By Pete McCall, M.S.
Q: I’ve been hearing a lot about Muscle Activation Technique (MAT) lately and I’m wondering if this would be a beneficial credential for me to earn. Can you explain what it is and how it might help me as a personal trainer?
A: Two challenges commonly faced by personal trainers are 1) determining the most effective way to assess a client to identify his or her individual training needs, and 2) how to take that information to create an exercise program to produce the desired results. There is no absolute “right way” to assess or design an exercise program, but it does help to have a specific approach that can be replicated from one client to the next.
The ACE Integrated Fitness Training® (ACE IFT®) Model provides personal trainers with a structured approach to exercise program design that is based on human movement. The first phase of the Functional Movement and Resistance Training component of the ACE IFT Model is Stability and Mobility Training for the purpose of restoring stability to the stable joints and enhancing mobility of the mobile joints. The 4th edition of the ACE Personal Trainer Manual addresses strategies for assessing stability and mobility as well as specific techniques for designing a program to enhance those functions based on a client’s particular needs. However, if you are looking for more information on how to assess stability and mobility issues, and to address them with exercise solutions, Muscle Activation Technique (MAT), developed by former collegiate strength coach Greg Roskopf, might be an appealing option for you.
MAT Training Explained
MAT is a system of training that is designed to restore balance and enhance function in the human body. When a muscle becomes too tight (hypertonic) or weak (inhibited) it can affect the function and range of motion (ROM) of the joint it crosses. The foundational principle of MAT is that muscle tightness is a form of protection in the body and is secondary to muscle weakness. For example, if a particular muscle remains stuck in a tight or shortened position, it changes the ability of that muscle to effectively produce or reduce force, which could lead to altered joint ROM and potential injury. Roskopf compares the effects of muscle tightness to walking on ice. “When someone is walking on ice their movements are shortened with a restricted ROM to ensure stability and avoid falling on a slippery surface,” Roskopf explains. “When muscles become too tight they have the same effect, which limits joint motion and could be a potential cause for injury.”
A tight muscle does not receive the appropriate sensory motor feedback from the nervous system, causing the other muscles it works with to change their resting lengths and proprioception. According to Roskopf’s research, when muscles become hyerptonic the spindles (intrafusal muscle fibers) that sense length change become slack, thereby providing limited sensory feedback. Roskopf compares this to a battery cable coming loose in a car engine. “If the cable comes loose, the car will not effectively conduct the charge to start the engine,” he explains. The goal of MAT assessments and training is to identify muscles that are not able to produce adequate force and to restore optimal muscle function and subsequent joint ROM.
The inhibition of a muscle—or the inability to produce the appropriate force when necessary—can be related to impaired communication between that individual muscle and the central nervous system (CNS). External stressors such as overuse, impaired movement mechanics or trauma can affect the function of a particular muscle. If a muscle becomes overstressed it results in an altered feedback mechanism between that muscle and the CNS. Changes in muscle sensory reception can lead to a reduced ability to generate the appropriate force to move or stabilize a joint. If a muscle does not receive the appropriate communication with the CNS, then it could cause positions of joint instability, which create the potential for injury.
The Law of Reciprocal Inhibition describes the fact that as one muscle contracts, its opposing muscle (on the other side of the joint) has to lengthen to allow motion to occur. For example, when the gluteus maximus contracts to extend the hip, the iliacus and psoas major muscles (commonly called the ilipsoas) need to lengthen to allow the motion to occur. The Law of Reciprocal Inhibition is the reason why tightness from one muscle can affect other muscles that surround the same joint and ultimately alter joint ROM.
"An imbalanced muscle structure results in other muscles tightening to compensate for the compromised muscle," explains Kate Allgood, a San Diego−based MAT Specialist. "The end result is a negative impact on functionality, pain or discomfort."
As such, the primary goal of MAT training is to identify whether or not the muscles that cross a particular joint have the appropriate sensory input and neural feedback to perform their designed function to control stability or mobility at that joint. MAT teaches a systematic approach to assessment, which can determine whether or not a muscle is working optimally to control motion at the joint it crosses. The evaluation process of MAT is to determine whether or not the specific muscles that support a joint have the proper neurological input to perform their respective function at that joint. Each individual muscle of a muscle group around a joint must be able to generate the forces necessary to provide stability or mobility as needed for efficient movement mechanics. “The MAT testing protocols and follow-up exercise programming allow me to see if my training is having the desired effect,” explains Manhattan-based personal trainer and MAT Specialist Lara Licharowicz.
The basis of MAT exercise programming is to use low-threshold isometric contractions to restore neural drive and function to muscles to allow them to produce force effectively. Low-threshold isometric contractions can stimulate and innervate muscle spindles and the associated gamma motor neurons responsible for muscle contractions. Once muscles have been “re-activated,” they can be used to control and enhance joint ROM.
How to Get Trained in MAT
The MAT Jumpstart Training workshops are the introduction to the MAT principles and provide solutions for performing client assessments and designing effective exercise programs based on the results. The Jumpstart workshops are divided into three sections based on a particular portion of anatomy: Lower Body, Trunk and Spine, and Upper Body. Each workshop is 16 hours and covers how to identify the muscle imbalances affecting mobility and stability and then addresses strategies for training to restore balance and function to the particular body segment being studied.
Licharowicz believes that the full MAT Specialist program (which requires more extensive education than that provided by the Jumpstart workshops) was worth the time and investment. “MAT allows me to conduct comprehensive assessments on clients to identify potential sources of dysfunction and immediately address them with the exercise program,” she explains. “In short, MAT allows me to provide immediate results for clients, which has greatly increased my business.” Additional evidence on the benefits of MAT comes from testimonials on the Web site (www.muscleactivation.com) from former athletes Bill Romanowski and John Elway, who each credit MAT training for helping them prepare for, and recover from, the physical demands of professional football.
The ACE Functional Training and Assessment workshop teaches key strategies for assessing stability and mobility as well as how to apply the ACE IFT model to design exercise programs to enhance functional movement. However, if you are interested in learning more about what limits joint stability and mobility and, more importantly, how to address those restrictions with exercise-program design, then MAT might be an effective solution.
Pete McCall, M.S., an ACE Exercise Physiologist with ACE, creates and delivers fitness education programs to uphold ACE’s mission of enriching quality of life through safe and effective exercise. He has a master's degree in Exercise Science and Health Promotion. In addition, he is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and holds additional certifications and advanced specializations through NSCA and NASM. McCall has been featured in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Runner’s World and Self.