When the topic of “how to decrease injury” is discussed, oftentimes ideas such as stretching, joint mobility, and core training come up.  While these are all fine and well, an idea this is often not thrown around is that of improving how well your muscles function.  However, improving this aspect of your health could be the missing link that you have been looking for to help you prevent injuries.

Before we talk about how improving muscle function could reduce your risk for injury, we have to answer a few other questions.  First, we need to identify what muscles actually do.  Second, we need to discuss how they do that thing they do.  Third, we need to talk about how doing that thing will actually help you reduce your risk for injury.  And finally, we need to leave you with some practical application steps of things you can do to start taking action now.

  1. What do muscles do?

Very simply, muscles control the distance between their attachment points, or their origin and insertion, into our bones.  Sometimes these points get closer together and the muscle shortens.  Sometimes these points get farther apart and the muscle lengthens.  Sometimes the points stay the same distance from each other and the muscle does not change lengths.  For example, if I have a biceps brachii long head that attaches up near my shoulder and onto my forearms (on the supraglenoid tubercle and the radial tuberosity for all of your anatomy nerds) and my elbow bends, the biceps will shorten.  If my elbow then straightens, the biceps will lengthen.  And if my elbow and shoulder stop moving, the biceps will stay the same length.  The entire time my biceps is having to control the distance between these two points of attachment as they move closer together, farther apart, and remain in the same position over time.

  1. How do muscles do this?

The short answer – they contract or generate tension.  But that’s not really the fun part.  The fun part is discussing how they contract.  And this is also the part where I have to start oversimplifying things.

In order for a muscle to contract, we are going to break the process down into two components: 1) The electrical component and 2) The mechanical component.  The electrical component consists of your central nervous system (CNS – your brain and spinal cord) sending an electrical signal through your peripheral nervous system (PNS) and to your muscle fibers.  Then, the electrical signal stimulates a series of chemical events (again, oversimplified, so don’t shun me physiology nerds), which then turns into the mechanical component.

Now, the mechanical component includes structures of your muscle fibers called actin and myosin.  These actin and myosin perform actions called crossbridging and uncrossbridging, which allows the muscle fiber to get shorter, get longer, or stay the same length.  Think of this like Velcro™ – the little strands that stick together between the two strips are like the actin and myosin.  Or, better yet, you can just check out this YouTube video:

Sometimes it is far easier to show a visual than trying to describe these things in words, but alas, I appreciate you reading this far.

Now, when it comes to how you are going to reduce your risk for injury, you are going to want to engage in activities that have the opportunity to influence both aspects of this contraction process – the electrical and the mechanical.

  1. How will improving muscle contractions reduce the risk for injury?

Let’s talk about three potential benefits of improving muscle contraction.

First, you can improve your strength in extreme joint positions.  As I have discussed in previous blog posts, extreme joint positions are where you are most likely to injure yourself.  There are a couple reasons for this: 1) Up to half of the muscles that are controlling the joint are in their weakest position; and 2) You may end up relying mostly on the passive joint structures and tissues (ligaments, labrums, cartilage, and bone) to control your motion in these extreme positions.  However, by improving the strength of the muscles that are potentially at their weakest in these positions, you can help to decrease your risk of injury in these positions, as well.

Second, improving muscle contraction can decrease abnormal wear on your joints.  If you happened to catch Julie’s Facebook Live video a couple weeks ago, you will recognize the concept that if muscles are pulling funny on our joints, the joints can start to wear out in abnormal ways.  By improving how our muscles are contracting, we can reduce the wear and tear of our joints over time.  And, if you didn’t catch her Facebook Live, you can watch the replay here.

Third, improving muscle contraction can decrease abnormal stress on the muscular system.  All of your muscles work together to help move and protect your skeleton.  If there are some muscles that are not working as well, other muscles will have to pick up the workload to try to keep everything even.  However, over time, these muscles that are getting overused can start to get really stressed out.  They may feel chronically achy or tight.  Or they may even get strained or pulled.  But, if we can get all of our muscles working well again, this can then reduce the stress on the overworked muscles.

So, what can you do to help decrease your risk for injury by improving how your muscles contract?  Well remember that there are essentially two parts to the muscle contraction story – the electrical part and the mechanical part.  You are going to want to influence each of these components with the activities you do.

In order to improve the mechanical side of things, you may want to start by checking out last week’s post on exercise that (re)builds your body.  Specifically, read through the discussion on strategically designed internally-focused resistance training.  The goal of this type of resistance training is to focus completely on squeezing your muscles, not on lifting the weight.  While this change in focus seems subtle, the difference in how your body will feel and the results you will get will be dramatic.  Adding in this internally-focused resistance training two days per week should be enough to start (re)building the mechanical side of the contraction to help you decrease your injury risk.  If you would like a customized exercise program for your body, download our free ebook here.

When it comes to improving the electrical side of the contraction, the goal is to improve the amount of signal that is being sent to the muscle fiber.  There are some really neat things you can do with your exercise to facilitate this, and our favorite means of doing so here at MAS is Muscle Activation Techniques® (MAT®).  As we have discussed in previous posts, the entire goal of MAT® is to figure out which of your muscles are not receiving enough signal from your central nervous system (CNS) – your brain and spinal cord – and help improve that.  We see this leading directly to increases in strength and often times joint motion, as well.  To find out more about MAT®, click here.  You can also read all of our 2016-2017 MAT® blog posts here.

Finally, you will need to improve a combination of both the mechanical and the electrical components of the contraction, which I am going to call improving the skill of contracting.  This is going to be a longer process than either the mechanical or electrical components by themselves, but it can make all the difference when it comes to ensuring that your muscles can help keep you safe from injury.  Improving the skill of contracting will teach you how to contract specific muscle fibers at will.  This can then be utilized during your internally focused resistance training to continue to build up the strength of those muscles.

A way to start practicing the skill of contracting is to put your fingers on a muscle, any muscle, and try to squeeze just that muscle.  Practice squeezing only the muscle that your fingers are touching, and practice squeezing that muscle at different intensities.  You can then progress to squeezing different muscles in front of a mirror in sort of a posing manner.  See if you can squeeze the lower part of your chest, then the middle, then the upper.  Like any skill, the more you practice this, the easier it will be.

By improving the different components of how your muscles contract, you can potentially decrease your risk for injury by ensuring that your muscles stay strong.  You can do different exercises to help improve each of the components of contraction – the electrical, the mechanical, and the skill.  Ultimately, by investing a little bit of time each week to improve how your muscles contract, you can set yourself up to keep doing the activities you enjoy most for as long as you want to do them.

Which of these three components – electrical, mechanical, or skill – do you need to work on the most? Let me know in the comments below!

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!