What Muscles do

My five year old daughter is learning about the human body in Prep. The heart pumps blood, the lungs breathe, and muscles move the body. Right? Well, yes. That’s a good place to start, but there is actually a bit more to it.

Picture in your mind a model skeleton. You have all the bones, nicely cast in plastic, held together with pins and elastic. Now try to stand your model on the floor. What happens? It collapses in a heap. So why aren’t we in a heap on the floor? Because muscles are working, constantly, to hold us up.

Muscles work constantly to maintain our upright posture.

So now we’ve got our model skeleton standing up. But what about moving? You can think of the skeleton as being a system of levers. When we move, we are moving levers.

Think about a simple, everyday lever, let’s imagine a seesaw in a playground. You have two children happily playing on it. The fulcrum (pivot point) of that seesaw is embedded in concrete, which is dug deep into the ground. The fulcrum is stable. Imagine for a moment that the fulcrum of the seesaw is resting on a football rather than being dug into the ground. What happens? We don’t have an effective lever, and we don’t have happy children.

While the skeleton is a system of levers, most of the fulcrums involved aren’t fixed. In some cases, we might have a hand or foot firmly planted on the ground or a piece of equipment, but in many movements the fulcrum isn’t fixed to anything. So what provides the necessary stability? Muscles.

So, yes, muscles do move the body. But first, in order to have effective movement, other muscles must act to stabilize the joint.

Muscles can act as movers or as stabilizers.

Some muscles, such as the biceps, mostly work to create movement. Other muscles, such as multifidus, an important muscle of the back, mostly work to stabilize joints. And many muscles can sometimes work as stabilizers and other times work as movers depending on the situation.

Generally speaking, muscles whose primary job is stabilizing tend to be located close to the joint they stabilize. They tend to be smaller. They tend to be endurance muscles, designed to sustain a sub-maximal contraction over a long period of time.

In Pilates, we are very concerned with creating efficient and effective movement. This usually involves the stabilizer muscles playing their proper role, engaging at the right time and with the right degree of force. Unfortunately, it is very common to develop faulty movement patterns in which the stabilizing muscles do not correctly fill their roles. This can happen for a number of different reasons, including injury, disease, and poor posture. In many cases, therefore, a key component of retraining the body to move effectively is training the stabilizing muscles.

How Do We Train Stabilizing Muscles?

As we have noted, the stabilizing muscles are often smaller and closer to the joints than the movement muscles. Training the stabilizing muscles therefore usually involves small movements, done slowly, and under low load. Once we increase the load, the bigger, movement muscles have to jump in. Training stabilizing muscles usually involves great mental concentration and meticulous attention to the details of posture.


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