by Lucy O'Keefe

In our Sports and Remedial massage we use advanced techniques to achieve better results, with the aim of assessing and treating dysfunctional soft-tissues, improve mobility, function and reduce pain.

MET - Muscle Energy Technique

This is an umbrella term for techniques that apply the action of contracting muscles to release excessive tension of muscles to restore normal length and elasticity. The techniques were originally developed by Osteopaths as a way to correct joint function, and prepare for joint manipulations.

To understand how they work, it is necessary to understand a little about the anatomy, physiology and human movement involved. Inside muscles and tendons there are receptors that create a stretch reflex in response to change in length and tension in muscles. The receptors are called Muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs (GTO). They work together to relay information between the muscles and the nervous system (Neuromuscular system). The Muscle spindles alert the nervous system of stretch in the muscle which in turn causes a contraction of the stretched muscle. Within seconds, the GTO detects prolonged change in the tissue tension and to avoid damage there is an inhibitory effect to relax muscle tissues. Once muscle tissues have become relaxed, it is then possible to stretch them.

If these processes did not happen, then we would be incapable of movement. In essence, movement works by muscles and tissues, applying contractile forces to bones and joint structures. The only way to achieve movement is by alternating muscles contractions. For example, to bend or flex the knee, the hamstrings will contract, and the quadriceps will relax. The exact opposite is true for extending or straightening the leg; however, movement is far more complicated than this. These principles of movement can be used by a suitably qualified and experienced therapist to treat dysfunctional tissues.

A few things to know about these techniques are:

  • They will only work if there is true restriction - they cannot make muscles longer, or more elastic than is natural
  • Effects can be dramatic but need to be maintained with regular stretching
  • The muscles tend to respond better post massage

Two basic principles:

All MET techniques are based on the principles of Post Isometric Relaxation (PRI) and Reciprocal Inhibition (RI). Two natural phenomena that occur by utilising the process described above.

PIR - Post Isometric Relaxation

Following a period (about 8 seconds) of muscle contraction with the muscle held in a fixed position, know as a isometric contraction. The muscle becomes inhibited and more relaxed for about 5 seconds. It can then be stretched to a new resting length and the technique is repeated 2 or 3 times each with the new resting place.

The PIR techniques fixes a muscle in a lengthened position, and the client contracts against this resistance. This is quite safe with muscles that are tight but otherwise strong and healthy. Following acute trauma this could overload the repairing fibres and re-tear them.

RI - Reciprocal Inhibition

A tight muscle can be inhibited and stretched more easily by contacting the opposing muscle. Unlike PIR, this reaction is instant and as soon as the contraction stops so too does the reciprocal inhibition. With PIR the therapist can take a short time to ensure full relaxation before increasing the range, but with RI it must be done instantly.

The client can stretch the muscle themselves through active movement which makes it very safe. Their neuromusclular system will respond to any possible tissue damage and stop them before they stretch too far. Which makes it a better technique for an acute injury or when treating potentially critical areas like the neck.

The barrier position

The 'Barrier' position is the common starting point for all applications of MET. It is the position at which a muscle is taken to a length where the first sensation of tightness can be felt by the client. This is the point where the fascia is lengthened out but not stretched. With MET it is essential to find this much more subtle point of tension rather than pushing into a strong resistance barrier. Client feedback is essential for this, and a good knowledge of anatomy and tactile skills from the therapist.

Proprioceptive Neuromusclular Facilitation (PNF)

This involves taking the muscle into a fairly full stretch first and then applying a strong PIR technique. This works well for muscles that are tight but otherwise healthy and strong. More commonly used in to good effect in sports environments, but less useful in most remedial situations where weakness and injury is often involved.