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Our thoughts on “Activation” exercises

These are our thoughts, based on our own conclusions and the evidence we have been looking into. We know how popular activation exercises are, so we wanted to take a deeper dive and find out more about them.

To activate or not to activate?

These are our thoughts, based on our own conclusions and the evidence we have been looking into. We know how popular activation exercises are, so we wanted to take a deeper dive and find out more about them.

What is an activation exercise?

An activation exercise is a type of physical or mental activity designed to prime or awaken specific muscles, neural pathways, or cognitive functions. The intention behind such exercises is to enhance performance, prevent injury, and improve focus and awareness.

In a physical context, activation exercises often target specific muscle groups to improve mobility, increase blood flow, and establish better mind-muscle connections before engaging in more intense activities or workouts. These exercises are often used as part of a warm-up routine in sports and gym settings.

Our thoughts on "Activation" exercises, image of woman stretching

Our conclusions on these movements:

What are activation exercise guidelines?

The term ‘activation’ is quite broad, and it is hard to critique something that has no clear definition or guidelines. There are no set rules or guidelines as to what deems an exercise as an activation-based movement, as opposed to it being any other type of exercise. Is there a difference between an ‘activation’ exercise and a regular exercise designed to develop strength? There are no set boundaries between the two, and we are sure there is plenty of crossover. Nonetheless, they both may have uses in their own contexts, but the literature does not clearly define what an ‘activation’ exercise actually is.

exercises, question mark

How much stimulus is needed to cause a response?

In most instances, a light stimulus is used, this is to ensure only a small amount of stress is placed on the target muscle, to ensure it does not fatigue. However, the light stimulus provided by activation exercises is insufficient to cause any physiological response that would differ from that of a general warm-up (for example: a bike, or treadmill, that increases heart rate and blood flow) or strength exercise.

Alternatively, if the individual is weak in this area, it may be considered a strengthening movement if they continue to get stronger as they do it over time. If the individual continues to do the supposed activation movement, yet gets stronger, one could argue they are activating the muscle more.

Therefore, we often find ourselves questioning how much activation is enough or too much. We have found that a more context-dependent stimulus is needed, with some individuals responding better to more and others to less.

exercises

You will get better by doing a movement repeatedly.

The more you practice a movement the better you get at it. Some activation exercises require the isolation of one muscle group. The isolation of this muscle group is usually prescribed because the individual is not able to have it work when it needs to. Therefore, when they complete the activation exercise, they may get better at activating the muscle due to the repetitive nature of the movement, like learning to ride a bike, you get better at doing something the more you are exposed to it.

Is the muscle more active, or is it stronger?

Evidence does not state clearly as to whether or not, the individual is really seeing improvement due to the activation exercise, or are they simply getting the muscle stronger by loading it and using it regularly under load. If someone has never trained a muscle group before, what constitutes an activation exercise may in turn strengthen the muscle, thus causing the improvement. The improvement in strength will cause more of the muscle to activate. In addition this, as mentioned above, the repeated nature of doing such exercises so frequently as mentioned above may make the individual better at using the targeted muscle.

exercises

How can you tell if a muscle is inactive?

Perception alone is insufficient to quantify or be sure of. Questions arise as to whether the individual just needed to warm up more or is relying too heavily on mind-muscle connection, not trusting their body to do what it needs to do, creating a sense of hyper-fragility. There has been an association between muscle contractile capabilities and warming up, finding that the warmer an individual is, the better or harder they will be able to contract a muscle. This brings to question if the individual is getting better because of the movement, or the muscle’s increase in temperature and blood flow, we think it is likely a mixture of both.

Questions arise as to whether the individual just needed to warm up more or is relying too heavily on mind-muscle connection, not trusting their body to do what it needs to do, creating a sense of hyper-fragility.

Is the muscle inactive or does your technique need adjusting?

Often we see people prescribed activation exercises to help complete an exercise better. However, what we have found personally, is that adjusting the individual’s technique to suit their body type and structure may provide similar if not better results. In addition to this, there are so many factors that could be contributing to one’s feeling of ‘activity’, minor adjustments in the individual’s technique or programming may have the same effect.

