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#42 — Muscle Activation Technique for Performance and Pain, with Rhonda Mansell

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wise athletes
#42 -- Muscle Activation Technique for Performance and Pain, with Rhonda Mansell
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MAT is based on four pillars:

  1. Look at limits in range of motion (ROM), and where a limited ROM is found,  look at the muscles involved in creating the normal ROM…those are the muscles that are weak or are not firing well
  2. Test those muscles to confirm inhibition 
  3. Treat those muscles to reactivate them
  4. Then retest the range of motion to confirm resolution

So, how long does the effect last?  

“Until you break it”.  

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Outline of Discussion

What is MAT?

It’s a biomechanically based process designed to identify and correct muscular imbalances that are responsible for chronic tightness…pain….decreased performance.  MAT practitioners do not treat pain directly…they don’t seek pain and go to the location of the pain to provide treatment.  Instead, MAT practitioners look for imbalances between right and left side of body, which would indicate an area of weakness which may be the cause of the tightness, pain, decreased performance.  

Rhonda Mansell background:

Been in the fitness industry for 30+ years.  10 years ago had a client go to MAT, which intrigued Rhonda.  She looked into MAT and decided to learn it.  The first day experience in class included every person had a story about how MAT solved their long-standing problem.

Rhonda has treated olympic athletes, elderly parents of clients and athletes of all types.

What is a neuromuscular (brain to muscle) connection?  What is inhibition?

It you use a box as an analogy for brain to muscle connections, an elite athlete’s box would be full of connections.  The elite athlete would be able to engage all or nearly all of his/her muscle fibers on demand.  The typical person’s box would be much less full.  The typical person cannot actuate his/her muscle fibers on demand due to a variety of possible reasons including a lack of training to tell the brain such connections are needed.

Imagine a graph.  At the top is the maximum threshold and at the bottom is the minimum threshold.  Above the top / maximum is injury and muscle failure.  Below the minimum is muscle atrophy and possibly cell health (from non-use).  In between is the “set point” for that muscle.

Ideally the set point is close to the maximum.  But as we age our muscles do not function as well or recover as quickly as when we were younger.  The set point can be far below the maximum due to over training, injury, overuse, muscle inhibition, not recovering well.  By increasing the connection between the brain and the muscle, you can improve the set point to get it closer to the maximum threshold.

What is set point?  

it is the physiological operating window.  The load that the muscle can handle.  If you exceed it, you are going to get inhibition of that muscle, especially if you keep exceeding the set point.  That means, the set point (and power output) will fall further below the maximum threshold (where the set point would be with zero inhibition).  It shows up as tightness or pain.  The muscle fibers are not actually being damaged.

Muscles are a set of muscle fibers.  Muscle fibers in a muscle do not all turn on at the same time, not even if you want to lift the heaviest thing you could.  We’ve all heard of stories of people lifting amazing heavy objects under extreme stress (lift car off of child), but normally a person cannot make all the muscle fibers contract all at once.  The fewer of the muscle fibers that a person can make activate at once is related to the set point…and the maximum threshold is all the fibers firing at once.  If you exceed the set point, you can create additional blockages (chronic inflammation) between the muscle fibers and the brain so that even fewer of the muscle fibers will activate.  This condition can require a physical intervention to reverse.  That is the target of Muscle Activation Technique.

This tends to relate mostly to slow twitch muscle fibers which are the always on muscles that guide joint movement.

So, you exceed the set point which creates additional inhibition.  If that does not recover, then the next thing that can happen is pain.  The brain is sending a signal to “check engine”.  Without correction, compensation will occur naturally to work around the inhibition.  And, over time the compensation can become the “natural” movement pattern that locks in the suboptimal movement.

We need to get the movement of the body’s parts to be functional to get maximum power from the muscles we already have.  We need to fix muscles imbalances and learned compensations before we increase the stresses on the joints in an attempt to get stronger.

Why do the muscles turn off?

Many things can cause inhibition.  Over use, stress, trauma, dehydration, nutrition…and, yes, non-use.

When we contract a muscle, a signal is sent to relax or inhibit the opposing muscle to avoid conflicting with the contracting muscle.  But if the first muscle is itself inhibited, it cannot contract, and then a inhibitory signal is not sent to the opposing muscle, so it remains tight.

With MAT, we try to improve the messaging between the brain and the muscle that should not be inhibited.   And resolving that issue should address the tightness and pain that is occurring on the opposite side.

So why do cyclists get tight hip flexors?

Lot’s of times it over use of the hip flexor but it can be caused by weaknesses in other muscles, such as erector spinae.

Getting back to the thought that cyclists don’t use their glutes, and that cyclists tend to have tight hip flexors, and given their relative positions on the body, are these phenomenon related?

