When I was 24 years old, I thought I had blown out my knee.  I was playing in a basketball game in a rec league at DePaul University.  During one play, I went up to dunk the ball and got hit in the chest by a defender.  I reached to grab the rib to regain my balance, but the hit knocked me hard enough that I couldn’t hang on.  I slipped, fell backwards, and stuck my leg out to land.  The problem was that I stuck my leg out completely straight and my body was falling overtop of it at a weird angle.

Now, if you have ever seen somebody rupture their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), this is the classic non-contact scenario.  The tibia (shin bone) and foot are planted firmly to the ground and maybe even diving in.  The femur (thigh bone) and torso are angling out as the weight of the body comes crashing down on the knee, which is relatively straight.  And then, pop.  The ACL ruptures and the knee is blown out.

When I landed I felt my knee go straight.  I felt my tibia dive in and my femur and torso angle out over top.  And I felt this immense pressure at my knee.

But then, I felt something else.  I felt my muscles.  I felt all of the muscles on the outside of my hip and running down my femur and fibula all the wait to my foot squeeze and tense up.  I felt it happen so automatically, so reflexively, and I felt my tibia, femur, and torso all get pulled vertically again.  And I felt the pressure in my knee go away.

I stood there after I landed, not wanting to move out of fear of having actually injured myself.  I put some pressure on my leg and felt a little achiness in my knee.  I moved it around a bit, bending it and straightening it, and the achiness worked itself out.  I took a few steps to see if my knee felt stable.  I shook it out, and then went to the free throw line to take my shots.

What was the difference between this scenario and so many other scenarios we see on a regular basis?  Why did my knee stay uninjured while other people’s knees do not?

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Let’s think about it like this:  Imagine you are driving down a winding mountain road.  On one side of the road there is the mountain, and on the other side there is a steep drop off.  Now imagine that along side of the road there is a guardrail.  The guardrail is there to try to help keep your car from flying off the road with all of the turns.  But, does the guardrail allow you to take your hands off the steering wheel of your car?  Absolutely not.

While the guardrail is extremely useful, it is also limited in its ability to keep your car on the road.  It is what we would consider to be a passive positioner of your car. In other words, it can help to keep your car from going too close to the edge of the road, but it won’t help precisely position your car in the middle.  Additionally, if your car was to build up some momentum and speed, the guardrail may slow your car down, but it is unlikely to completely stop your car from going off the road.

Compare this to your hands being on the steering wheel and your foot going between the brake and the accelerator.  These components will allow you to precisely position your car exactly where you want to regardless of the twists and turns the road provides.  In fact, you can control your car so well that you don’t even bump into the guardrail the entire time!

Now, let’s relate this idea back to the body.  In the story I told, the guard rail is like the ACL.  It will stop my knee from moving further into an extreme position, but it won’t help much with positioning the knee outside of the extreme.  Additionally, if your joint is moving fast enough, the ligaments can rupture, much like how a car can go flying through a guardrail.

Likewise, the muscles in my leg and hip are like the hands on the steering wheel and the foot going between the break and the accelerator.  Muscles can help to precisely position your joints, much like your hands and foot can help to precisely position and control your car.  In fact, your muscles can do this so well that your ligaments may be at a much lower risk of injury.  However, if your muscles aren’t working well, the risk of injury to your ligaments may increase, much like how letting go of the steering wheel increases the likelihood of your car going through the guardrail.

Related: Joint Injuries and Your Internal Suspension System

So, how was I able to keep my knee intact despite the extreme position I was in when I landed?  My muscular system was working at a high level, high enough to contract exactly when I needed it to and pull my body out of that extreme position.

This reflexive contraction capability is what is addressed with Muscle Activation Techniques® (MAT®).  MAT® is a systematic approach to assessing and addressing inefficiencies in the muscular system.  By suring up these weak links, not only do your ligaments and joints stay better protected, but you are stronger and able to move better, as well.  Think of this like a tune up for your muscles, much like you would get your brakes and shocks tuned up with your car.

Thanks to my muscles working well and contracting on demand, I was able to avoid a serious injury that would have required surgery and months of rehab.  I continue to get my muscles tuned up with MAT® every single week to ensure that my muscles stay strong and working optimally and my joints stay protected and moving well.

If you know somebody that has experienced injuries to their ligaments and joints, share this post with them.  They can connect with a local MAT® practitioner here and see if Muscle Activation Techniques® may be right for them.

Charlie Cates

Charlie Cates is the leading consultant to high-level professional, college, & high school basketball players in the Chicagoland area for injury prevention, recovery, & muscle performance. As a certified Muscle Activation Techniques® MATRx practitioner & former college basketball player, he uses his personal experience & understanding of the game & player demands to create customized exercise options for his clients to recover faster & perform their best. He is certified in the highest levels of MAT®, including MATRx, MATRx Stim, and MAT® Athlete. Follow him on Instagram @CharlieCates!