What’s In Your Toolbox? by Bill Leavitt

A Personal Trainers look inside Muscle Activation Techniques™

This article was nationally published in 2004

Those who consider fitness a profession rather than a hobby or pastime know that continually striving to improve levels of knowledge and acquiring new skills is what sets you apart from other instructors. As with any profession, the more tools and experience you possess, the more valuable your services, and the more successful you become. Muscle Activation Techniques™, is one tool that adds a necessary process of biomechanical thought to deal with pain. Instead of guessing, MAT provides the tools needed to accurately assess and systematically evaluate clients to confirm and treat muscular imbalances leading to injury.

Like many other Personal Trainers, I thought that I had most of the answers. I had been in the business for six years, attended numerous conventions and lectures, and even purchased and studied a bookshelf of material relating to applicable science disciplines. I had a thriving business with clients that were happy, (most of the time), and life was good. Then, while in Oklahoma City taking RTS classes back in June 2000, I met Greg Roskopf who was presenting his therapy modality creation called Muscle Activation Techniques. Greg went on to mention his theories of muscular imbalances, tightness being secondary weakness, and patterns of compensation being related throughout entire chains.
Probably the most important thing that he mentioned, and the sentence that stuck with me most was, “Patterns of compensation will only be reinforced if the weak links are not first identified and eliminated.” I listened and absorbed the information and went home confused. Had I been training my clients with reckless abandon, not paying attention to or analyzing their patterns of compensation? Was I actually reinforcing imbalances and promoting overuse injuries instead of helping them? Or, did I see the patterns of compensation and not have the tools to rectify and eliminate the problem. It was with these questions that I decided to enroll in the ten-month internship in Denver.

Consider this: if you are in the business of fitness instruction, chances are you deal with resistance training on a daily basis. Treadmills, aerobics classes, and weight training are all forms of resistance training, which require the prescription of force on your part; weights, gravity, rubber tubing, etc. Prescribing force is a great tool to challenge the body, but do you posses the knowledge to understand exactly what happens when force enters the body in an apparently healthy client let alone one with limitations, pain, or prior injuries?

It must be understood that as Personal Trainers, we are not qualified to treat, diagnose or prescribe treatment for injuries that clients are suffering from. Knowing when to refer them to a medical professional is not only ethically correct, it shows those in the medical community that you are indeed a professional seeking to establish relationships. In the same respect though, obtaining the knowledge to deal with chronic pain and repetitive stress injuries through knowledge of human mechanics and the muscular system will better equip you to prevent injuries from occurring and to deal with them before becoming chronic. MAT treats the imbalances that lead to injury, not the injury itself. It looks for the underlying biomechanical cause of abnormal motion to determine why the imbalance developed in the first place.
The MAT™ difference

Pain and failure to meet adequate ranges of motion or compensating with muscles not meant to achieve a desired rom are indications that something is wrong. Pain is a protective mechanism for the body¹. The body has mechanisms of defense ingrained to protect itself from instability coming in the form of tightness. This ‘joint-guarding’ is brought on to protect the joint from further injury yet it is clearly muscle weakness, (inhibition), leading to instability that is the root cause of the problem. Tightness is the symptom, not the cause, and joint inefficiency with a pattern of compensation is the result. If your goal is to reduce injury, then identification of imbalances and specifically muscular inhibition to seek the underlying causes should be your primary concern. If left undiagnosed these patterns of compensation will surely lead to structural maladies and degeneration. Identifying these limitations through specific range of motion examinations and then directly correlating them to muscle weakness is the cornerstone of MAT. Seeing muscle tightness as being secondary to muscle weakness is the foundation.

I have read numerous articles stating that if you work a weak muscle within a given chain it will eventually strengthen and return to its balanced state or strength ratio within that chain. I have even attended courses that claim the same and have developed specific exercises to ‘integrate the weak muscle back in to the chain’. Many of the current forms of therapy through which I have been treated advocate the same philosophy by seeking to eliminate tightness to restore balance and strength. Some believe that working a weak muscle or treating a tight muscle with stretching or other manual methods will eliminate the imbalance and compensatory pattern. First, as anyone knows, treating a tight muscle is only temporary and not the causative factor. Muscles are disciples of the nervous system and will return to their previous length if the cause is not addressed. Second, neurologically, this does not make sense. How can you work a weak muscle, one that was not receiving proper, if any, neurological input, in hopes of re-integrating it back to normal function within a chain? The weak will get weaker and the strong stronger. Third, without Biomechanical analysis and application, how do you know that the muscle you are treating is the source of the problem anyway? Again, treating the symptom, not the cause.

A simplified look at the nervous system
Muscles are innervated by two sets of nerves: Alpha, (motor-muscle fiber), and Gamma, (sensory-muscle spindle). The two systems must work in a synchronized fashion in order for a muscle to function effectively. In muscles that are not receiving proper neurological input, or as we say, “shut-down”, the loop between the alpha and gamma systems is disrupted causing skewed input to the muscle and of course inefficient functioning of the muscle as a whole. Further more, dysfunction of a muscle, (or muscle group), designated to produce motion will compromise muscle(s) assigned to allow joint motion by definition of the law of reciprocal inhibition. It is this muscular imbalance that leads to joint limitation, which is revealed in the range of motion examination. It is the beginning of the thought process that will lead to many questions and answers.

