Friday, September 17, 2010

Muscle Activation: Why "turning on your glutes" is not a sexual reference

Bear with me for a little background.

If you're like me you learned about muscle function using elbow flexion as the model.  The elbow is a nice, relatively simple hinge joint.  You've got biceps and triceps.  When the biceps contract the triceps relax and the elbow flexes, when the triceps contract the biceps relax and the elbow extends.  We know the story is a little more complicated - there's a brachialis to worry about and two bones in the forearm - but not much more.

This is a nice starting model to understanding reciprocal inhibition and muscle function, but it has serious limitations.  The joints that are more important to movement - the hips and shoulders, and the spine (I know the spine isn't technically a joint, but you get the idea) - are not nearly as simple.  Take the hips.  Do the quads flex or extend the hip?  Why, flex it of course.  So the quads relax when the hip extends?  Well - not exactly.  Do a heavy squat and tell me if your quads are nice and relaxed.  Hip function is just a lot more complex, and most hip movements involve a lot of different muscles working together in various ways.

The shoulder is similarly complex.  Why does tensing your lat improve pressing power?  Doesn't the lat pull the upper arm down?  Well, yes, but it also settles the shoulder in its socket.  Don't believe me?  Try doing heavy kettlebell presses.  Now tense the lat - pull the shoulder down with the lat and see how the bell moves (by the way, this is a nice thing to do when throwing an upper block - actively pull the shoulder down towards the back of your hip by tensing the lat as your arm moves up.  You should see a nice boost in power as well as preserving the integrity of your shoulder joint).

I'm not going to fully descibe the way these muscles interact to produce movement in this post - I don't know enough and I don't have enough room.  The take home points are as follows:
  • In most cases muscles work together in teams to produce movement.  The hip and shoulder are not much like the elbow in this regard.
  • In many people muscles will work inefficiently or incorrectly to produce movement.  There's a "right way" for your muscles to extend the hip ("right" meaning most efficient and healthiest for your alignment) and if you sit at a desk all day your body is probably not doing it the right way!
  • Muscles can "shut down" - which just means they don't do their fair share of moving you around.  The glutes, parts of the core, and the shoulder stabilizers are all prime suspects for this.
  • One way to help imrpove your performance and alignment during movement is to "wake up" those underperforming muscles.
How do we "wake up" sleeping glutes (remember, they're not actually sleeping, they're just under-contributing to hip extension, probably because you sit on them all day at a desk)? At the beginning of your workout do a few quick muscle activation exercises, as part of your warm up.  A good example?

Try this as your warmup:

  1. Get warm (literally, raise your body temperature).  I like doing a breathing kata (sanchin, tensho) for this.
  2. Do some dynamic stretching (leg swings to the front and side for 1-3 rounds of 10)
  3. Get a pair of light dumbells and do YWTL's (check these out on YouTube - much easier to see than to explain). 
  4. Do a round of planks - front, side, and one armed to each side - but not to exhaustion, just 10-15 s so you feel a nice contraction where you're supposed to.
  5. Do some glute bridges - lie on your back, plant your feet flat on the floor, and thrust your pelvis up at the sky.  If you feel it in your hamstrings your glutes are asleep.  Squeeze the glutes, hard, as you do the movement.  You can try these one leg at a time as well.  Or do some kettlebell swing (my favorite choice).
This isn't foolproof, and these aren't the only exercises you can use by any stretch, but this is a good start to "waking up" the muscles you want firing when you do karate.  You can also focus on those muscles during the workout.  When you move in stance, focus on squeezing the glute as you push yourself forward.  Concentrate on keeping the shoulder down and in its socket when punching and blocking.  Consciously tighten your core muscles (your midsection) when you do basically any technique (don't stop breathing, though). 

Now if you have a big enough issue you may need to see a physical therapist or massage therapist or some kind of movement specialist to fix your inactive muscles.  But try some other things first.  I can feel a big difference in movement just by trying to tilt my pelvis forward and intentionally squeezing my glutes when moving.  You might too!

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