As we age, due to various forms of stresses being placed on the body, the muscular system may become less efficient in its contractile abilities. The result of this diminished muscle activity may correlate with many of the physical complaints that we relate to aging. There are many modalities out there that deal specifically with injuries or the degenerative changes that occur with aging, however, up until recently, no one has looked at the negative changes that occur relative to our neuromuscular function. This is where Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT) fits in. MAT recognizes that as we age, the accumulation of stresses and traumas to the body takes its toll on our muscle function. MAT recognizes that every injury may have a negative impact on our neuromuscular function and that over time, the communication between the nervous system and the muscular system becomes negatively altered. If this altered communication is not regularly addressed, then the cumulative effect may be a progressive weakness of the muscular system as a whole, resulting in increased susceptibility to pain, injury and/or degenerative issues. The end result is a decreased ability for the muscles to handle the physical stresses that come with everyday activity, exercise and physical performance.
MAT is a specific program designed to identify and address these altered communication pathways with the primary goal being to restore muscle contractile capabilities. MAT recognizes that through training, repetition and memory, muscles typically develop a threshold for how much physical stress they can handle. Whereas a highly conditioned individual would typically have a higher threshold and a sedentary individual would generally have a lower threshold. This threshold is regulated by the central nervous system. Regardless of the threshold level, when this threshold has been exceeded, either due to one-time physical trauma or repetitive micro-trauma, as part of the body’s protective mechanism, the nervous system decreases the contractile ability of the stressed muscles while creating a protective hyper-contraction of the opposing muscles. This resultant altered neural input to the muscles on both sides of the axis is demonstrated by reduced contractile capabilities of the stressed/agonist muscles and an associated protective hyper-contraction of the antagonistic muscles. This neurological adaptation is represented by a lack of mobility that is secondary to the weakness of the muscles that were overstressed.
These principles define the foundational thought process behind MAT. The thought process behind MAT is that muscle tightness is secondary to muscle weakness. Through the principles of MAT, we recognize that wherever you see a limitation in ROM, it is an indicator that one or more of the muscles on the opposite side of the axis has lost its ability to contract efficiently. Therefore, the primary tool used in the MAT assessment is a muscle-specific, joint ROM exam. MAT recognizes that limitations in ROM are an indicator of coinciding muscle weakness. Through further assessment, once the limitations in ROM have been identified, MAT utilizes a specific testing process designed to assess the contractile ability of each muscle associated with the limitation of ROM.
This process allows the MAT practitioner to determine which muscles associated with the limitation in ROM have lost the ability to contract efficiently. Once these weaknesses have been identified, the primary goal is to improve the contractile ability of the inhibited/weak muscle. MAT presently has two processes for improving the contractile ability of muscles. One form of activation is through a specific palpation technique designed to stimulate the sensory receptors in the muscle, which in turn improves sensory feedback to the CNS. The other form of activation is through position-specific isometric contractions designed to improve motor output to the muscles. The goal of each of these forms of activation is to improve the muscles’ contractile abilities in order that the muscle can more effectively handle forces that are being placed on them. By improving the contractile ability of the muscles, the primary goal is to improve the effectiveness of the muscles to provide stability at their associated joints. As the nervous system recognizes this improvement in the contractile abilities of muscles, it will also diminish the protective contraction of the antagonist muscle. This allows for efficient contractions of the muscles on both sides of the axis, thus providing mobility and stability about their associated joint(s). Therefore, the premise behind MAT is that if you can provide a sense of stability, then the body will give you mobility.
MAT can be looked at as part of the exercise continuum. The most important component of MAT is that it provides a system of checks and balances. It enables a MAT practitioner to evaluate the integrity of the neuromuscular system whenever a force has been applied against it. MAT also allows trainers to evaluate various forms of force applications in order to determine if certain exercises exceed the threshold, thus resulting in muscle inhibition. In simplistic terms, MAT allows trainers and therapists to “check their work”. Therefore, MAT can act as an adjunct to all forms of therapy and exercise. It is a specific technique designed to improve muscle function. This improvement in muscle function can, in turn, provide an environment that can reduce the risk of injury while also speed up the body’s ability to recover from injury.