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Unnecessary Muscle Binding - The Great Impediment To Musical and Athletic Performance

Contracting unnecessary muscles hinders one's ability to execute a motion. When performing a physical task, irrelevant muscles should remain relaxed. A musician cannot play gracefully if the fingers they are not using flail around. An athlete becomes fatigued more quickly if they overwork themselves by contracting unnecessary muscle groups.

Knowing that proper technique requires the contraction of specific muscles while keeping irrelevant ones relaxed is paramount for performance. Because of this I've wondered why we often err by binding unnecessary muscles to movements and how to break these bad habits/prevent them from forming in the first place. I've come up with a hypothesis for the former and found few techniques for the latter that I believe are worth sharing.

Why we contract unnecessary muscles

My guess as to why we contract some unnecessary muscles when attempting a task is that our brain thinks like this:

I know I need to contract one of these ~ten muscles. But argh, which one? Let's send a signal that contracts them all! One of the muscles will get the job done. *contracts a bunch of muscles* Oh hey that worked, kinda. Good enough, now I know how to do this!

This faulty logic is described as the pin-ball syndrome in The New Voice: How to Sing and Speak Propery1

If you have ever watched someone play a pin-ball machine you will recognize the following description: After the ball is hit and it begins to touch pins that light up or it rolls close to holes the player does not want the balls to fall into, he usually begins to roll his head, twist his shoulders, screw up his face, and generally tense and distort his body to "help" maneuver the ball in the direction he'd like it to go. Of course, the ball will follow its own course.

Something similar to this happens during the process of learning to voluntarily move the necessary and specific muscles into the Basic Shape.2 There is a tendency for secondary muscles to "help." For example, while attempting to "yawn" the Adam's apple down there may be: distortion of the lips, tensing or raising the shoulders, even knitting the eyebrows and tensing muscles in the forehead. I call this the Pin-Ball Syndrome. The student wants so much to maneuver the correct muscles that he unconsciously calls on other areas of the body for help.

These are secondary and unnecessary tensions. They hinder rather than help.

In a word, the problem is: impatience.

What happens when one binds unnecessary muscles

Sometimes contracting irrelevant muscles prevents one from completing the task at hand. In this case, the brain will keep searching for different signals until it finds one that keeps the hindering muscles relaxed. But other times the brain may register a signal as a correct way to contract the muscles necessary to perform a task, even though that signal also contracts additional, unnecessary muscles.

For example, an opera singer may learn the brain signal that causes the throat/oral muscle movements necessary to sing a high note with the side effect of squinting. If the opera singer is only judging her success based on what she hears, her brain will think it has found how to send the correct signal to perform the high note. If left unchecked, the squinting that comes along with her high note remains a habit and thus a quirk in her performance.

How to correctly do a movement

The first step is to figure out which muscles you need to contract to do the action. Then you measure success by your ability to control those required muscles in isolation. By measuring success by your muscle control, you avoid the situation where you are nominally able to perform a task but have also bound unnecessary muscles thus making your form tense and awkward.

As to how to actually learn to contract a muscle while keeping all others relaxed, I have found a few helpful techniques.3 The most important piece of advice to keep in mind while using these techniques is: be patient.

The first technique for learning how to isolate a muscle is to discover where that muscle is. You also will want to learn the location of all the surrounding muscles that are likely to accidentally get bound to the target muscle's movement.

The second step is to learn how to relax that muscle and its surrounding muscles. Relaxation can be tricky since it's inaction that you're aiming for. Thus it is possible to create even more tension when one tries to relax.

It can be difficult to relax a muscle if you are not aware of what your body looks like or how it feels to have that muscle relaxed. Sometimes it helps to touch the muscle under examination with a finger to get additional biofeedback. The extra tactile sensation aids in letting you know if the muscle has softened. It also can be helpful to try to tense the muscles first and then release that tension, taking note of the contrast between the tensed and relax state.

Once you're able to tense and relax a muscle at will while keeping all other muscles relaxed, you can improve your control by attempting the same while keeping your eyes closed and without touching the muscle with a guiding finger. You can then check your success via a video recording.

There are various other techniques and methods for learning how to isolate various muscle groups. I am no expert myself so I won't expound on the subject. But from simply being conscious about the importance of learning how to tense and relax the correct muscles, I've seen significant improvement in my ability to learn technical skills on the guitar. Without a doubt, studying the art of muscle control will aid one in any physical endeavor.

  1. By Alan Greene, Pamela Hyde, and Susan Greene. []
  2. This "Basic Shape" is the shape required of the throat for singing, described in detail in the book. []
  3. A full guide on how to learn how to isolate the major muscle groups can be found in the book Muscle Control by Maxick. []

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