Muscle Refinement Video - For a quick overview chat about the muscle refinement process
What I mean by muscle refinement is the process muscles go through to become efficient and effective. From my observations, your muscles develop through these simplified stages:
Activation - We become aware that these muscles exist. Yippee!
Engagement - We start to consciously engage the new muscle or area. Generally this engagement is rough or choppy.
Refinement - Our conscious engagement becomes unconscious engagement and the muscle movement is refined, steady and smooth.
Further Distinguishment - We become intune with that muscle or area and start to further distinguish it being able to engage smaller areas individually
Think of a baby and how it learns to use its limbs:
Activation - It starts moving its arms.
Engagement - The baby can move the arm around, but has little to no control over it. They are floppy and wobbly movements.
Refinement - As the baby grows, the movements become more steady and smooth.
Further distinguishment - It starts to be able to distinguish between different parts of the limb like the hand from the arm or the forearm from the arm.
This cycle continues for the newly distinguished areas. The hand then becomes activated, engaged, refined and further distinguished. It's easy for us to see this process in a baby as their muscles are not highly refined, but we must not forget that this process does not disappear as we mature. Muscle Refinement continues to exist as long as we are alive. In fact, the process requires a certain amount of attention otherwise it starts to regress, but that's the topic for another blog.
Muscle Refinement as a Skills
As we refine muscles to smaller and smaller areas of the body, it's easy for us to forget that if we want to continue developing a specific muscle we need to be active in muscle refinement for that area. It will naturally happen, but like any skill if we are conscious about pursuing this progression, the skill will develop faster. When we can clearly see the benefits of refining a muscle like being able to write or type on a computer with our hands, we naturally venture down this process without a second thought. However, when the benefits are not obvious, often we may not pursue that path. This is not bad or good, it's just how we work. It’s value analysis. If we can type with our hands we don’t need to refine our feet to be able to type.
Part of how we assess the potential value of refining a muscle is by seeing someone else with that skill and seeing the benefit of it. If this is our primary way of assessing whether or not we want to refine a muscle (or gain a skill that requires muscle refinement) it comes with a couple of problems. As the muscle disguishment targets smaller and smaller areas, it is hard for us to see:
Which muscles have been refined or distinguished.
How those muscles are being activated and engaged.
The direct benefits of refining that small area/ gaining that skill.
Think about trying to explain the nuances of engaging your obliques. The basics are may be easy to explain but further down the distinguishment path how do you explain engaging the subtler muscles around your core and obliques. There are so many moving parts, its hard to visually and orally explain and understand the direct benefits correlated with that further distinguishment.
Muscle Refinement and Listening to Your Body
So if we can’t rely fully on visual cues, how do we find our way through a maze with no light, so to speak. This is where listening to your body comes in handy again. The more intune you are with your body, the better you can understand the messages it sends you and adapt to them.
Like any skill, you need to find the balance and play with the different mechanism. When we think about doing crunches, as we distinguish our core muscles we can assess whether engaging those core muscles is beneficial or detrimental to the exercise. This is what I mean by playing with form.
As you go through the basic core activation exercises, I’m not suggesting that all of these muscles need to be activated all the time. I’m giving you mechanisms to play with and assess their value when you're running or working out. You may find that you like the stability you get from engaging your inner thighs while running or doing lunges, but you don’t find it necessary when you’re doing crunches on your back. I can’t tell you how your body feels, but as you refine your muscles, you will become more in touch with your body and learn to understand what feels good and what doesn’t. For instance, I have to consciously relax my neck muscles when I’m doing pushups. I believe they were lumped together with my shoulders at one point and I realize that engaging them for pushups doesn’t add much value.
Muscle Refinement and Pain
The further you refine your muscle awareness you are also refining your awareness of your body. If you can activate different parts of your legs, glutes or core, you can better sense where aches, pains and sensations are coming from. Its not knee pain, it’s pain on top of my knee on the lateral side (outside) about 2 mm under the skin (yes, you can actually become this accurate and with only a little practice and focus).
The more intouch you are with your body and sensations, the better you can react and adjust your running form and then feel the implications or the adjustment. You can literally feel pain on a run, adjust form and feel it subside. This is NOT to say that this is the solution I recommend for all pain. Play around with form before it gets to pain (see the blog on Aches, Pains and Soreness). If you are ever in doubt stop right away and see a professional. I am not medically trained and cannot feel what’s in your body. I am merely sharing my experiences to offer you an idea of what might be possible for you by refining your muscles and listening to your body.
Muscle Refinement - Next Steps
As you refine your connection with your body, your feedback, understanding and your ability to refine will improve. Just like a baby learning to walk, they won’t have perfect form on day one, so don’t beat yourself up over this. Just like none of us run like Kipchogi (Current world marathon record holder - see stride analysis of his amazing form) there is always room for more awareness, connection and refinement. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t run like him. Be generous and patient with yourself and understand that it is a lifelong process of refinement.
But refinement is a skill and the better you get at refining the quicker you can go through that process with other muscles. It is what I call a fundamental skill, it is a skill that can cross between different sports and even different industries. It is a skill worth developing so that if you ever need to refine a muscle or connection with your body, you already have a heightened sense of this process in other areas of your life.