What does U.S. Women’s Soccer goalkeeper Hope Solo, NFL quarterback Peyton Manning (and the entire Denver Broncos team, for that matter), and PGA pro Bryson DeChambeau all have in common? They all use muscle activation technique (MAT®) as a non-invasive way to address muscular imbalances, reduce pain, minimize the risks of injuries, and boost their athletic and sports performance.
When it comes to overactive, overused muscles and dealing with chronic pain and injuries, we often turn to popular exercise modalities like stretching, deep tissue massage, active release technique (ART) and myofascial release. But recovery and rehabilitation is not just about releasing tight muscles and minimizing tension. We also need to identify, and strengthen, weak muscles to bring about balance and harmony in our body.
That’s where the novel approach of MAT, developed by Greg Roskopf, can help. Rather than focusing on relaxing tight muscles, it’s about getting adjacent, weaker muscles to contract and tighten appropriately.
What is Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT)?
The History of Muscle Activation Therapy
Fitness coach and author Greg Roskopf developed muscle activation techniques more than 20 years ago while working with Fresno State University’s performance athletes.
He noticed that some of his sports players were constantly getting injured while other athletes were able to push through and consistently hit their performance goals. This made him curious, and he began to investigate how an individual player’s biomechanics and muscular system responded to training, exercise and playing sports.
Through his research, Roskopf discovered that if athletes had any sort of muscular imbalance , traditional exercise programs only served to reinforce their bodies’ tendencies to over-compensate. This led to weaker muscles staying weak, and stronger muscles getting bigger and stronger, increasing the pre-existing imbalances and increasing the risks of injuries.
Roskopf then began figuring out how to identify such imbalances, and rather than relaxing the tight, strong muscles, instead help weaker muscles to contract and tighten.
The Fitness Science Behind MAT
“The foundational principle of MAT is that muscle tightness is a form of protection in the body and is secondary to muscle weakness,” explains the American Council on Exercise.
Muscle activation therapy research suggests that tight muscles, or muscles that are overstressed or injured, don’t get the right feedback from your brain and central nervous system, affecting proper contraction and lengthening, and thus the muscle’s ability to use the right amount of force. If left unaddressed, you’ll experience reduced range of motion and more injuries.
Think of it this way: Let’s say you have a muscle imbalance or an injury. To protect yourself, your muscles compensate. But you keep working out or playing sports. Thus, what might have started off as a small compensation gets reinforced and strengthened.
Over time, this alters your ability to properly load your muscles and carry out proper force distribution. Your range of motion or movement patterns then change, and you start to use different joints, tendons and muscles differently or more often than usual. A negative loop is created, and soon, your chronic pain flairs up and injuries manifest.
MAT Evaluation and Therapeutic Techniques
The primary objective of MAT is to identify if any of your muscles are getting the right feedback from your central nervous system to provide the right stability or mobility to various joints. Then, a MAT specialist may provide training or therapeutic interventions that help to restore that neural connection, and allow weaker muscles to produce the right amount of force.
A standard muscle activation therapy evaluation typically involves the following steps:
1. Observation: A MAT specialist reviews your information and past medical history, then proceeds to assess your sagittal plane (i.e. differences between your left and right side of your body). For instance, how is shoulder mobility on the right different from the left?
2. ROM Testing: The specialist begins to assess range of motion. In the MAT approach, a muscle that is too tight or too weak affect the range of motion of the joint it intersects, so ROM is a good indicator of any imbalances.
3. Strength Testing: Muscles only contract when input from your nervous system reaches that specific muscle. Thus, testing contractions, which stimulate the muscle spindles and neurons, can help identify weak muscles and poor muscle function.
The specialist will position your joint and limb in a way that isolates the muscle and joint as much as possible. Then, low-threshold isometric contractions are used to test muscle force.
4. Resetting: When the specialist has identified a weak muscle, his or her goal is to reactivate those muscles and re-establish neural feedback so your muscle is better able to provide stability and mobility to affected joints.
The specialist may use graded-intensity isometric contractions to stimulate the muscle. Or, the specialist may use muscle palpation (i.e. firm finger pressure) at your muscle’s attachment sites (i.e. the origin point, where the muscle is anchored, and the insertion point where the muscle moves).