Our thoughts on "Activation" exercises

If it always needs activation, have you considered if it is just weak?

What we have found is that individuals who continue to use activation exercises for the same muscle group and have not been diagnosed with a neurological condition conveying inhibition of the muscle’s ability to active may be better off isolating the muscle and loading it with strength-based exercises. Isolating the muscle and strengthening it may resolve these feelings of ‘inactivity’. Strengthening the muscle is one of the best ways to get it more involved in particular movements if that is the goal.

Strengthening the muscle is one of the best ways to get it more involved in particular movements if that is the goal.

Is activation a waste of time?

We do not believe so, despite the evidence being inconclusive of their efficacy. After injury, or the presence of pain, muscles may become less active, and they may weaken. we can understand why such exercises may be prescribed in this setting.

We note that the repeated frequency of doing these movements, targeting particular ‘hard to hit’ areas in isolation can benefit some people, particularly if they have issues using this muscle during exercise. However, we tread on the side of caution, as we are not proponents of placing dependence on such movements before exercising and believe adjustments to technique or better exercise selection can have the same result.

Our thoughts on "Activation" exercises

Final thoughts

The biggest issue with activation exercises is that they aren’t clearly defined in comparison to strength exercises. Many activation exercises could be the same thing as a strengthening exercise but it has the term ‘activation’ put on it instead. The other key issue is that these exercises for many people create a fear of movement. We have seen countless people say ” I can’t squat until I have done my activation exercises“. Be assured, if you are not injured, the human body is not that fragile, you can do whatever you need to do when the time comes. Our ancestors were not worried about activating before they did their daily tasks, nor should you.

Our ancestors were not worried about activating before they did their daily tasks, nor should you.

These exercises have helped countless people in rehabilitation settings, however, the issue arises when people are no longer injured or have progressed beyond this, yet still think they need to do these movements to function. Here at Performance United, we do not often call our exercises ‘activation’ exercises, however, we do understand the ability of these exercises to activate a muscle more so than it was previously. We believe that this activation is likely due to the muscle being warmer than it previously was, stronger than it previously was, or the individual has learnt how to use it due to the repetitive nature of these isolation movements.

To conclude, in the right context, such exercises or labels can be helpful for some people, as long as it does not create a fear of movement around what their body is capable.


References

  1. Crow, J.F., Buttifant, D., Kearny, S.G. & Hrysomallis, C., 2012. Low load exercises targeting the gluteal muscle group acutely enhance explosive power output in elite athletes. *The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research*, 26(2), pp.438-442.
  2. Barry, L., Kenny, I. & Comyns, T., 2016. Performance effects of repetition specific gluteal activation protocols on acceleration in male rugby union players. *Journal of human kinetics*, 54(1), pp.33-42.
  3. Comyns, T., Kenny, I. & Scales, G., 2015. Effects of a low-load gluteal warm-up on explosive jump performance. *Journal of human kinetics*, 46, pp.177.
  4. Healy, R. & Harrison, A.J., 2014. The effects of a unilateral gluteal activation protocol on single leg drop jump performance. *Sports Biomechanics*, 13(1), pp.33-46.
  5. Cochrane, D.J., Harnett, M.C. & Pinfold, S.C., 2017. Does short-term gluteal activation enhance muscle performance?. *Research in Sports Medicine*, 25(2), pp.156-165.
  6. Paoli, A., Mancin, L., Saoncella, M., Grigoletto, D., Pacelli, F.Q., Zamparo, P., … & Marcolin, G., 2019. Mind-muscle connection: effects of verbal instructions on muscle activity during bench press exercise. *European Journal of Translational Myology*, 29(2).
  7. Fisher, B.E., Southam, A.C., Kuo, Y.L., Lee, Y.Y. & Powers, C.M., 2016. Evidence of altered corticomotor excitability following targeted activation of gluteus maximus training in healthy individuals. *Neuroreport*, 27(6), pp.415-421

This is not medical advice, always consult your healthcare professional when making a decision as to what is right for you.

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