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Gaining agency through muscle control

Flicking the switch to access sensation
Published: 2020 09 21
Updated: 2021 01 29

As per usual this article was inspired by an interaction on facebook. A lot of people don't understand that when I talk about muscle control what I'm talking about is feeling your body (by feeling sensations generated by your muscles as well as connective tissue).

So why do I use the term muscle control?

Because muscles are the things that generate sensation. It's like if there is a light switch and a light bulb, you don't go to the lightbulb to generate light. You flick the switch.

Muscles are the "switch" that generate sensation in our body. And that's kind of cool because they also generate movement and stability. So if you can feel and control your muscles (and via them connective tissue tension) you also derive from that the ability to feel and control movement.

Note that the ideas of muscle control can also be extended to include sensations generated at our points of contact with the ground or points of contact with anything else external to use whether it is a rifle, a motorcycle, a joystick, a flashlight, a fork, a knife, a spoon, a coffee cup, a boob, a penis, the rounded curve of a buttock etc.

Also note, that not a lot of people talk about how to feel your body. They don't know how. Terms like embodiment and being present will be used, but it doesn't get into the nuts and bolts of actual proprioception. What makes me an authority? I've been learning how to teach this stuff for the last 20 years. I've been learning how to feel and control my own body (mainly to fix pain, and from there to improve flexibility) but just as importantly I've been learning how to teach this stuff to students with a wide range of ability. It's in the teaching that I've figured out that muscle activation is the key ingredient to proprioception.

Why do I teach it? It's a simple way of being present, of "doing yoga". It's also expedient. If I teach people how to feel their body and control it, via muscle control, they can then apply that ability to anything that they do. So it's kind of like learning the alphabet so that you can then learn to read. You'll still need to use a dictionary, but you have the basics in place.

What inspired me to learn muscle control? I'm an engineer by training. But also, I like being independent. I left school to join the army. I continued my education by taking correspondance courses. I found that I really liked studying this way. Muscle control allows me to learn my own body without a teacher. And it's also helped me to fix problems, whether that has been pain or a lack of flexibility and even in some cases strength. I'm definately no super athlete, but I can enjoy the experience of my body. And hopefully through muscle control I can help you enjoy the experience of yours.

What is muscle control

The term muscle control, as I use it, includes the ability to:

It can be extended to feeling and controlling how our body relates to the earth and anything else that it is in contact with. This is done via feeling and controlling:

An important part of muscle control is also noticing bones (as well as joints). Noticing bones we can choose to deliberately move or deliberately keep them still. Note that a third option is to relax and allow them to move with whatever force is acting on them.

What does it mean to "feel muscles".

Muscles dont' just move our body (or stabilize it), they also allow us to feel or proprioceive our body.

To feel our body and how the parts of it relate we need two things:

Together these two quantities can be hijacked or hacked or simply tuned into to help us directly feel and experience our body while at the same time helping us to improve our ability to control it.

So basically, "feeling muscles" and/or feeling our body means tuning into muscle activation sensation and connective tissue tension.

If muscles allow us to feel what's going on inside of our body, what allows us to feel how our body relates to the earth

Where muscle activation and connective tissue allow us to feel and control relationships within our body, we need to tune into the surface of our body to feel how our body relates to the earth and anything else it is in physical contact with.

Note that in general, muscle activation is still required when feeling how our body relates to the earth, but on top of this we also need to be able to notice:

Note that skin contact can be extended via clothing and/or hair

It is possible to feel our body while it is totally relaxed. However, to feel our body when muscles are active, when we are standing, or lying or moving, or still in a posture, we need muscle power to power the movement or hold the posture. These same activations also allow us to feel our body.

What are the benefits of muscle control.

Muscle control includes feeling muscles activate and relax and it also includes being able to turn muscles on and off at will (given that the pose or action allows it).

Assuming that pain, deficiencies in flexibility and/or strength are all based on muscle control then improving muscle control help overcome strength or flexibilty deficits, and if pain is a result of the brain thinking that a certain problem exists, it can also be used to turn off pain signals.

Putting that all in a list the benefits of muscle control can include:

Because muscle control can be used to feel and control specific muscles, it allows us to use muscles in particular ways despite what we are doing. So rather than doing particular exercises to work on particular muscles, we can play with different muscle activations within any exercise or posture to notice how those actions affect the exercise.

And so another benefit of muscle control is that it allows us to explore our body. Through such explorations it can also help us to better understand the parts of our body.

What is stability

In very general terms, stability is resistance to change. The more stable something is the more resistant to change it is.

A large part of muscle control is in creating stability where we choose to.

Note that when creating stability within our body we are generally exerting muscles against each other (or against an body weight or an external force). Because stability itself requires muscle activation, creating stability is a very simple way of generating sensation.

As a side note, muscle activation sensation tends to be stronger the more a muscle shortens. It diminishes as a muscle lengthens.

What is stability in terms of muscle control

In terms of muscle control it helps to understand that when muscles activate they generate force. As a result, in order for muscles to activate they need an opposing force to work against. Doing quick, or ballistic, movements, this opposing force comes from

With non-ballistic movements this opposing force can provide by:

When opposing muscles work against each other they can stiffen a joint. And so this can be one definition of stability, when a joint is stiffened so that it resists change. The greater the force exerted, the stiffer the joint, the greater the stability.

Can a joint be stable and moving?

