Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT)

mriGod did a great job engineering our bodies. But I think he put the B-team on the design of the spine and the knees. I, knock on wood, have not had serious problems with my knees, but my back is another thing altogether. Like many of you I have a bad back. Both the discs at S1/L4 and L4/L5 are budging and/or burst, as you can see from this MRI taken of my back in 2006.

The 2008 MRI is even worse, but I can’t get the stupid Java based viewer to work (anyone know how to open “Amicas Viewer” files?).

I’ve struggled with my back “going out” since about 1997. In 2008 it was at its worst. Every 3-4 months I would have another incident where I’d do something like reach down to tie my shoe and WHAM! I’d spend the next 3-4 weeks being next to useless to my family and in excruciating pain.

I spent a lot of time on my back with ice packs. I ate ibuprofen like is was candy, and Soma/Carisoprodol was a good friend. While I had multiple spinal injections of steroids which helped a lot, the disc damage was never enough for my doctor to say “You need surgery!”. Than God.

I’m an active guy. I live for skiing. And I ski HARD. I am addicted to playing soccer. I suck, but when healthy I’ll play 4 times a week. This is me, heli-skiing in Valdez Alaska:

About 6 years ago, while at a party with my wife, I met Rick Emerson. Rick is a trainer at Athletic Training Institute in Redmond (@hyperspock on Twitter). Rick was learning a new treatment called Muscle Activation Technique (MAT) and over the years, as he’s become exceptionally gifted in applying it. It is flipping amazing.

Here’s the general idea:

  • The human body has about 640 different muscles. Some big, some small. They are not independent but work together in as complex system.
  • For any number of reasons sometimes some of these muscles “go offline”. They “stop firing”. Stress, trauma, or overuse can case this to happen.
  • When one muscle goes offline others try to compensate. The compensating muscles don’t have the right alignment and cause the skeleton to get out of whack, putting excessive stress on joints.
  • A skeleton that’s out of alignment combined with muscles that are offline is a recipe for disaster. At extreme ranges of motion or under hard force (e.g. reacting to an unseen mogul on the ski slope) can result in a blown knee or burst disc in the back.
  • The key, then, is to identify what muscles are “offline” and do something to turn them back on.
  • This is what MAT is: Identify what muscles are offline and then use several techniques to get them to wake up. If successful (and in my experience it is SHOCKING how well it works) then the body gets back in alignment.

My back, because of regular weekly MAT sessions with Rick and despite playing soccer 4 times a week and skiing hard, has been completely pain and spasm free for over two years.

Last Wednesday I went wake boarding with a friend. I pushed hard, riding switch and trying to jump the wake toe-side. I never fell, but I was working really hard and really torqueing my upper torso. Afterwards I felt fine.

The next morning I woke up, again feeling fine. However, after sitting at my desk for a few hours doing work I got up and reached down to pick up a bag; before my hand even touched it I felt my back “go”. If you’ve ever had your back go out you know the feeling. F**k!

If this had happened to me 4 or 5 years ago it would have meant that I would be flat on my back for a week and basically useless in all thing for another 2 or 3 weeks. With MAT I was able to play soccer this morning and be completely pain free.

MAT testing involves the trainer having you try to push against his/her hands in various positions. For example, I’ll lie on my back, and Rick will elevate my right foot, pull it outward and say “I’m going to push down and in, you resist”. If I can resist his downward push, whatever muscle he’s testing is “on”.  If my leg collapses (and it’s really wild when it does!) then he knows what muscle is “off”.

When the trainer determines what muscle is offline, he/she will typically try to “activate” it with direct palpation (massaging with some force) of the point where the muscle is attached to the bone (sometimes this hurts like hell, but it’s a good pain).

The trainer then tests again, and 99% of the time I am able to resist his force. The muscle is now online.

I picked this example (right leg up and out, pushing down and in), because it is shocking (to me anyway) what muscle this is testing. In my case the muscle Rick palpates is on my LEFT SHOULDER. This just reinforces how complex and interconnected the body is.

This incident with my back was a result of the muscles in my upper torso being stressed by the wakeboarding. Rick treated me, not by trying to ‘fix my back’, but by identifying which of these muscles was pissed off and offline and activating them. Once activated, the other muscles (e.g. in my hips) stopped having to compensate, my body realigned, and the stress from my lower back was removed. Ta-da!

MAT was invented by Greg Roskop in Denver (it is rumored that one of the reasons Payton Manning choose the Broncos is because of Greg and MAT). The official MAT website is at www.muscleactivation.com

What is Muscle Activation Techniques

There are bunch of videos on YouTube that show it off.  This one represents well:

Here in the Seattle area, the premier place for this kind of treatment is ATI in Redmond. There are 5 or 6 trainers there who are all trained in MAT (to varying levels).  The sensei is Erik Schwenn who has the MAT Master Level certification. Rick, my trainer, Kirk, and Terry are all certified as MAT Specialists. And there are a few more.  I regularly see local pro athletes in there. It is a great place that has, and I don’t say this lightly, changed my life.

I’m not writing this because I think ATI needs more business. I don’t know if they do or not. I’m writing it because I am such a huge fan of MAT that I want others to be able to take advantage of it. The official MAT website has a list of all MAT specialists so you can look one up wherever you live.

One sucky thing about ATI is they don’t accept insurance. I know that in other cities there are places where MAT is applied that do. For me, I can’t imagine many things I’d rather spend money on.

© Charlie Kindel. All Rights Reserved.

4 comments


  1. Popmillipede

    Thanks for posting this Charlie. It’s sounds great and I’ve had back problems for 25 years (including surgery on L5/S1 back in 1990 – by Joe Montana’s surgeon no less). I’m generally fine but the back does seize up once in a while. I will check out ATI.

  2. Janine

    This and for other health reasons is why I recently bought 2 personal training studios. What I’ve learned about what the trainers do is amazing and runs the gambit from following up on physical therapy to pushing elite athletes. I’m a total believer that having muscles and alignment out of kilter makes a huge difference in our ability to do activities and live our lives. Unfortunately, I just wish I’d learned this years ago. I’m so glad MAT works for you Charlie and I bet it would help others as well. I would also
    highly recommend working w/ a personal trainer if one can.

  3. Susan

    Charlie, I just sent an email to the only MAT guy in MadTown. Let’s hope he can help me as much as your trainer can. Thanks for the posting!

  4. Charlie I had really bad back issues for years .I then bought a TEMPUR mattress.Problem solved.Give it a go!

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