Tools to improve muscle activation & results from training
Below is an excerpt from Fit Body, Happy Joints: Episode 110 “Tools to improve muscle activation & results from training”.
Improving sensation can improve activation.
Many people can’t effectively engage their muscles, which can limit strength and cause joint aches and pains after exercise.
If you’re not an Evlo member, this could be because of your programming. Many workout programs choose exercises that overuse muscles. This causes inflammation and can block activation.
Importance of mechanical load
Many programs are also not choosing exercises that mechanically load a muscle effectively.
For example, a woodchop exercise is often programmed for the abs and obliques. But a woodchop actually loads the shoulders, not the trunk.
The trunk is neutral and just acts as a stabilizer as the arms move around the body. The weight is loading the deltoids, not the trunk. So it really isn’t a great trunk exercise.
That would be like calling a bicep curl a good back exercise. Your paraspinal or back muscles have to contract to keep you upright. But no one chooses a bicep curl to work their back muscles.
If you’re struggling to see results or “feel” muscles contract, try fixing some programming first.
Improving muscle activation
Once you have great programming, or if you’re an Evlo member, we can further refine by improving your neuromuscular function. This involves improving the wiring from your brain to your muscles using an understanding of some of the aspects of your somatic nervous system.
If you implement these tools from today’s post, you will eventually start to “feel” muscles more during your workout. Not only is this more satisfying, but your strength will improve, allowing you to safely lift heavier and see better results. Your joints will also feel better because you limit compensations and improve stability.
These tools are not necessarily “magic pills,” and anything that you add will take lots and lots of repetitions to be effective. But it can be a big piece of the puzzle.
Today’s post will cover what the somatic nervous system is, how the brain connects to your muscles via a motor map, how you can stimulate receptors in your body to improve that motor map, and ultimately see better results.
Somatic nervous system
The somatic nervous system is responsible for moving your body via muscular contraction and relaying information via your five senses to your brain.
Your nervous system is constantly scanning your environment to detect your level of safety. 11 million bits of information are taken in at any given second.
The majority of this scanning is unconscious and goes completely unnoticed by you.
This is because you would get nothing done if you were constantly thinking about all the information your brain is processing at any given second:
- The temperature of the room
- The sounds around you
- How heavy the clothing is on your body
- How tight or lose your socks are
- The pressure of your feet on the ground
- The barometric pressure of the environment you are in
- How high above sea level you are
- All of the information coming in through your eyes: how light the room is, what’s going on in your periphery, the colors of my environment, etc.
It is a ton of information which really makes you appreciate your brain for being able to assimilate and make sense of all of those inputs.
If we can give our body good inputs via our five senses, that may help clean up some of the information that our brain is trying to assimilate. In this case, our brain can produce better, higher functioning outputs like better strength, more mobility, a clearer mind, etc.
On the other hand, if your brain has poor inputs via your five senses, the outputs are often negative because your brain isn’t clear on what’s going on around you. And since it doesn’t know, it would rather err on the side of safety and tighten you up, put you on edge, increase your heart rate, and get you prepared to fight or flight.
Sensory processing examples
Think about driving at night.
Does anyone else get on edge driving at night? You may tighten up, sit straighter in your seat, hold the steering wheel with both hands.
You could be in the same car with the same amount of traffic, and your muscles would be tighter just because your vision is now slightly impaired.
It’s because your vision is much more restricted, your brain senses danger, and the output is muscle tightness and increased alertness.
You can train almost anything in your body. We often think about training our muscles and our heart and lunges.
But you can also train your 5 senses that are sending your brain information. That information is producing outputs that affect muscle tension, heart rate, level of anxiety, etc.
Somalies train their sense of taste and smell.
Pilots train their eyes.
Vision impaired folx may train and improve their sense of touch and hearing.
Our five senses can improve with practice, which will improve the outputs that our brain produces and make us higher functioning humans.