When a joint is stabilized by opposing muscles working against each other, it can be possible for the joint to move in the direction of either of the active muscles while both muscles remain active. So for example, doing a weighted squat, you can slowly lower and slowly stand up. In this case the quadriceps and/or gluteus maximus can be working against the external weight. If you activate the hip flexors and hamstrings also, then the glutes and quads activate with more force, to work against both the external weight and the opposing muscles. Or you can activate them against each other while moving in a squat, without the added external weight.

What is muscle anchoring.

If a series of joints like those comprising the foot and ankle are stabilized, that effectively unifies the mass of the foot and lower leg bones. And if the foot is bearing weight, that anchors the lower leg bones to an even greater extent making it more stable.

With the foot anchored by opposing muscle activation and body weight, muscles that attach from lower leg bones to either the femur or the hip bone have a fixed end point. The end point of those muscles is stabilized and that means they can act more effectively on the femur and or hip bone.

So in terms of stability, when you stabilize a joint you not only affect that joint, you also potentially affect other joints.

If you stabilize the knee joint by using opposing muscles against each other, the mass of the lower leg bones and the femurs are combined. As a result, muscles that attach to these bones are anchored by the combined weight of these bones. They can then act on other parts of the body. this type of activation is what allows us to sit up with our legs straight without the feet being hooked under something.

Why is muscle anchoring important

Muscle anchoring is the fixing of one end of a muscle or set of muscles. It could be thought of as stability via mass. So for example, when Chuck Norris does a push up he pushes the earth away from him. Most of us understand that because the earth is massive compared to each of us, it doesn't move when we push against it. Instead, we move.

With bones, the same idea can apply.

When a set of bones are stabilized at the joint that connects them, their masses are effectively combined. So when a muscle acts, it will tend to cause the bones with the least mass to move towards the bones with greater mass.

If we take moment arms into account, then the part of the body with the smaller moment arm will move towards the part of the body anchored by the greater moment arm.

If we try to use our abs while lying supine with the knees relaxed, we tend to pull our legs up relative to our torso. With knees activated and stable, and straight, our head and arms and torso can move relative to our legs.

So why is muscle anchoring important?

It gives us greater control of our muscles. Using a building a building analogy, you put in the foundation and that in turn allows you to put up the framework which in turn allows you to build everything else.

By picking how we anchor our bones (and how we stabilize our joints) we can greater agency in how we use and move our body.

With muscle control, when you choose where and how to anchor muscles (and/or create stability) this makes it easier for other muscles to operate as they need to. This is turn can make it easier to overcome strength and flexibility problems. it can also make it easier to deal with some types of muscular pain.

Connective tissue lengthening is also an important sensation

Where muscle activation sensation tends to amplify as the active muscle shortens, connective tissue tension sensation tends to amplify the more stretch a muscle undergoes. In this case it is the stretching of investing fascia, connective tissue within the muscle, that generates sensation. As a result, two basic ways of generating sensation to feel the body are to create stability and to create length.

In terms of using muscles against each other to stabilize a joint, those activate muscles create sensation that gives the joint in question "feel". Note that if the muscles on both sides of a joint are kept active as the joint is moved in the direction of one of the active muscles, then muscle activation sensation in that muscle increases as is shortens. However, on the other side, connective tissue tension sensation increases.

As a simple and basic example of this, you could make your neck feel long. Muscles in the cervical region and above and below it will activate to create that sensation, at the same time helping to stabilize the neck. If you then bend the neck to the side while keeping it feeling long, the short side can be actively contracted while the long side can be actively lengthened. The short side will be dominated by muscle activation sensation while the long side will be dominated by connective tissue stretching sensation.

Why does the brain generate pain signals.

Generally pain is the brains way of telling us that a particular movement is going to cause damage to the body. It isn't damage that causes the pain. It is the brains perception of potential damage that causes pain.

This assumes some sort of programming for the brain. What is it designed to protect?

Muscles have a lot of overlap. It allows us to do smoothly connected movements. As e move from one position to the next and as the movement takes joints from the effective range fo one muscle to another, these muscles smoothly take over from each other because of this overlap. However, while muscles have overlap, some redundancy, joints don't. If we loose a joint we can't have some other joint substitute for it.

So the brain may be programmed to keep joints protected.

In normal everyday use, what keeps joints functioning normally?

One suggestion is that it is muscle control. Muscle tension can be used to affect ligaments, tendons and joint capsules. Joint capsule in turn contain synovial fluid which keeps joints lubricated.

To keep joints lubricated lubricating fluid has to be prevented from being squeezed out from between joint surfaces. One way to do this is to use the joint capsule. adjust tension of it to keep lubricating fluid from being squeezed out. Note that another option is to inject more fluid into the joint and this may be an important mechanism for the knee as witnessed by the array of bursae sandwiched between ligaments and tendons and by the array of bursae that directly connect to the joint capsule itself.

If a particular muscle isn't working, the brain can sense it, via failure of the muscle to fire, or via lack of connective tissue tension or both. it can recognize when this can cause a problem in joint capsule tension adjustment and so send a pain signal.

Why do pain signals persist when the body has recovered

Because muscles generate force they require force to work against in order to activate. This also means that muscles can prevent other muscles from activating by a sort of muscle force logic. If a substitute muscle is activating, called in to take over for a muscle that needs a rest to heal, when the muscle is healed, if the substitute muscle is still working, because the brain doesn't recognize that the other muscle is heeled, then it can't activate because it doesn't have force to work against. the substitute muscle is working against the force it should be working against. So if two people are pushing against each other and they can only exert a particular level of force, a third person can't jump in, one person has to come out so the third person can jump in.

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