Benefits of Muscle Activation Sessions
Immediately after going through a MAT assessment and process with a specialist, your muscle should be reactivated and have a reestablished connection with your central nervous system.
Many participants report seeing an immediate improvement in their range of motion and muscle strength. Secondary benefits to fixing the underlying muscle problems include:
- Greater flexibility
- Increase in strength and muscle force
- Reduction in sensations of tightness
- Minimization of pain, aches and soreness
1. Better Understanding of Your Body
Traditional modalities, like applying a hot pack, going for a massage, or using trigger points or foam rollers, are intended to counteract your body’s natural processes. Such interventions can be helpful, but tend to address the surface problems (i.e. pain or tension) and not what’s going on within your body.
One of the most popular reasons people turn to MAT is because it works with your body and your muscles’ natural processes, not against it.
MAT assessments and treatments explore what’s causing the pain, discomfort or sensations of tightness in your muscles, and then work to resolve the root cause. While it does assist with pain management, it’s primary goal isn’t to treat your pain, but rather to address muscle imbalances.
2. Long-Term Recovery and Performance
MAT is not a static approach. Every time you attend muscle activation sessions, your specialist retests your body and continues to reset your mind-body neural connections and muscle tension.
And as your mobility and ROM improves, your muscle activation sessions help to ensure consistent balance and that each muscle is contracting appropriately as your body responds to the treatment.
You’ll constantly progress towards muscle balance and equilibrium, bringing about long-term injury prevention, improved strength and enhanced sports performance.
3. Chronic Disease Prevention
Not only does MAT support joint range of motion, joint stability, injury recovery and overall muscle performance, but it can also have secondary positive benefits on other areas of your body.
For example, people have reported improvements in everything from arthritis (more and more aging adults are trying MAT as a treatment) to fibromyalgia to chronic fatigue. Of course, MAT is not purported to cure or prevent such health issues. However, by supporting your body’s natural balance appropriately, especially when it comes to physical stress, exercise, inflammation and joint health, you’ll support your body’s natural healing processes on a holistic, whole-body level.
Who Could Benefit From MAT?
While MAT is popular among athletes who want to achieve peak physical performance, it isn’t just for professionals. As Roskopf himself says, MAT is appropriate for anyone with muscles.
In other words, everyone.
Of course, people tend to investigate MAT as a way to prevent injuries or rehabilitate a past injury. After all, more than 3.7 million Americans ended up in their local hospital’s emergency room due to sports and recreational injuries last year. Personal exercise was the #1 cause, followed by popular sports like basketball, football, and soccer.
But you don’t need to be injured to enjoy the benefits of MAT. Because MAT identifies and resets muscle imbalances, anyone who wants to move and feel their best can benefit from one or more MAT consultations.
Where Could You Find MAT Facilities?
MAT is a unique modality that requires hours of specialized training. You should only get assessed and treated by someone who has completed the appropriate courses and has been certified by MAT® HQ.
There are several MAT practitioner distinctions that may appeal to you when searching for a local MAT provider:
- MAT Specialist: A general specialist has completed a 36-credit, 12-week course, plus a 2-day in-person lab at the organization’s headquarters in Denver, Colorado.
- MAT Master Specialist: After obtaining their initial certification, specialists can complete Master-level courses with expanded expertise on neuro muscular systems, muscle tests, and MAT research.
- MATrx: After achieving their Master-level status, specialists can hone in on specific Rx training for either total body or foot-and-hand improvements.
All MAT practitioners in your area can be found in the official MAT directory (conveniently searchable by address as well as by specialty).
If this is your first time trying MAT, a general specialist can offer a great introduction. If you have more acute muscle dysfunctions, or are looking for advanced treatment on a specific body part (i.e. an ankle or hand problem), a Master Specialist or MATrx-trained practitioner may be ideal.
Don’t just treat pain or tightness on a surface level. While temporarily helpful, such interventions don’t lead to long-lasting change and recovery.
Instead, use muscle activation techniques to with your body’s natural neural connections and muscular connections. As you resolve muscle imbalances and strengthen weak muscles, you’ll deal with the root problems you’re experiencing and discover renewed strength, flexibility, mobility and injury prevention.