Activating muscles to strengthen and protect (particularly from falls)
With regards to muscle power, there’s a massive difference between “activation” and just “tensing”. Just those words make it clear. One definition of tense is; “stretched tight or rigid..” which really doesn’t sound useful at all….. But we all know what “active” means.
Tension suggests “squeezing”. Squeezing usually creates some kind of restriction. An actively engaged muscle has no such restriction. It’s working in a way that is powerful. Matter is able to flow – blood, fluid, prana, chi, energy..whatever.
Any kind of movement will engage certain muscles naturally and some stuff more than others such as walking, jogging or running; dancing, vinyasa yoga, and sporting stuff. But, if we are too competitive and results driven, the tension will creep in and we will end up losing most of the benefits of this “action”.
Occasionally our muscles need a little help with activation if we are holding static postures for a reason – such as when we execute particular yoga poses or are weight bearing/lifting etc. But again, it’s best to tweak the posture and find an organic way to hold the body differently rather than simply tense muscles since this usually weakens rather than strengthens our foundation and could create instability.
In yoga physiology, this is called “bandha” and you can think of it as being like a “bandage”. A bandage should never restrict anything, it just protects.
This posture for example, is incredibly powerful. I’m weight-bearing on one leg and because my centre of gravity has shifted, it’s possible my standing leg is bearing up to 10 times my body weight. My core has engaged organically so I can still breathe and feel relaxed and my buttock muscles and most of the muscles in my legs are naturally activated.
But, so I that I don’t fall over – and because ankles are often weaker than other joints – I’m gripping the mat with my toes and my heel which creates a bandha around my ankle joint and activates my calf muscle. In modern speak, you might call this a “co-activation”. I’m also doing a similar thing to protect and strengthen my knee. Importantly though, it’s not just tensing, which would possibly lead to a cramp in my calf (annoying but minor) or a super tight calf if I kept doing it over and over again. And did you know that people with super tight calves and weak ankles are much more likely to lose their balance and become injured in falls?
Lots of people tell me that balance is challenging and one-legged poses are what they struggle with the most. But, balance is often the first thing to go as we age so I think it’s something that’s definitely worth not giving up on – even if you have to use a wall or prop.