Your five senses, muscle activation, and exercise
I’m sure the applications are endless, but how does this apply to exercise?
There are tons of applications within exercise as well, but today I want to focus specifically on mechanoreceptors, and how using some sensory tools can improve activation to your muscles.
When you exercise, a part of your brain called the homunculus is activated. This is the part of your brain that is responsible for contracting muscles and coordinating movement.
If you google a picture of the homunculus, you’ll see this bizarre depiction of a face, a leg, hand, tongue, all spiraled around a brain.
This is the “map” that your brain uses to control different parts of your body.
The larger the body part on that map, the more control you have over that area.
You’ll notice that the hands are generally the largest represented in the graphic. This makes sense because your hands have a lot of dexterity to be able to do fine movements with high precision like typing and writing.
It’s interesting because a smaller body part, like your hand, may actually have a larger map in your brain than your entire thigh. Just because your thigh is physically larger does not mean it has proportional representation in your brain.
During exercise, the motor homunculus activates in response to the movement and muscle contractions involved.
Increasing homunculus representation through activation
For example, if someone is doing an ab crunch, the area of the homunculus responsible for contracting the abs would activate and light up to initiate and control the movement.
The more force that is required, the more neurons within the homunculus will activate.
What’s really cool is that you can improve the size of a certain body part on your motor map to certain areas with practice, focus, and intentional exercise.
This is called cortical plasticity, or your brain’s ability to adapt and reorganize to improve motor mapping to certain areas of your body.
This means your movement becomes more refined, efficient, and can improve the amount of fiber recruitment within the muscle.
When you recruit more fibers, you can load that movement more and see more gains.
The Evlo difference for activation
This is why we target one area at a time as compared to compound movements or complex lifts. When you can channel your focus to that one area, your brain can improve its motor path to that area, recruit more of the muscle, and see better results.
We often hear Evlo members say “I’m finally able to contract my glutes and feel them for the first time in my life”.
This is because
- We are not overusing the glutes.
- We aren’t just going through the motions.
We are coaching and teaching you about the muscle and how to bring your mind to that muscle to promote activation more effectively. Our instructors use tons of different cues and analogies and encourage you to touch the muscle, stimulating mechanoreceptors. More on this in a moment.
Why we believe in follow-along classes
We often get asked if we can provide PDFs for our workouts. One of the reasons why we don’t do that is because our cues within classes are teaching you how to improve your motor mapping. This is something that just isn’t the same over a PDF workout or just video demos of the exercises.
We truly believe that just giving you a list of the exercises won’t provide the same results.
Improving the motor map of a muscle will come with lots of time and practice to induce cortical plasticity, your brain’s ability to rewire and create change.
You can also improve the motor map by improving sensation via your somatic nervous system.
Better sensation leads to better activation
When your brain better understands your environment, you can improve the motor output or muscle activation, improve that motor map, and see better results while feeling less tense and tight.
You can improve the motor map to any muscle, but many people like to do this with certain areas that they struggle to engage like glutes, or even their non-dominant arm.
There are some techniques you can use to improve the motor map to these areas, but it takes time and intention.
Let’s talk briefly about how stimulating mechanoreceptors can influence muscle activation.
All over your body in your skin, muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints, and organs, you have sensory receptors. These little cells are detecting information from your five senses and sending that information to your brain as mentioned above.
Today’s post will focus on a specific class of these receptors: mechanoreceptors.
Mechanoreceptors take in information via touch, joint position, muscle stretch, pressure, etc. and send messages to your brain.
Your brain responds to those messages by producing a result. Here are some examples of how stimulating mechanoreceptors leads to a physical outcome in your body:
- Gentle massage may stimulate mechanoreceptors, decrease threat level, and temporarily improve tightness.
- A physical tactile cue like tapping or rubbing may improve strength and activation in a muscle during your workout.
How can this activation go wrong?
The results are not always positive. These receptors can also cause unpleasant outcomes.
