What is Muscle Activation?
What is muscle activation, and what happens inside your body when your muscles are activated? Muscle activation is defined by “contracting the muscle,” which occurs throughout your day. When a force is activated, the muscle fibers are stimulated by a nerve impulse from the central nervous system. A muscle will stop being started when nerve stimulation stops.
At this point, the muscle should then relax to its resting state before it is ready to be activated again. Your power can also stop contracting when no more ATP (energy) is left in the cell. The physiology behind muscle activation is incredibly complex and complicated. Consciously activating a targeted muscle builds a stronger connection between the power and the nervous system that stimulates it. A more robust connection results in greater intensity and firing of a muscular contraction (1).
Does Muscle Activation Equal Muscle Growth?
When I was involved with one-on-one personal training, a common question I would get from my newer clients was if it was possible to have muscle growth just by muscle activation. Unfortunately, muscle growth can only occur when stress (such as weightlifting) is imposed, challenging your muscles beyond their present capacity (1). This process is the principle of overload and is arguably the essential foundation of muscle development. If your muscles are not sufficiently overloaded regularly, they have no stimulus to develop (1).
As you lift weights in a manner that challenges your muscles, your body perceives it as a threat to its survival. Your body then adapts by getting more extensive and robust to effectively deal with the same stimulus when it is encountered in the future. Muscle development will continue if you regularly apply physical stresses to overload your muscles (1).
How Can I Benefit From Muscle Activation?
Muscle activation can provide a plethora of benefits for someone, but there are three significant benefits.
The first significant benefit is that it can help increase your overall neuromuscular efficiency. Muscle activation can help reinforce the “mind-body connection” with specific exercises targeting appropriate muscles. This helps establish a more robust communication link between your brain and the rest of your body, so your body is prepared for whatever activity.
The second significant benefit is that it helps decrease the risk of injury. Specific activation exercises can help relax overactive muscles, such as your hip flexors, which tend to get overactive if you sit for an extended period. They also can help encourage the targeted muscles to work effectively, so there isn’t any overcompensating with other muscles.
The third significant benefit is that it helps improve your overall performance. It helps you utilize your muscles and strength effectively to get the most out of each workout (2).
What Are Activation Exercises?
Many of you might ask yourself, what are “activation exercises” exactly? Activation exercises are exercises that target specific muscles to help increase blood flow and help activate or wake up specific muscle groups. It’s essential to make sure that your activation exercises are geared toward the muscles that you plan on training. These activation exercises help prepare your body for the more intense exercises that will soon follow in your workout (2).
5 Activation Exercises You Can Do Before Working Out
In this section, I will go over five of my favorite activation exercises you can do before working out that will touch on every leading muscle group in the body.
1. Push-Up (Chest): 5-10 reps x 3 sets
- Begin on all fours with your hands shoulder-width apart. Extend your legs straight back so all your weight is on your hands and toes. Maintain a neutral spine from head to toe.
- Before you begin, engage your core. Slowly bend your elbows and lower yourself down until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle while keeping your elbows tucked in by the side of your body.
- Contract your chest muscles and push back up through your hands to the starting position.
*Modification: Perform the push-up on your knees rather than your toes.
- DO NOT lock out elbows; keep a micro-bend in elbows.
- Make sure hands are underneath shoulders.
- Hips in-line with back.
- When lowering the chest, elbows bend and point back, NOT out to the side.
2. Superman Holds (Back): 5-sec hold x 3 sets
- Lie on your stomach with your legs straight back and arms stretched above your head.
- As your forehead is resting on the floor. Exhale and slowly lift your arms, legs, and head off the floor.
- Keep your arms and legs straight as you hover them over the ground and feel your back muscles and glutes engage and activate.
- Hands stay in line with shoulders, and feet stay in line with hips.
- Head stays in line with neck & spine.
3. Band Pull Aparts (Shoulders): 10 reps x 3 sets
- You will need a resistance band for this exercise. Choose a resistance band strength that allows you to get through the exercise while maintaining good form.
- Stand tall with good posture and your feet shoulder-width apart, holding the resistance band with an overhand grip at shoulder height with your arms extended out in front of your body.
- Hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart while maintaining a slight bend in your elbows.
- Rotate your shoulders outward to engage your lats and upper back.
- Initiate the movement and squeeze your upper back as you begin to pull the band apart. As your arms start to move backward, shoulder blades should retract and come together.
- When your arms are fully extended to the side of your body, squeeze your upper back muscles, hold for a few seconds, and return to the starting position.
- DO NOT lockout elbows; keep a micro-bend (slightly bent).
- Keep hands in line with shoulders.
4. Glute Bridge (Glutes): 10 reps x 3 sets
- Lie face up on the floor, with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Keep your arms at your side with your palms down.
- Lift your hips off the ground until your knees, hips, and shoulders form a straight line. Squeeze those glutes hard and keep your abs drawn, so you don’t overextend your back during the exercise.
- Hold your bridged position for a couple of seconds before easing back down, one vertebra at a time.
- Drive your heels into the ground when lifting the hips.
- Push hips up towards the ceiling.
- Get as high on the shoulder blades as possible.
- DO NOT use arms to help push your hips up and to get onto your shoulder blades.
5. Walking Lunges (Quads): 10 lunges each leg x 3 sets
- Start with your feet hip-distance apart while maintaining good posture with your torso upright and tall, core engaged, shoulders back, and chin lifted.
- Take a big step forward with your right foot. Your left heel should lift naturally off the ground while keeping your core engaged as you bend your knees and lower your back knee toward the floor. (Knees should both make 90-degree angles.)
- Step forward with your left leg, ensuring your knee does not extend past your ankle.
- Push through your right heel using your thigh muscles to rise to a standing position and lift your left foot from the ground. As your left foot comes forward, follow through with a big step forward.
- Keep your core engaged as you bend your knees and lower your back knee toward the floor, as both knees form a 90-degree angle. (Make sure to stop before your knee touches the floor.)
- Weight is put in your heel when lunging and driving off the heel.
- Knee DOES NOT go over toes when lunging with the front leg.
- Staying on the ball of your feet with your back leg.
- Chest stays up.
- Knee coming to a hover over the ground (NOT touching the ground).
Muscle Activation for Everyone
When your muscles are not warmed up and functioning correctly, you put yourself at a much greater risk of injury. Not only do muscle activation exercises help with preventing injuries, but it also helps strengthen the muscles, improve flexibility, and help lessen pain such as neck stiffness and back pain. If you would like to lower your risk of injury and see better results from your workouts, you should start to incorporate activation exercises into your warm-up routine.
(1) The Max Muscle Plan 2.0, Book, 2022. Accessed 22 August 2022
(2) Differences in Hip Kinematics, Muscle Strength, and Muscle Activation Between Subjects With and Without Patellofemoral Pain, Journal, 2009. Accessed 22 August 2022