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Joints and muscles

How joints, muscles and connective tissue allow our brain to sense and create change
Published: 2020 10 27
Updated: 2020 11 04
elements of the thoracolumbar fascia: transverse abdominus, middle layer of thoracolumbar fascia (MLF), quadratus luborum, sactotuberous ligament (not labelled), long dorsal sacroiliac ligament (not labelled.) Neil Keleher, anatomy for yoga teachers, sensational yoga poses.

While bones provide the framework for all the parts of our body, in terms of using our body and moving it, the three most important elements are connective tissue, joints and muscles.

Note that connective tissue is similiar in one regard to the skeleton.

Where the skeleton provides the framework, connective tissue provides the nuts, bolts and glue that hold the framework together.

Joints include connective tissue (the joint capsule, tendons, ligaments) as do muscles (investing fascia as well as tendons and ligaments.

The brain uses the body to sense change and create it

For my initial draft of this article I wrote that the three most important elements for movement where the brain, muscles and joints.

The brain is important but in terms of feeling movement and controlling it (and actually allowing it), the three elements are those that I've already listed. The brain is the thing that takes information from muscles and connective tissue and from that information figures out how joints are currently configured, whether relaxed, active, being compressed or pulled, bent, or rotated.

While it is important to understand some aspects of how our brain works when dealing with movement, (particularly in how to program and reprogram it) here the focus is on the elements that actually allow the body to move and create forces and deal with them.

A more general term is change. Muscles, joints and connective tissue are what allow our brain (and whatever impulses drive it) to sense change and create it.

And here, when I say brain, I use that to include all the related computing and connecting systems that relay control and sensitivity back and forwards between whatever part of ourselves it is that does the controlling of our body.

Connective tissue holds our body together

If you look at wiring in an electrical circuit, that wiring conducts electrical current through the circuit, providing there's voltage and a closed circuit. So that electricity remains within wires, wires are coated with insulating material. Wires transmit electricity while also preventing it from goint where it shouldn't.

In the same way, water pipes, (or pipes for any other fluid), allow water to be transported from one point to another without allowing it to leek out.

The quantity or "thing" that connective tissue transmits is tension.

Connective tissue connects and transmits tension between the parts it connects.

So that tension is transmitted cleanly, without "leakage", connective tissue "slides" relative to other structures, where required.

Connective tissue can be used to bypass injured structures

In an electrical circuit, if there is a defective component, wiring can be put into the circuit to bypass the defective part. Said part can be replaced when a replacement is available.

Connective tissue can be used in a similiar way. It can become sticky or bind to other connective tissue structures to bypass "faulty components".

One challenge is how to unstick connective tissue when the bypass is no longer required.

Joints are designed to distribute tension

Joints can be viewed as relatively simple structures. You can look at them and classify them via how they allow movement. But a more important point is understanding how they are lubricated.

Note that most joints that allow movement between adjacent bones are synovial in nature. There are joints that are not synovial and while they allow movement, it is more movement due to growth or movement that allows for bones to adjust relative to each other to distribute forces. this mainly is limited to the suture joints in the skull.

Where movement of one bone relative to another is driven by muscles (as opposed to growth) in general these require synovial joints to act as a medium for connecting bones and allowing their relationship to be controlled via muscles.

Can joints act as shock absorbers

Related to the idea of joints distributing tension is the idea of them acting as shock absorbers or rather, shock distributors. Imagine, if a joint capsule is sufficiently tensioned so that lubrication pressure is maintained, that same tensed connective tissue can be used to transmit shocks between the parts of the body it connects. So for example, if the knee joint capsules are sufficiently tensioned during the impact of running, the impact shock could be transmitted past the knee to the hip. And assuming the hip joint capsule is sufficiently tensioned, it can pass the impact shock to the upper body.

Of course this would also require that the joints of the foot and ankle be sufficiently tensioned.

For more on this check out the barefoot running heel strike article.

Why synovial joints are lubricated (and how they are kept lubricated)

Synovial joints in general are meant to be lubricated. Lubrication is important because it allows these joints to function without creating friction. And this in turn is important because it means that muscles on opposing sides of a joint can share and distribute loads the way a pulley system does.