The processes of MAT

MAT is really a constant biomechanical thought process of considerations employed to systematically evaluate and treat muscular imbalances. Having a checks and balance system of assessment and reassessment validates the work performed yielding results that are immediately evident to the therapist and the client. Restoring neurological integrity to eliminate patterns of compensation is the ultimate goal. Think of it as neuromuscular reeducation.
Although the following are listed in steps, MAT is a continuous process of checks and balances, which involves evaluating and reevaluating. It is a process of thought not a flowchart of standardized procedures.

Step 1: Range of motion examination

As stated above, any limitation in joint range, (unless there is a structural issue due to injury, growth, surgery, etc.), must be considered a protective mechanism. Using the law of reciprocal inhibition, amongst other neurological considerations, it is known that if a muscle is to perform its duty, the opposite muscle, (antagonist), must reciprocate by lengthening, to allow motion to occur. It is this Physiological foundation that sets MAT apart from many other therapy modalities. If a client is unable to obtain the desired joint range, then the process of thought is that the joint senses instability due to muscular weakness and responds with a protective mechanism coming in the form of limitation and tightness. This process of asking why, (weakness), instead of just seeing what, (tightness), is why MAT’s results are so immediate and lasting.

The photos that are attached are right and left limb range of motion examinations that compare both sides for symmetry. The only two photos that need to be included are the two titled: Hip IR L & Hip IR R. (Hip Internal Rotation Left and Right respectively). Use the others as you wish.

*Caption for photos should/could read:
“Range of motion examinations compare for adequate range of motion and symmetry.”
“The range of motion examination is a great tool to determine where muscular imbalances exist.”
“ Identification of asymmetrical motion represents joint instability.”
“Limitation in specific ranges of motion are the greatest indicators of compensation.”
“Tightness represents joint instability in extreme ranges of motion.”

Step 2: Isolated Strength Testing

As stated above, the initial range of motion screening will identify a problem and initiate a process of thought. Validation of muscular weakness is identified through muscle testing. Muscle testing is not new, but again, what makes MAT so unique is the biomechanical thought process behind the therapy and having a checks and balance to validate your work. Seeing muscles as having more than a single function, a role in more than one plane, different duties in joint positions other than anatomical neutral, and affecting movement on joints and limbs they do not even cross is the true method of analysis. Looking beyond just the symptom of pain to find patterns of compensation causing the pain is key. I have been treated by and spoken with many practitioners of various therapy techniques yet none of them, including many orthopedic surgeons, are able or willing to precisely correlate muscle weakness or patterns of compensation utilizing biomechanical processes of analysis.

It is stated that if a muscle is functioning correctly, sensory feedback from the muscle spindle is enhanced in the shortened position. If a muscle is dysfunctional, the spindle will be unable to relay feedback to the muscle in order to contract, produce tension, and prevent the applied testing force. This validates testing position for specific muscle tests.

Muscular Reinforcement

There is no better way to begin reinforcing the newly activated neurological pathway that fires the muscle than through the use of isometric reinforcement. Isometrics are proven to be the most controlled and least stressful method of maintaining the connection between the nervous system and the muscle. Neurological integrity is increased at an amazing rate preparing the muscle for future exercise endeavors and daily activities. Starting at a given joint position where there is limitation, have the client initiate force of 30-40% effort further in to the range for six seconds. This is performed six times in hopes of progressing by increasing effort and moving further in to the functional range. The goal is to not only increase the ability of a muscle to contract through its effective functioning range, but to have stability through it. Once stable range has been reintroduced, other strengthening exercises can be implemented that emphasize control, which is imperative for neurological reinforcement.

Muscle Activation Techniques has implemented a Jumpstart program designed as a great introductory tool for identifying instability and treating muscular imbalances, which is taught throughout the country. The ten-month internship is currently being taught in Denver, New York, and Chicago.
Further information can obtained at www.muscleactivation.com

Bill Leavitt is owner of Fitness Alliance, LLC in Overland Park, KS, a Therapist and Jumpstart Instructor for Muscle Activation Techniques™, and Resistance Training Specialist™ Master and Instructor. He can be reached at www.kcfitness.com


1. Roskopf , Greg Muscle Activation Techniques™ Manuals and Lectures
Denver, CO 2000-2003

2. Purvis, Tom Resistance Training Specialist Course Manuals
Focus on Fitness Productions Oklahoma City, OK 1997

3. Norkion, C., Levangie, M. Joint Structure and Function 2nd ed.
F.A. Davis Company, Philadelphia 1992

4. Juhan, D. Job’s Body, A Handbook for Bodywork
Station Hill Press , Barrytown, NY 1987

5. Guyton, A. Textbook of Medical Physiology
W.B. Saunders Company Philadelphia 1991

6. American College of Sports Medicine ACSM’s Resource Manual for guidelines for exercise testing and prescription
Williams & Wilkins Media, PA 1993

7. Steindler, A. Kinesiology of the Human Body Under normal and pathological conditions Charles C Thomas Sprinfield, IL 1955

8. Duchenne, Dr. G.B.(Du Boulogne) Physiology of Motion 1866
Transalated by: E.B. Kaplan W.B. Saunders Co. Philadelphia, PA 1959

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