Muscle Activation Technique, or MAT for short, isn’t the most well-known form of physical treatment but it has actually been getting more press recently. Many professional athletes including Peyton Manning are publicly extolling its virtues. Manning was quoted in a Sports Illustrated article claiming that MAT was one of the main reasons he was able to resurrect his Hall of Fame career.
But what exactly is MAT? How can it help? And who should consider giving it a try?
Davida Vineberg, MAT practitioner at Inside Out Health and Fitness describes the process in a very factual manner. “Using Muscle Activation Techniques, I assess joint limitations and muscular imbalances. Then I test muscles that affect the limited range for weakness. If the muscle is weak, I treat it to activate it, and then re-test it for strength.”
What MAT sets out to do, which is different from physical therapies like massage is to move beyond managing your pain and get to the root of that pain. Pain is an indicator that something isn’t right and while a weekly massage will leave you feeling better; it often works the same as pain medication in that it masks the pain, which feels good, but it hasn’t actually addressed the root of the problem that is causing the pain to begin with.
A large part of a MAT session is spent testing your muscles in order to find out which ones might be at the root of your pain or physical limitation. The therapist will do this by stretching and moving your body in a very specific way. “I’m looking for asymmetry from side to side”, Davida says. “I’m comparing the movement in the joint on one side to the movement in the same joint on the other side. That’s the telling part of where I need to start as it helps to determine the greatest limitation.”
In short, Davida and MAT practitioners are muscle detectives. She approaches every different joint in the body by looking at it as a three hundred and sixty degree circle. “I look at every joint as 360 degrees because there are muscles at every aspect that will contribute to its motion and its stability. That’s why when someone comes to me with a shoulder problem, I don’t just check into the shoulder blade; the clavicle needs to be considered as well as the humerus – there are muscles that come from every single direction that help with every single movement.”
It is possible that your body could be experiencing major limitations that you are unaware of. Similarly a table can have a cracked or broken leg but still stand and only shows a slight wobble. Yes, it still functions as a table but not to the fullest of its ability. Davida explains it like this:
“No matter what, how active or inactive you are in life, your body is going to get itself into compensatory patterns. If your brain tells your body to walk down to the bottom of your driveway, your body is going to find a way to do it. How you do it and if it’s optimal or not is my job. I’m picking out the muscles one at a time and seeing if they are contributing or if they are on a vacation.”
We’ve all noticed this before; an injury to your right ankle has you limping for a few days while the ankle muscle heals itself and shortly afterwards you notice a twinge in your left knee. Your body has a way of compensating for limitations that will in turn over stress another part of your body. This is what can lead to a limitation, “Your muscles will tighten to a point while protecting itself and it won’t move beyond that point.”
These are the sort of limitations that are being searched for in the initial test of a MAT session. Once they have been identified it’s on to treatment. Treatment in MAT is very different from other physical therapy treatments, in that it doesn’t focus on the “meat” of a muscle. It zeroes in on the muscle attachment sites – the point where the muscle attaches to the joint. During treatment, pressure will be applied to these attachment sites which can sometimes be uncomfortable until the muscle loosens itself or “activates”. In this way, MAT really is less like therapy from the muscles point of view and is more akin to actually working out. What it’s doing is taking the muscle and getting it to become active and move correctly.
Then it’s on to re-test. Your body is put through the same limitation centered tests as before, with the hope that the just activated muscles are playing more of a role in the movement. Look at it like this – the muscle has just been re-introduced to your brain, and has now been invited to the party.
Through the re-test, Davida can assess whether or not the muscles she activated were the root of the problem, or if there is another muscle in the circle creating an issue. “It’s simple: Test, treat, re-test and then re-treat.”
The eventual goal is to achieve balance in your body. As Davida puts it, “As a Cirque du Soleil performer, it’s great if you can raise your leg up over your head but if you aren’t well balanced while doing it, it’s not actually great at all.”
For the normal person that can translate to any every day activity. We all know someone who has thrown out their back, shoulder or knee doing something as innocuous as brushing their hair. This happens not because the muscles were particularly weak, but because the body was not balanced correctly. To keep us going, our bodies have ways of overcompensating for a problem and end up working overtime and therefore creating further imbalances.
“If something isn’t moving properly”, says Davida, “then it isn’t getting any input into the bodies overall movements. That means that it is keeping everything in place as a protective mechanism. It’s as though you are walking on a sheet of ice, you are taking very small steps, moving gingerly and everything is tightened. You are still walking but your muscles aren’t moving the way they are designed to.”
MAT is a way of reminding your body of how to move properly. It’s perfecting the marriage between motion and stability and is an amazing way to help in both the healing of existing injuries and the prevention of future ones.