Example 1: Sitting on a hard stool for too long may cause back tightness. Pressure receptors in your hips may send signals to your brain that you’re unstable. Your brain then tells your back muscles to tighten to keep your spine safe and stable.
Example 2: Have you ever felt tight and tense following a deep tissue massage? Massage doesn’t actually change or “work out” anything in the tissue itself. It stimulates these receptors which send signals to your brain. Your brain responds by relaxing or tensing tissue. Sometimes, too much pressure can signal a threat to your nervous system and cause more tightness and sometimes even inflammation. This is why if you’re going to get a massage, I generally recommend light tissue. The benefits from massage come from the relaxing effect that signals safety to your nervous system via this mechanoreceptor stimulation.
Mechanoreceptor activation and exercise
When these mechanoreceptors have good, clean information, your body feels safe, and strength and mobility improves.
When these mechanoreceptors don’t have good information, the opposite happens. You tighten up. Your strength may decrease because your body wants to limit force since it is afraid it can’t stabilize your joints. You may even feel pain.
This can happen during exercise when joints are crammed. Jammed joints lead to weak muscles.
Jammed joints lead to weak muscles
When a joint is compressed during exercise, muscle activation declines and tightness increases.
Let’s say you’re doing an overhead press and you’re pressing shoulders down and back. This compresses the shoulder blade onto some structures of the shoulder.
Small receptors called joint capsule receptors that live inside the shoulder joint are telling your brain that there is risk of injury. Your brain responds by decreasing muscle activation and increasing tightness to keep your shoulder safe.
On the other hand, if you choose a different exercise for the shoulders like a side-lying abduction that doesn’t compress the shoulder, you may feel more connected to the muscle because those mechanoreceptors have clean information. Your neck tightness may improve, you may feel more mobile in the shoulder itself, and you may be able to improve strength even more.
This is why it’s important to choose exercises that limit joint compression (workout with an individual who understands biomechanics!), and do mobility before and after exercise to stimulate joint capsule receptors, improve stability, and therefore improve your workout’s effectiveness.
Active mobility and the effect on joint capsule receptors
Active mobility before and after exercise can stimulate the joint capsule receptors, sending signals of safety to the brain. This may improve motor output and decrease tightness.
If you’re struggling to connect to a muscle during exercise, you could try pausing and moving through some active mobility. At some point in your workout, you may have crammed a joint. This can happen by accident and is no big deal. Introducing active mobility can immediately improve the connection to mechanoreceptors in the joint, giving your brain cleaner signals, and improving motor outputs.
Mechanoreceptors and physical touch
Another way to improve your muscle activation during exercise is by stimulating mechanoreceptors via physical touch.
Rubbing, tapping, and potentially even light massage guns may help stimulate mechanoreceptors and improve muscle activation. Again, be careful with the massage guns. Just a few seconds is really all you need.
My goal is to help educate you about your own body beyond just teaching you what muscles do what action. I want us to start understanding some underlying mechanisms that are creating your results and how you physically feel.
Your nervous system is complex. These last two posts didn’t even scratch the surface. Your nervous system is constantly scanning your environment via your five senses. It can process up to 11 million bits/second of information.
All these receptors of your five senses send information to your brain which processes that information and creates certain outputs.
When it comes to exercise, these outputs may be how tight or loose you feel, or how strong and stable you feel.
You can use some powerful sensory tools to improve your muscle activation during exercise, have a more pleasant and satisfying experience, and see better results while reducing joint pain.
You can do this by improving the motor mapping to any muscle with touch and active mobility.
There are many other tools that I didn’t talk about today. If you’re interested in this topic, I covered the visual system in episode #46 of Fit Body, Happy Joints.
I want to reiterate that these tools do not trump proper form and programming. If you’re using these tools and not feeling a difference:
- Make sure you aren’t overusing muscles,
- Check to make sure your form is correct
- Take the time and intention to improve the motor map to that muscle.