An important question you could ask is How to know if your joints are lubricated. Hopefully this article explains it.

For more on this (and this relates to having agency) you can read muscle control for proprioception and joint lubrication. Here the idea is that muscle control gives us proprioception. Not only that, if it also gives us joint lubrication, then because it also gives us proprioception we can learn to feel (or at least get an idea) for when our joints are lubricated or not.

For more on the mechanics of joint lubrication and how muscles and joints work together you can read: how muscles and joints work together.

To control our body we can focus on feeling and controlling joints or muscles (or both)

When looking at the body, in particular with regards to feeling and controlling muscles, we can focus on muscles themselves and the joint or joints that they work on or we can focus on the joints themselves.

Both can be felt. Both can be controlled. And both of these offer slightly different ways of controlling, and experiencing our body.

For more on learning to feel and control your body check out Anatomy for muscle control.

If you want to know some of the benefits of muscle control (and thus why you should learn it) read why learn muscle control.

One possible answer to this question is to gain agency. And you can read about that in gaining agency through muscle control.

Another possible answer is so that it is easier to experience your anatomy and via that experience gain a better understanding.

To make learning muscle control more useful it can help to have some principles for learning and applying muscle control. For more on this you can read Muscle control basics and muscle control principles.

Muscles are the main drivers or proprioceptive information

Looking at muscles can be important because these along with connective tissue are the main drivers of proprioceptive information within our body. Muscles create muscle activation sensation which is inversely proportional to how much stretch a muscle is undergoing and proportional to effort or output.

For more on this (and related articles), read sensational anatomy. At the very least you can get an understanding of why this website is called "sensational yoga poses".

Perhaps one of the biggest points about muscle control, and actually about muscles in general, is that in order to activate, muscles need an opposing force to work against. Sometimes that force comes from something outside the body, something you are working against. Sometimes it comes from the weight of body parts being moved or stabilized. And failing that it can come from the activation of opposing muscles. Read more about this in muscles are force sensors.

As for fault finding and problem solving, you might find some of the ideas in motor control for yoga.

Connective tissue is also important for proprioception

Connective tissue, when subject to stretch or tension creates connective tissue stretch sensation which is proportional to stretch.

Both signals together give our brain information on how the parts of our body relate. But, except for in limited cases, you can't have connective tissue tension unless you first have muscle activation.

Connective tissue tension can register weight of body parts

Connective tissue tension can "register" the weight of body parts hanging from it. So for example, lifting hte arms to the front with minimal effort, connective tissue can register the weight of the arms. Even with arms hanging down, connective tissue stretch can be registered. Note that in this latter case, even though the arms may be relaxed, other muscles are required to keep the torso upright. Even if bones are stacked, muscle activation is still required to maintain that stacking.

When connective tissue tension is more dominant than muscle activation sensation.

With smaller, thinner or less numerous muscles, muscle activation sensation is harder to percieve. In cases like this, the more dominant sensation is connective tissue stretch.

Note that muscle activation sensation also tends to diminish when the muscle in question is lengthened, such as when stretching. And so when stretching the more dominant sensation can also be that of connective tissue tension.

An exception to this is with active stretching. In active stretching where the muscles that oppose the muscle being stretched are active, then those muscles will be in a shortened position. As such the active opposing muscles will create a strong muscle activaion sensation. And so with active stretching you can get a combination of muscle activation sensation as well as connective tissue stretch.

For more on how stretching ties in with proprioception you can read can stretching improve proprioception.

For another look at how to tune in to connective tissue tension you might enjoy concepts of tai chi. I should point out here that a large part of how I learned to improve joint and muscle control and overall body awareness was through the practice of tai chi (which I normally write as tai ji).

What any muscle needs in order to activate

In order for any muscle to activate, it needs a force to work against.

This can come from working against external weight or force, say lifting weights or carrying groceries. It can also come from body weight. And in the absence of either of these, it can come from opposing muscles.

So without an external opposing force to work against, muscles can work against each other. This is generally easier to achieve in static positions but it can also be achieved while moving slowly or non-ballistically.

While it's generally called isometric contraction, I'll say that that term is limiting because muscles can also oppose each other with slow movement and with slow and repeated (or rhythmic movement).

