Our muscles each have a role they're supposed to play in movement. Due to a number of factors (though usually long-term inactivity and poor posture) some of the muscles don't 'fire' when they're supposed to, and either cause or prevent the local musculoskeletal movement that is their task to do in that larger movement chain. When this happens, the muscles and joints above and below the joint/muscles that don't fire have to do things they weren't designed to do, and this creates imbalances and an overall sub-optimal performance, that is also more apt to lead to any number of injuries.
A lot of personal trainers make a living based on this theory, prescibing numerous varieties of "activation" exercises: glutes and transverse abdominis being the most common, but many others exist as well. A lot of the underpinnings of the FMS are based on this idea as well, and many of the corrective exercises used by FMS practitioners are done to 'activate the glutes' or something similar.
Since I was first introduced to this concept, I was a bit skeptical. I understand that in today's physically inactive society, movement would have to be re-learned as an adult. Things we do naturally as kids, like the widely circulated picture below that I used in a post last year, are often forgotten through lack of use, and have to be re-learned.
This idea is intuitive, and made sense to me regarding whole movement patterns - we need to use our brains to coordinate the use of the many muscles and joints that work together to produce correct human movement. This requires embedding the proper motor pattern, and that can be forgotten and take time to learn again.
I was less confident about the claims made that individual muscles could 'forget' how to do their job(s) through inactvity. Movement is coordinated by our brains; muscles are simply innervated by nerves (redundant, I know), and can't forget how to do anything.
|Hmmm...these glutes looks 'activated' to me!|
However, with my recent more intense involvement with the Starting Strength team, and Rip in particular, I've returned to question these assumptions. My original skepticism is shared by Rip, except that he isn't merely skeptical; he is quite confident that muscles don't fall asleep or forget how to fire. Someone on this message board asked a question about this, and Rip answered as follows:
"If you are performing a movement that is only possible with the use of a muscle group moving a skeletal component through a defined ROM, then in the absence of neurological damage, you are using that muscle. For example, "gluteal amnesia" is quite popular right now. I just got another post about it. It is supposed to impair your ability to squat until you do special exercises that somehow remind your glutes what they are anatomically positioned to be doing anyway. The reality is that the nervous system manages the many dozens of muscles involved in the squat through a pattern of neurological action called a motor pathway. No single component of the pathway need be micromanaged by your conscious activity, because you can't separate the single component from all the other activity -- there are too many muscles doing their jobs all at the same time. This is why we chose the exercise in the first place: we want lots of muscles working together under a load, because that is how the body works, and this is how it should be trained. The way you ensure that all the muscles are working correctly is to use perfect technique, i.e. move the skeletal components in a way that most efficiently accomplishes the task. We spend quite a bit of time in the book explaining what that means and why. Muscles move bones, so if you are moving your skeletal components in the correct way, the muscles that move them correctly -- in the absence of nerve damage -- are moving them, because bones don't move by themselves. The muscles are thus "working" or "firing" or "activating", whatever your PT wants to call it this week. So, when you squat, your hips extend because that's how you get back up. The glutes, originating on the ilium and inserting on the greater trochanter, extend the hips and externally rotate the femurs when they contract, because when you pull their origin and insertion closer together, that's what happens. If you keep your femurs in external rotation (abduction) at the bottom, and you stand back up, your glutes have "fired", because firing the glutes is how you extended your hips with your knees out. IF, THEN. Very simple, really. In the absence of neurological damage, hamstrings work the same way. Read about it in the excellent book you have just purchased."
I certainly could not have put it better myself. And to me, the take-away from this is the key: The issues that the FMS people observe are real; but the problem isn't muscles that forget how to fire. The problem is coaches who don't know what perfect technique is actually supposed to look like, and/or don't know how to effectively communicate this to their athletes/clients.
Now, I know that is a BIG claim to make, especially regarding some very well respected coaches. But my experience is that even some of the best coaches don't pay as much attention to the nitty-gritty details and minutiae of technique - as long as a few basics are met, and the movement basically looks like they want it to - as they spend considering various programming ideas and schemes, and other more 'cerebral, conceptual' ideas in training. These ideas and concepts are important, to be sure, and are a large part of the reason these people are considered authorities and good coaches in the first place.
But at the same time, they expose a critical flaw in the process: if those grand ideas are not based in an extremely thorough ANALYSIS (not phenomenology!) of modeling and then producing proper technique, the outcome is an entire branch of training style that is not only completely unnecessary, but also has people spending hard earned money on unnecessary products, and using valuable training time to do something other than train! Like this: (warning: if the sight of a skinny guy doing silly things while wearing Vibrams offends you, do not watch this video. Me? It just makes me want to go lift something heavy and then eat steak.)
All in all, not a very efficient use of our most valuable training resources - money and time - don't you think?