What is synergistic dominance?

Today I’m going to talk a little technically. We’re going to talk about a phenomenon that directly affects how you feel and how you understand how your body functions.

It’s called “synergistic dominance.”

An overview

In just about any motion you perform in daily life, you use more than one muscle to perform the motion. You’ll generally have a dominant, primary muscle — called a primary mover — that helps your body perform the motion, and you’ll have a few other helper muscles for that motion that we call “synergists.”

Synergistic dominance is when the primary mover takes a vacation and helper muscles take over to fill the gap.

When someone at your office takes a vacation and you need to cover for them, what happens?

For a day or two, it may seem fine, right? You can pretty much handle the load. But as time goes on, you wear down! It’s tough trying to do double duty; you start making more mistakes, missing details, and burn out.

And that’s what happens with synergistic dominance. Once the helper muscles take over, they become susceptible to all the same problems. They have trouble performing their regular duties, they misfire a bit and don’t allow for proper joint motion, and they get cranky from taking on extra duties without an increase in pay!

How to stop it

One strategy to help interrupt synergistic dominance (and to knock the the primary mover back out of vacation-mode) is to tell the helper muscles to STOP doing double duty. You can do this with myofascial work that inhibits the muscle activity (like Rolfing or foam rolling that addresses the synergists) and then asking your body to perform the motion you’re trying to improve.

It’s like telling the primary mover to get his head out of the clouds and back on the task at hand. Once the helper muscles have been told to stop picking up the slack, the primary mover will have to start doing his job again.

An example of synergistic dominance

One very common example of synergistic dominance occurs with the glutes and hamstrings. For the deskbound, sitting on your butt shuts down your glutes.  After an 8 hour day, you get up to go out for a long bike ride around Mission Bay. Halfway through your ride, you feel the devil himself poking you in the hamstrings. The hamstring cramps don’t go away, and by the time you get home you’re ready to sit in a bathtub full of ice.

In this simplified example (and sometimes it is this simple), your butt muscles had checked out, and your hamstrings were called in to do double duty. To re-establish better (read: less painful) muscle balance, you’d want to get some foam rolling and stretching in that would lengthen and inhibit the hamstrings and prime the glutes for your ride.

With order restored to the workplace, your body would be able to handle the ride with a lot less workplace tension!


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.

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