Lazy, sleeping muscles and other magical creations

If you’ve been given rehab exercises in the last two decades, you’ve probably heard that your muscles have become lazy, or fell asleep, or similar. And it sounds cool enough – muscles weren’t receiving enough love so they dozed off, ready to be awoken by a magical spell (or exercise). But it’s all basically a load of BS. As much as we want to believe that muscles have personality, it just ain’t so. To explain, let me tell you a little story…

Meet the team

Think of your muscles as a team with a variety of skills between them and the brain as the supervisor who chooses the right team for any given work task. The supervisor will select the team based on the specific demands of each job. And the supervisor will always try to choose the best team AT THE TIME, taking into account each worker’s current situation, along with using some experience of which combination of team members have performed the job well in the past. So if one of the workers shows up tired (aka. muscle fatigue), the supervisor will send an alternate worker in their place.

Workplace conflict and loss of productivity

In motor pattern dysfunction, it’s not that some workers don’t show up (aka. “your muscles are asleep/lazy/inactive”). They may be too tired to perform well. They may whine too much when they’re working (aka. pain signals) or they’ve become less effective at performing their job (aka. weakness), forcing the brain to choose workers who can contribute more with less complaining.

So other workers are called on as they’re better equipped to do the job, even though it’s not their normal role.

Problems can arise when that one worker, who needs to perform their normal role as well, is doing too much and gets exhausted (yes, we’re talking to you Hamstrings!). Or the worker may create extra workload for others because they’re inefficient at performing their back-up role.

The role of the external consultant (aka. Physio)

The worksite performance is dropping, the team is whining, and the supervisor is frustrated. Enter the External Consultant. And as with all outsiders, they can do more harm than good at times if they don’t fully understand the cause of the issue or if they instigate a plan that doesn’t fully account for how the supervisor/team relationship works.

Let’s stop the worker who’s not meant to be doing the job (aka. “teach the inappropriate muscle to switch off) – it means the job probably won’t get done as the right worker for the job couldn’t perform it effectively in the first place.

The aim must be to better equip the right worker with the capacity to do the job so the supervisor will choose them as the best person for the role. And the more often the team performs a task, the better practiced the supervisor gets at choosing the right workers.

It’s not rocket science

But it’s not science fiction either. Real workers may have personalities, quirks and weird character traits. Muscles and nerves don’t. So they can’t “go to sleep”, “get lazy” or “forget how to work”. There’s always a reason why the brain selects other muscles for the task – and that reason must be addressed before you can return to normal, or better.

Written by

Travis Waite

Trav is a Physiotherapist with an Exercise Science background who specialises in shoulder injuries and gym-based rehab. He believes that injury rehab is an opportunity to work on performance and to emerge better than before you were injured.

Travis Waite