Yes, maybe the hip flexor is doing extra work (too much work) because of some weakness elsewhere, but it’s not just the glute.  Glutes, hamstrings, quads, even calves can be involved.

One of the reasons MAT lessens pain is because there is an inverse relationship between mechanoreceptor and nociceptors which lie within the joint attachment site (where the muscle attaches).  When you stimulate those areas, it increases the mechano-reception and reduces the nociceptors communication (less pain).

MAT is based on four pillars:

  1. Look at limits in range of motion, and where a limited ROM is found,  look at the muscles involved in creating the normal ROM…those are the muscles that are weak or are not firing well
  2. Test those muscles to confirm inhibition 
  3. Treat those muscles to reactivate them
  4. Then retest the range of motion to confirm resolution

So, how long does the effect last?  “Until you break it”.  

In Rhonda’s experience, she doesn’t usually need her clients to do any or much in the way of specific exercises to keep the muscles turned on once she helps the muscle to start firing again.  This is because she is usually turning on a small group of slow twitch muscles which activate (once turned back on) just doing regular everyday activities, such as walking.

One of the biggest things to tell people:   the issue is inhibition, not strength.  Even though people do get stronger after treatment, is isn’t because of exercising the muscle to grow stronger.  It is due to removing an inhibition to activating the muscle.

So what exercises should people do to keep their glutes activated?  Just walking should be good enough.  After 1 treatment, 60-70% are still good after 1 week, and after a few treatments, everyone is good, meaning the previously inhibited muscle doesn’t turn back off.  In fact, doing too much too soon can be a cause of the muscle shutting back down.  The affected muscles tend to have a low threshold, and so are not capable of handing much stress at first even though the muscle is big enough to do more, the neuromuscular connection is not ready for a lot more at first.

Does an athlete need to scale back his/her normal activity?

But what about the person who is exercising a lot, and now a big muscle that was turned off is now turned on…it is suddenly getting a lot of exercise.  Is that bad?  Will that turn off the muscle because the level of exercise will exceed the low threshold for that muscle?

No, not if it is a normal moving the body exercise, like riding a bike.  This is because the muscle in question is being used with many other muscles (not in isolation), so the other muscles using in that complex process will pick up the slack for the newly activated muscle.  If the exercise is isolating the newly activated muscle, then there is a risk of overwhelming the newly activated muscle.

How does the athlete relearn to move properly?

So how does an athlete with long-standing inhibited muscles, who has learned to compensate for that inhibition, restore the symphony of movement…the coordination of all the muscles involved in a movement once the inhibited muscle is now back in the game…how do the other muscles learn to stop the compensation pattern and go back to the nature movement they had before the inhibited muscle stopped doing its share of the work?

That is beyond MAT, but usually the athletes body knows what to do.  The pain, if there was pain, will stop, and the movement patterns will go back to the proper motion that will produce power appropriate for that body with those muscles.  Getting stronger still will require training as per usual.

Episode with Menachem Brodie on learning to move properly before using strength training to get stronger; https://www.wiseathletes.com/podcast/41-how-to-combine-strength-cycling-training-to-get-faster-on-the-bike-menachem-brodie/

Is “activating muscles” in a warmup process the same sort of thing?

It’s not exactly the same, but a good warmup does wakeup the muscles to get them ready to perform.  It is still about improving performance and movement, but it doesn’t include the physical manipulation that is a part of uninhibiting a muscle that has been turned off.  Plus MAT is usually focused on a very small subset of muscles or just a single portion of a single muscle, which a warmup would involve all the muscles.

What can people do on their own? 

Let’s say they are not in a place of pain or where a muscle is totally shut down.  What can people do without working with a specialist that will help?

The main thing is to start recognizing that when you have a tight muscle, just stretching that muscle all the time might not give you what you want.  You might be able to increase your range of motion by stretching the tight muscle, but you probably won’t have good power in the additional ROM you achieved via stretching.  You need to pay attention to the muscle that is or should be moving the limb instead of the muscle that is tight and limiting movement.

Think about doing a super light isometric exercise in the opposite direction.  Hold it 6 seconds and repeat 6 times.  See if that doesn’t open up the range of motion better.

Any last tips?

Don’t wait too long to get help.  If you are having a problem, go get help from whatever modality you have had success using in the past.  If you wait too long, then it is much harder to unwind all the problems that have accumulated while you were hoping the problem would go away.

About Rhonda Mansell

Rhonda has been a certified personal trainer for over 30 years and has worked with professional athletes to recreational athletes of all ages. She has experience in designing programs for general fitness, improved athletic performance, and post surgery recovery.

“I discovered Muscle Activation Techniques in 2009 when learning that the Denver Broncos were using this modality to keep their players on the field and healthy. After getting certified I came to the realization that this was the missing piece in my own practice of personal training and that everyone needs to have their muscles firing optimally to feel their best!”

