What is muscle activation and why is it important?

If you have back or neck pain and you can’t find a solution, maybe you can try muscle activation. We tell you in this article what it is about.

Last update: 29 January, 2022

Muscle activation is a confusing concept that can also be found on the internet under the proposal of a series of techniques to improve posture and relieve pain. In fact, there are training courses and international certification for those who want to train in this modality.

In itself, muscle activation is the process by which a muscle contracts, that is to say, that he performs his work, either voluntarily or involuntarily. We activate the glutes and the abdominals to do the plank, for example, so that we hold the posture for the stipulated time.

But we also have the MAT (muscle activation techniques) or muscle activation techniques. This is indeed a form of treatment for neuromuscular disorders that cause pain, weakness and imbalance.

What is MAT or muscle activation?

In the early 2000s, Greg Roskopf, an M.H. in health and fitness, proposed a theory to explain why many people had muscle discomfort that was not resolved with the usual physiotherapy techniques. For him, the effective way was to look for imbalances that explained the pain from another perspective.

So he suggested that some patients suffered from pain on one side of the body, for example, because they did not activate the opposite side with sufficient precision. And this could be traced back to a poor connection between neurons and muscle tissue, or to an inhibition in the communication of the nervous system with the muscle.

It was so developed specific techniques to solve what he determines to be a problem. These techniques are based on a diagnosis made by the MAT specialist, through which he manages to identify the non-activated areas.

Then, the treatment aims at muscle activation of those regions forgotten by the nervous system. With different approaches, contraction and tension are stimulated in the areas that could improve the patient’s quality of life.

The neurons carry information to the myocyte, which is the muscle cell. In this way, they indicate contraction or relaxation of the fibers.

The reasons for the problem according to the MAT

So, summarizing the theory of muscle activation, we would say that there are 3 ways in which neuromuscular pain that can be solved with MAT techniques could be generated:

  • Inhibition: the brain would be able to inhibit nerve transmission in certain neurons that are responsible for activating the muscles. Because I would do? In general, to protect the structures or because it detects that they are not being used. That is, because there is an injury or a repetitive movement that would cause damage, or because a sedentary lifestyle warns the nervous system that this part is not used.
  • Soft spot: we may have weak muscles. This would be that they are not trained to fulfill the specific function that corresponds to them. They do not contract with enough force that is required in the anatomical context in which they are inserted or they do not manage to execute the movement that we ask of them in an exercise or in a sport. This weakness will cause the brain to activate other nearby or distant muscles to carry out the action. This favors injuries, since the other activated tissues are not formed for this new function.
  • Imbalance: the muscular imbalance would be a consequence of the 2 previous problems. One part of the body develops much more than the other. Therefore, there are muscles with good tone and strength that overshadow the rest and do not allow them to activate. It is as if the weakest part enters a Power saving mode chronic.


muscle activation techniques

MAT techniques are performed by people who have been trained in this matter. Depending on the country and the current health legislation, sometimes the professional will be required to be a physiotherapist, while in some places this is not essential.

Therefore, it can be a specialty within kinesiology or an alternative therapy. In either of the two modalities, the technician or professional performs a preliminary diagnosis to identify those inhibited, weakened or unbalanced areas. Then apply MAT techniques.

But there are also some muscle activation exercises that are useful to do at home. Before proceeding to a more intense routine, these alternatives serve as a warm-up.

1. Isometrics

Isometric movements are capable of activating the muscles, avoiding some damages that concentric exercises have. The latter are those that shorten the muscle fibers against resistance, as happens when raising a dumbbell towards our shoulder.

The problem with concentrics is that, if they are repeated too much, they enhance some fibers while leaving others out of recruitment. Consequently, one area of ​​the body becomes stronger, but the other weakens.

Isometric exercises do not change the length of the muscle fiber. That is, the person remains in a static contraction and there is no noticeable displacement. This improves neuromuscular balance and can be easily executed if we do the isometric plank or static squat.



2. High knees without impact

Before leaving for the session running, runners can do some warm-up moves that engage their entire lower body. One of them is to raise the knees above the level of the hip, but without jogging in place and returning the foot to its starting position without impact.

The secret of this muscular activation is the calm to complete the arc of the joint and not to descend with too much power. We seek to stimulate muscle tissue, not start running. Then, with the session running the usual muscles will be used.

The skipping It is different, since it consists of a run in place, with impact and elevation of the knees. Therefore, it is not MAT.

3. Palpation

With palpation we stimulate muscle tissues that could be inhibited. Just touching inactive muscle masses sends a signal to the brain for some contraction.

It is difficult to identify which regions to touch if we are not trained in MAT. In any case, a good idea is to feel those areas that we know we use less frequently.

If we always do strength work in the gym, focusing on upper body, and never go for a run, we could spend minutes palpating the glutes, quads, and calves. It is a way of warning the brain not to switch off those less used muscles.

The MAT still has a way to go

The muscle activation technique is not accepted by all health professionals. There is still a long way to go and more scientific studies are required to establish its true scope.

For now, we know that it is not the same for children as it is for adults. In the pediatric age there are not the same vices as with aging, nor are they usually performed strength gym work, which limits the incidence of inhibition or sports injuries.

For older people, abdominal muscle activation is interesting which reduces back pain. However, there is research that makes it clear that not everyone benefits from it and that there should be a personalized prescription.

For now, consult a trusted health professional. Start with a physical therapist or a trauma doctor who will guide you, diagnose you and recommend or not a MAT session.

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