11.2 Active Contractile Mapping within a Flow

Active Contractile Mapping (ACM) is a way to clarify the brain’s representations of the body. 

The more clear the brain’s body maps are, the safer the brain/nervous system feel, and the more range of motion, control, and strength we’ll experience. The less clear those maps are, however, the less safe the brain and nervous system will feel. As a result, we may experience pain or stiffness, or limited range of motion, strength, and/or control. 

With ACM, we are NOT trying to isolate muscles or planes of movement; rather, we are trying to mobilize specific muscle groups through multiple planes of motion. 

Likewise, we are pairing a conscious contraction of a group of muscles with a conscious lengthening of that same group of muscles. 

These two points mean that it can be complicated to remember the cueing for any given ACM pairing of contraction & stretch! This is definitely not something you want to casually drop into a class you are teaching or introduce to a client until you have had a chance to play with it yourself and have a feel for what are you want to work (& why you want to work it!), as well as what actions you want to elicit in that region.

Rather than memorizing a specific set of cues, I recommend feeling it out in your own body, and then thinking about what you need to do to create that given contraction. Once you know how to contract that region, you take the exact opposite movement pattern to find the complementary ACM stretch.

Finally, remember that this work can be really intense, and most people aren’t prepared to go at it 100%! Ask your students or clients to start at an intensity level of 3 out of 10, and to hold there for a few breaths noticing what they experience. Maybe they can begin to ramp up the contraction after a few breaths, or maybe they should stay right where they are. 

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In this video I show an example of how you can sequence an entire yoga class around ACM work. In this case, specifically around ACM for: 

  1. The Latissimus Dorsi
  2. Gluteus Medius & Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL)
  3. The paraspinal muscles
  4. The Upper Trapezius & Levator Scapulae

So here I sequenced a 60 minute class around these 4 ACM pairings, but building in a pre- & post- assessment after ACM on each side. Even in a group flow class, I ask my clients to take clear mental before and after ACM snapshots to notice what changes:

  • Where is there improvement [in range of motion/strength/control/quality of movement]? 
  • Where is there no change? 
  • Where is there less [ROM/strength/control/quality of movement]?

It is entirely possible that ACM on one side of the body elicits a big improvement, whereas on the other side it doesn’t change much—or that there is even a decrease in performance! (It is also possible that both sides yield improvements—that is the case in my own body, for example, with ACM for the latissimus dorsi.

If I were working one-on-one with someone, I would use the answers to those questions to guide the rest of our work together. Within a group flow I obviously can’t cater the rest of the class to the person in the front row’s need for more activation of body maps on the right side of the body (for example!), but what I can do is ask each person in the room to notice what changes after each ACM on each side, and to not be afraid to spend more time on the side of the body that shows greater need for more of this work.

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This video focuses on how to incorporate ACM into a group yoga flow, but it fits beautifully into other modalities. In personal training, for example, I might begin a warm up with SMR to begin to turn on the brain’s sensory maps of the region of the body we’re planning to work on, then move to ACM fusing the distinction between warm-up and the start of the work out, and then move into resistance training. 

How can you use this in the modalities you teach? How would ACM fit into an Animal Flow class? Or into a Mat Pilates class? Could you use ACM with somatic work or Feldenkrais? With RES? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!