Opposing muscle activation creates joint stability

An important point to note is that when opposing muscles work against each other, they stabilize the joint (or joints) they are working across. This generates sensation, generally connective tissue tension, at the joint itself, but muscle activation sensation also either above or below (or above and below) the joint.

And so an option when feeling and controlling the body is to focus on the sensations generated at the joints when using "muscle control".

Rather than saying one is better than the other, I'll suggest that both are options and the better you learn both, the better you can understand, feel and control your body.

To understand your muscles, it helps to experience them directly

The articles below mainly focus on joints and muscles from an outside perspective This is important so that you have a framework for understanding these elements.

To fill that framework with actual understanding when you then experience the sensations generated by muscles and connective tissue in your own body and learn to control them.

What are the benefits of muscle (and joint) control?

For myself, I've used it to solve various joint and muscle pain problems. I've also used it to improve flexibility, (including side splits). And I've used it for more effective handling while lifting weights.

In general it allows me to directly experience my body while I am using it.

Another benefit is that it has allowed me to optimize how I use my body. Note that this has taken a lot of time. But the benefits are that I can now use my body more effectively while at the same time having a better understanding of it. For more on this you might like optimal performance in yoga.

Some of the articles do include exercises for feeling and controlling the muscle or joint in question. But for more detailed and systematic approach to this check out my courses on learn 2 understand. These are called "driving lessons for your body" in that each focuses on isolated msucle awareness and control so that you can learn to feel and control the muscle(s) in question without having to think about how to do it. You can then use the awareness and control in the service of whatever it is that you are doing at the time.

Joints and regions

These articles focus on (or have links to) joints as well as recognizeable regions of the body that might be important for purposes of improving strength and/or flexibliity or for dealing with pain.

Note one idea that can be especially important to the hip joint but is also relevant to joints in general is the idea of centration or centering. Read about that in Joint centration.

Also for general suggestions on how to approach joint pain take a look at joint pain yoga.

Muscles

The articles on muscles below are grouped roughly according to category but their may be overlap.

The lower leg

The Hip and leg

Muscles of the Torso, waist and spine

Shoulder, Elbow and Arm muscles

Anatomy

Most of the anatomy that is focused on in this website is anatomy that is related to movement and posture (and in some cases, pain). Some ideas that can be dragged from "traditional" anatomy (i.e. that used by doctors and others working on bodies that aren't their own) bear mentioning here. This is so that we can retain what's useful for us.

One idea for getting more familiar with anatomy is learning to draw it. It forces you to look at the relationships between parts (and between reference points on parts.) Even if all you are trying to do is get a better feel for your own body, drawing anatomy can help you better visualize your own anatomy, giving you better "built in tools". For more on that, read learn anatomy for yoga by drawing it.

Note that even if you suck as an artist, learning to draw is pretty much the same as learning to control your body. The better you can control your body the better you can do art like drawing. And while these days lots of anatomy books rely on computer generated drawings, in the old days, anatomists drew their own pictures.

If you are going to be looking at anatomy texts as a reference for learning your own anatomy, be aware of the anatomical position.

While it's very important for doctors and surgeons (and massage therapists), particularly when working on a body that is supine on a surgery table, it's more of a hinderance for ourselves. We don't need the anatomical position as a reference to figure out movement. We just need to know how the parts of our body relate now (and how we want the parts of our body to relate.

And as we get better at feeling and controlling how the parts of our body relate, our bones (and the earth) become the reference system we can rely on.

For more on why yoga teachers don't need the anatomical position when studying anatomy read the anatomical position article.

One thing that I've struggled with as a yoga teacher on occasion is the importance of anatomy. How much do my students need to know? Actually, they don't need to know. What they need to be able to do is feel and control their body and that's what I teach them. That being said, if they want to become better practitioners, anatomy can serve as a road map to helping them learn their bodies. I'v written a bit more about this in anatomy as a road map.

For an index, of sorts, to articles on this site that are anatomy related (and sorted alphabetically), check out: Anatomy, biomechanics, muscle control and proprioceptionnot updated!.

Joints and muscles, TOC

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courses in muscle control so that you can better feel, control and understand your joints, muscles and connectivet tissue structures.
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