I can promise you this: When I ask a client if he\she can tell me definitively if a muscle is working, and the answer is, “I think/guess/assume so,” or “well, shouldn’t it be?” or “I don’t know, but I’m sure it is”, the answer is NO. Not one bit! Most people operate on the premise that most all of their muscles are working for them all of the time. Generally speaking, they are shocked to find that that is not the case. My rule of thumb is, if you can’t feel it working, it isn’t.
That begs the question, how did that come to be?
Well, and we have talked about this before, you have to remember that muscles like to work in pairs. For instance, in your arm your bicep has tricep, stomach has back, and in your leg quads (front of the thing) have hamstrings (back of the thigh). If one of those muscles works, then the other muscle in the pair relaxes. That is how movement happens: one muscle contracts, and the other muscle relaxes, and when you move back to the starting point the reverse happens.
Take the bicep for example: you bring your hand toward your elbow, and the bicep contracts. You extend your hand back away from your elbow and the tricep is supposed to contract as the balancing or paired muscle.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Why? Why for instance do most all of the ladies that come to workout want to get rid of what I fondly refer to as the “kimono” hanging down from the back of their arm? They have given up on sleeveless dresses and tank tops because that part of their body just won’t tone up. Why?
Always ask why.
Let’s say one of the muscles continues to work because you do the same thing over and over with it. Let’s say you are a mom and you have to pick up small children and rest them on your hip to carry them. In order to keep them on your hip, you have to curve your arm around their little back to keep them in place while you stand or walk. What muscle holds that kiddo on your hip?
The bicep on the front of your arm. Let’s say you find yourself like Margaret above not only picking up your small children but other small children and groceries and dog food and this goes on and on for five or seven years or twenty years. Or longer! What muscle are you using the whole time? The bicep. What muscle gets strong? The bicep. What happens to the tricep? Well, it is on hold, for a very long time, patiently waiting for the opportunity to work again. It also is probably accumulating dense fascia tissue complicating matters further, but that is a topic all on its own and another blog topic coming up. In the meantime, the brain in it’s ongoing goal of efficiency, starts to quietly shut down the nerve pathway to the tricep as it falls off the radar of available muscles. Nothing has been cut or severed or in any way, you are just developing a mild case of amnesia.
I am sure that I didn’t coin the term, but it is being so dominated by it’s pair the bicep, and I have seen it happen over and over and over again, that I can’t help but call it as I see it. Fascinatingly enough, even when you have identified a muscle that has fallen under the spell of amnesia, it is amazing the kind of concentration it takes to get it back on board and have the brain welcome it back onto the radar.
Make no mistake: It is possible! The first step is figuring out that it is not working in the first place. ( In the case of the bicep, the other complicating factors include the rounded position of the shoulder and what the hips below the shoulder are doing) I used to get somewhat impatient with people when I would ask them if they could feel x,y, or z muscle, and they didn’t or couldn’t tell me. Now I realize it all has to do with what the brain and the nervous system have been trained to do.
Let’s fix that!
First of all, take a look at yourself in the mirror. Really take a good look. Are your shoulders symmetrical? Is the distance from your ear to the tip of one shoulder the same distance from the other ear to the tip of the other shoulder?
Are your shoulders rounded at all, or is one side more rounded than the other? The easiest way to tell is if your seam on your shirt bisects the middle of your shoulder bone, or if your shoulder is forward of that seam.
Another way to tell is if the back of your hands face the mirror, or if you have thumb and side of fingers on the side of your hip. Again, you might have one of each.
My shoulders are rounded and I see a kimono in my future! What do I do?
First step: get yourself on a foam roller. We need to open up that whole upper back and shoulder girdle area, and let gravity help reposition your entire body because it is a system, but specifically rollers are phenomenal for shoulders and upper backs. You can watch my YouTube Video on using a foam roller here
Here is what I leave you with: Think about what, if any, parts of your body you are dissatisfied with. The next time you go to exercise, concentrate on wether or not you can feel muscles working in that area of your body.
Could you be suffering from muscle amnesia? Let me know how it goes in the comments below!