Rhonda’s website: bouldermuscleactivation.com https://bouldermuscleactivation.com/

More MAT Info & The Law of Reciprocal Inhibition:

MAT is a system of training that is designed to restore balance and enhance function in the human body. When a muscle becomes too tight (hypertonic) or weak (inhibited) it can affect the function and range of motion (ROM) of the joint it crosses. The foundational principle of MAT is that muscle tightness is a form of protection in the body and is secondary to muscle weakness. For example, if a particular muscle remains stuck in a tight or shortened position, it changes the ability of that muscle to effectively produce or reduce force, which could lead to altered joint ROM and potential injury. Roskopf compares the effects of muscle tightness to walking on ice. “When someone is walking on ice their movements are shortened with a restricted ROM to ensure stability and avoid falling on a slippery surface,” Roskopf explains. “When muscles become too tight they have the same effect, which limits joint motion and could be a potential cause for injury.”

A tight muscle does not receive the appropriate sensory motor feedback from the nervous system, causing the other muscles it works with to change their resting lengths and proprioception. According to Roskopf’s research, when muscles become hyerptonic the spindles (intrafusal muscle fibers) that sense length change become slack, thereby providing limited sensory feedback. Roskopf compares this to a battery cable coming loose in a car engine. “If the cable comes loose, the car will not effectively conduct the charge to start the engine,” he explains. The goal of MAT assessments and training is to identify muscles that are not able to produce adequate force and to restore optimal muscle function and subsequent joint ROM.

The inhibition of a muscle—or the inability to produce the appropriate force when necessary—can be related to impaired communication between that individual muscle and the central nervous system (CNS). External stressors such as overuse, impaired movement mechanics or trauma can affect the function of a particular muscle. If a muscle becomes overstressed it results in an altered feedback mechanism between that muscle and the CNS. Changes in muscle sensory reception can lead to a reduced ability to generate the appropriate force to move or stabilize a joint. If a muscle does not receive the appropriate communication with the CNS, then it could cause positions of joint instability, which create the potential for injury.

The Law of Reciprocal Inhibition describes the fact that as one muscle contracts, its opposing muscle (on the other side of the joint) has to lengthen to allow motion to occur. For example, when the gluteus maximus contracts to extend the hip, the iliacus and psoas major muscles (commonly called the ilipsoas) need to lengthen to allow the motion to occur. The Law of Reciprocal Inhibition is the reason why tightness from one muscle can affect other muscles that surround the same joint and ultimately alter joint ROM.

“An imbalanced muscle structure results in other muscles tightening to compensate for the compromised muscle,” explains Kate Allgood, a San Diego−based MAT Specialist. “The end result is a negative impact on functionality, pain or discomfort.”

As such, the primary goal of MAT training is to identify whether or not the muscles that cross a particular joint have the appropriate sensory input and neural feedback to perform their designed function to control stability or mobility at that joint. MAT teaches a systematic approach to assessment, which can determine whether or not a muscle is working optimally to control motion at the joint it crosses. The evaluation process of MAT is to determine whether or not the specific muscles that support a joint have the proper neurological input to perform their respective function at that joint. Each individual muscle of a muscle group around a joint must be able to generate the forces necessary to provide stability or mobility as needed for efficient movement mechanics. “The MAT testing protocols and follow-up exercise programming allow me to see if my training is having the desired effect,” explains Manhattan-based personal trainer and MAT Specialist Lara Licharowicz.

The basis of MAT exercise programming is to use low-threshold isometric contractions to restore neural drive and function to muscles to allow them to produce force effectively. Low-threshold isometric contractions can stimulate and innervate muscle spindles and the associated gamma motor neurons responsible for muscle contractions. Once muscles have been “re-activated,” they can be used to control and enhance joint ROM.

From the MAT website:

Our 77 Range of Motion Exams and 214 Muscle Tests help practitioners identify which muscles are not “firing” (receiving and/or acting on the brain’s signal). Once the cause for the pain and impaired mobility is identified, practitioners begin a series of muscle tests in an established process and work to “reactivate” the affected muscles.

Other methods attempt to relax the muscle to lengthen or change it by stretching, heating, kneading, or foam rolling. In contrast, MAT activates your muscle so that it will become better prepared to handle the force applied to it through everyday movements and exercise.

MAT website: muscleactivation.com https://muscleactivation.com/

The ever curious athlete who demands answers.
About the Author
Curious athlete who demands answers. Husband to Susan (moxiemoms.com). Father of 3 daughters. Athletic pursuits over time, in reverse order: cycling, skiing, mountaineering, rock climbing, triathlon, golf, tennis, football.

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