to think “shit!” and brace yourself for the pain you knew was on the way.
As humans, we posses the neural infrastructure to learn any skill that any other human can learn. We can all learn to throw a curve ball, learn another language, and play the cello. Whether we ultimately learn these skills and how well we perform them depends on how much we practice, and it is the process of practice which stimulates the production of myelin. The more you practice the cello, the more myelin your body will wrap around the nerves responsible for transferring the music in your brain to the muscles in your fingers, and the more enjoyable your screeching strings will sound to others.
This also illustrates the importance of good practice over bad practice. If you’ve ever been told that your golf swing, or piano playing, or yoga practice suffers from “bad habits,” what that really means is you have developed less than optimal neural pathways for that skill. Your hundreds of hours of practice has been slightly wrong, and you have wrapped myelin around nerve fibers that do not allow for the most efficient execution of that skill. But it’s not a death sentence, you can always “rewire” the proper pathways with a little work and some proper coaching.
What does myelin have to do with Muscle Activation Techniques? Pretty much everything. MAT practitioners are essentially coaches for “rewiring” your motor pathways. If you experience discomfort while walking, going down stairs, or raising your arm above your head, that pain or tightness is an indication that you have developed “bad habits” for that particular skill. And yes, raising your arm is a skill. Every simple motion we perform everyday is a skill we had to learn, and we learned them with practice and myelin. Through specific neuromuscular stimulation an MAT practitioner will ensure that you are using the right muscles to execute a movement, which will allow you to repeat that movement properly enough times to encourage your body to insulate the associated nerve fibers with myelin.