Changing Muscle Habits

Imagine you are walking in a beautiful park. With every step you take, more than 50 different muscles are working. Each of these muscles has to contract and relax at the right time, in the right sequence, and with the right degree of force to produce your step. Yet you don’t have to consciously think about any of these muscles at all – you can admire the flowers, listen to the birds, or chat with a mate.

How on earth can this possibly work? It works – we are able to walk, and run, skip, jump, and chew gum – because our brains and central nervous systems coordinate the activities of all the relevant muscles. But with each step you take, the brain doesn’t have to figure out from scratch how to coordinate the activities of these dozens of muscles. Rather, the brain stores information about the pattern of muscular activity that is needed for a step.

You can think about it as being like a computer loaded with programs. Once a program has been installed on your computer, you can run it any time you like. In the body, the stored programs that organize movement (such as running, walking, or jumping) are called neuromuscular patterns.

Most of us don’t remember the process of learning to take a step, because our brains laid down those patterns when we were around one year old. However, you may remember what it was like for your brain to create a new neuromuscular pattern in another instance – say, learning a tennis serve or learning to drive a car. When you first learned to serve a tennis ball, you had to concentrate very hard on each phase of the movement.

At that point, the movement was being orchestrated by a part of the brain called the motor cortex. However, with enough practice and repetition, your brain laid down a new tennis serve neuromuscular pattern – like a ‘tennis serve’ computer program in your brain.

While neuromuscular patterns are critical for our everyday functioning, most of us have at least some patterns that are inefficient, or even dysfunctional. Strong muscles may jump in to take over a role that should be performed by other, weaker muscles. Muscles that should stabilize a joint may not work effectively, forcing the big, movement muscles to overcompensate. Over the long run, inefficient muscle patterns generally lead to sub-optimal performance, while dysfunctional muscle patterns can lead to pain and impaired movement.

In the Pilates studio, we are not just aiming to strengthen and stretch certain muscles. Rather, we are also aiming to correct any faulty movement patterns. Our muscles need to work in a balanced, controlled, and harmonious way in order to produce movement that is efficient and effective. Just as in a symphony orchestra, the musicians must each start playing at the right time, at the right volume, and at the right tempo to create beautiful music, our muscles must activate at the right time, with the right degree of force, and the right speed in order to create beautiful, pain-free, easy movement.

Changing faulty movement patterns is hard. After all, these patterns have developed and been reinforced over thousands of repeated movements. Change is hard – but worth it. When you have mastered your new movement pattern, you will fly!

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