Well technically, it’s not a muscle, but the answer is…your brain! While we often say we are working out our muscles, they are not necessarily the brightest things in the world. Muscles really only know how to do two things:
So how are we able to miraculously coordinate the muscles in our body to do complex movements like walking (think about how many things move when you walk!), playing sports or even getting out of bed in the morning? The brain!
For (a very simplified) example, imagine waking up in the morning and thinking: I need to get out of bed now. Therefore, the brain sends out a signal to your muscles saying, ok body, engage muscles X and Y to prop yourself up and then turn on muscles A, B and C to get you to stand up. You may also have to use muscles D, E and F if you decide to yawn and stretch. Your muscles are the instruments…the brain is the conductor.
Why is this important? Your brain is good at conducting, but it needs feedback from the muscles as to whether the mission was accomplished and whether the mission was accomplished CORRECTLY. Unfortunately, we often forget the second part.
The last time you had to pick something off the ground, did you consider how you moved to reach for the object? Did you stick your hips out and drop into a squat to support your body as you went down to pick it up, or did you just bend over with your lower back, grab it the object and then place undue strain on your back and spine as you pulled yourself back up with your lower back muscles?
The problem is, the response to the brain in both cases is the same: Mission Accomplished. If it knows it can do X by moving certain muscles, it will continue to use them in the future, even if they aren’t the correct muscles! Usually this happens for years until we bend over and pick up that last pencil or piece of paper and we feel a huge twinge of pain run up our back or down our legs. We always say, “I have no idea how it happened, the pencil is so light and I’ve just been doing what I always do.” And doing what you always do was the problem.
We must be aware of how we move to make sure the right muscles are doing the work for us. If we do this, then we will strengthen the connection between the brain and the right muscles (picking stuff up by squatting). Otherwise, we may be strengthening the wrong connections (picking stuff up with our lower backs).
This theory applies to every exercise you do in the gym. So the next time you do an exercise, consider:
Am I conducting my body to use the right muscles so I can become stronger safely?
Or am I just contracting and relaxing anything needed to get the “job done” even if it may injure me in the future.