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This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 81 – October 2002
The work of Mézières is firmly based on what she called ‘muscular chains’ (MCs). I don’t know if she was the first one to use this term but she gave a clear and precise definition of what they comprise.
Following the success of her method, many bodyworkers, keen to leap onto the bandwagon, started to imagine all sorts of chains, muscular or otherwise. The concept of anatomical chains applied to the human body acted as a muse to their fertile imaginations.
While Mézières found only four MCs that satisfy her definition, others, without troubling themselves with an exact definition of what constitutes an MC and assuming that the more the merrier, have counted as many as 20. The concept of ‘chain’ has also been extended to other tissues. Thus we have articular chains from an osteopathic perspective, fascial or myofascial chains, and even acupuncture-orientated chains.
This state of affairs is rather confusing, especially with regard to muscular chains. If the same term, in the same context of the body, is used to mean different things, this can only ‘babelize’ the mapping of the body.
Mézières defined an MC as a group of polyarticular muscles running in the same direction and imbricated, i.e., overlapping like tiles on a roof, without any interruption of the linkage. Under these conditions, all the muscles in a chain are mutually dependent. The notion of MCs enabled Mézières to explain the observations she made on her patients and to draw up some fundamental laws that govern body mechanics and her form of bodywork. Here are some of Mézières’ laws:
The muscles belonging to an MC behave like a single muscle, and the shortening of a single muscle within an MC will eventually shorten the whole chain;
These muscles always end up too short and too toned. The tonus of one muscle is added to the next and so on. This cumulative effect of the summation of tone along the whole length of an MC results inevitably in its shortening. Meanwhile, the other muscles are short-changed and end up with too little tone. A tonic imbalance is created which results in distortions, pains and disability;
Any local work, whether of a shortening or lengthening nature, can only result in the shortening of the whole chain since the pull or contraction of a muscle will provoke a pull on the insertions of the next one, and so on throughout the entire length of the chain. This is why local work is inefficient if not actually counterproductive;
Any effort to oppose this shortening produces automatic side-bendings and rotations of the spine and the limbs. Polyarticular or multi-joint muscles (muscles that pass over two or more joints) can produce two or three actions. Thus these muscles are postero-flexors, latero-flexors and rotators. One action can substitute for the other. Thus, when postero-flexion is prevented, latero-flexion takes place; when latero-flexion is opposed, it is rotation that will come to the rescue – and, from compensation to compensation, the MC keeps shortening. Recognizing and avoiding these compensatory actions are essential in order truly to lengthen MCs.
Unfortunately, some of the physical therapists who have trained with Mézières have ignored, overlooked, forgotten or dismissed her precise and exact definition of what constitutes an MC. To Mézières’ chagrin, some have called MCs groups of contiguous muscles, i.e., a succession or train of muscles adjoining end to end. Contiguous muscles cannot make up a chain as they don’t form any linkages and therefore cannot provoke the actions described above.
The confusion I was referring to at the beginning of this article is especially annoying when the original, strictly defined MCs discovered by Mézières are ignored in favour of the new breed of pseudo MCs. A point in case is to be found in Anatomy Trains, a beautiful book by Thomas W Myers in which he expounds his theory of myofascial meridians – “lines of pull… which transmit strain and movement through the body’s myofascia around the skeleton”. He writes that his concept has some “similarities with the chaînes musculaires of the French osteopath and physiotherapist Leopold Busquet”. Busquet has trained with Mézières, but his 21 chaînes musculaires, which he defines loosely as being “circuits in the same continuous direction and plane through which are propagated the organizing forces of the body”, have, except for the name, no analogy with the four MCs of Mézières.
Myers adds that “the chaînes musculaires (of Busquet) are based on functional connections… whereas the Anatomy Trains are based on direct fascial connections.” This remark may be valid for Busquet’s chains, but certainly not for the original MCs of Mézières. The interlinking and overlapping of Mézières’ MCs are an anatomical reality and specificity that explains why they act and function the way they do. It is, for example, due to the brachial (arm) MC that the dependent upper limb at rest usually shows a slightly flexed and pronated arm and hand. The existence of a posterior MC explains why, if you reduce a neck concavity, you will, at the same time, increase the lower back concavity, and vice versa; and, if you flex the lower limb at the hip joint, preventing the bending at the knees, the latter will turn inwards. The concept of the MCs à la Mézières provides the physical therapist with a code to decipher the complex mechanisms of the muscular system and a powerful tool to treat musculoskeletal dysfunctions.
All chains are not equal – indeed, some are impostors inasmuch as they have links that are weak to the point that they exist only in the imagination of their conceivers. Goodbye to the weakest chains!
1. Myers Thomas W. Anatomy Trains. Churchill Livingstone. 2001.
2. Busquet Leopold. Les chaînes musculaires. Tome II. Frison Roche. Paris. 1995.