Is it Magic or Is it Muscle Activation Technique?

In February, my focus on movement and an increased effort towards Crossfit forced me to deal with some body-issues. It seems like everyone has a crappy _____ (insert joint of choice). “My knee always gives me trouble.” “I have a bad shoulder.” “I would do that, but my hips just won’t let me.”

I am a firm believer that our bodies were designed to enable us, not hold us back. Granted, there are just some things we weren’t made to do, and our bodies are probably smart to hold us back. But certain things, like lifting weights, or hiking, or playing with your kids, are things that most people’s bodies are fully capable of, and should be able to do without pain. Pain is something that most people all-too-easily assume they just have to live with. Your crappy _____ will always be your crappy ______ because that’s your lot in life and you have to just deal with it.

What if that wasn’t the case? What if you didn’t have to live with pain?

A few months ago, my crappy _____ was my shoulder. Any time I attempted a Crossfit workout with anything involving my shoulder, my left shoulder would hurt for days. This kept me from going back to Crossfit. Mobility work helped, and I would roll around on a lacrosse ball and feel better after a few days, only to go have my shoulder re-aggravated at the next workout. This was very frustrating and prohibitive. In February, as a part of my effort to move more, I decided to start occasionally jogging. Well, that lasted for about 3 runs before my left knee was in so much pain I couldn’t go out again for days. What’s up with my left side of my body? Is it because I’m left handed? The whole side of my body rebels because of it? I don’t know.

Anyway, I was in pain and unhappy. I am not one of those “push through the pain” people either, so when I do have pain, my training basically stops.

My BioSignature trainer recommended I try their MAT specialist at the gym. MAT stands for Muscle Activation Techniques. Never one to go into anything uninformed, I started doing some research. From the MAT website:

“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 an increase 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.”

My reading comprehension is generally fair to good, but I had to read that a few times. Then, when I still couldn’t totally understand it, I decided to check out some success stories. Sports Illustrated reported that Peyton Manning used MAT during his recovery from neck surgery prior to our awesome/tragically ended recent Broncos season, and still uses it regularly. I don’t care what team you root for, Peyton Manning is the MAN. I figured if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me, and I made an appointment.

During my first appointment, my MAT practitioner Shara ran me through a series of “tests” while I laid on a massage table. A test means she would arrange one of my limbs in a specific position, for example: my left arm straight out to the side. Then she would apply force to the limb and have me resist, for example: she would try to raise my arm and I would try to resist down. She did this numerous times, with my arms and legs at many angles, turned in, turned out, with resistance applied in pretty much every direction. Very pretzel-y, but not bad. Every test told her something about what muscles were and were not engaging. She also tested my range of motion for about every part of my body. Based on what muscles were not engaging, she would press on the connections between muscles with her fingertips. It was bearably unpleasant. Kind of like a painful massage. Then, she would re-test the same muscles.

Magic happened with my left arm. For a specific angle, on the first test I couldn’t resist her force at all. My arm just followed her lead.

Then she pressed her amazingly strong little finger tips around my shoulder. Then we re-tested the same angle.

I was solidly able to resist her force.

I freaked out. “HOLYCRAPTHATISAMAZING!” is what I actually said. I was giddy and dumbfounded. Shara laughed, I think she gets that reaction a lot. I am now convinced that Shara went to Hogwarts, and that she only wears Lululemon when she’s not in her traditional robes.

Obliviate Joint Pain!

Obliviate Joint Pain!

The whole session proceeded that way. Test and fail. Press around on the muscles and connective tissue. Re-test and succeed. Shara spent an hour working on my body, particularly my left shoulder and knee. At the end of the session, she gave me a couple of isometric exercises to do over the next week. The idea is that the MAT session activates muscles that weren’t firing before. Isometrics help re-engage those muscles so essentially your body remembers to use them.

I went away amazed by my in-session experience, but still unconvinced that my pain would truly go away. A couple days later, I went for a run. No knee pain. Hmm. Did a Crossfit workout with bench and handstand push ups – two notoriously shoulder-pain producing movements. No shoulder pain. Curious.

I went back for a second session. This involved the same tests as the first session to see what had “held,” meaning the muscles that were activated in the first session were still firing. A few were still rock solid, and few needed a little more work, and Shara went to town pressing into the muscle connections. The following week I did several Crossfit workouts that put stress on my shoulders – cleans, jerks, military press, handstand push ups, and snatch. I haven’t had shoulder pain since. At one point, I felt a twinge that might have materialized into pain. I did the isometrics Shara had given me, and I was fine. It didn’t materialize.

It’s been a month and I’ve been shoulder and knee pain free. I’ve been doing Crossfit consistently three times a week, and lately, some cruel coach at my gym has programmed a lot of running. I hate running. But not as much now because I’ve been able to do it without knee pain. Eureka.

So how does it actually work? Well, here is my non-academic explanation that might very well get torn to shreds by a MAT practitioner, but I want to put it in lamens terms:

- A lot of pain is caused because of imbalances in the body. Some muscles are weak, which leads to over-compensation by other muscles. This causes pain.

- The answer isn’t just to release the tight muscles (by foam rolling, massage, etc.) These might help, but what you really need to do is engage the weak muscles so there is balance.

- If you can restore balance and ensure all muscles are properly firing, the pain will be mitigated.

- MAT works by apply force into the muscle connections, which signals the muscle to better contract next time it is tested (this is the part I still am not 100% sure of why it works, I just know that it works) This is why the re-test yields stronger results.

- Isometric exercises are used to keep the brain remembering that those muscles are there, so they continue to fire and strengthen and restore balance.

So a month after my first session, I remain pain-free, despite increasing my exercise. Obviously, a month is a relatively short amount of time, and I will be closely monitoring my longer term results. So far, however, I am a believer. I think it is absolutely worth a try if you have any kind of recurring joint or muscle pain. Because you don’t have to live with it, believe in the magic. The MATgic.

To learn more, check out the MAT Client FAQ

If you’re in the Northern Colorado area, Shara is my favorite wizard. Visit her here.


6 thoughts on “Is it Magic or Is it Muscle Activation Technique?

  1. This sounds very interesting! I have a trigger point on the outside of my right knee and would love to be able to eliminate the pain. If you don’t mind me asking, was this covered, at all, by your insurance? Was it very expensive?

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