If you want better looking, functional muscles, you must learn how to activate the appropriate muscles.
Muscle activation is everything in any movement practice. When we talk about muscle activation we are looking at how responsive specific muscles are to the signals being sent from your brain into the body.
Depending upon how quickly and effectively your muscles respond to brain stimulus is a great way to determine your current ability to activate your muscles.
The important thing to remember is everyone has a different level of ability and you can always improve this function with awareness and practice.
Whether it’s weight training, yoga, martial arts, pilates, running or any sport, you must know how to activate the proper muscles at the exact moment to fully excel in the moment.
There is a common misconception that form will keep you safe in athletics and the various movement practices. While form certainly is king, we could say activation is queen.
Many clients come to me with great exercise habits but find themselves stuck at certain plateaus or their joints flare up after intense workouts or athletic experiences. It never fails that once they learn to activate the major muscles offering support to the affected area of the body, the pain subsides or the plateaus are passed. There are numerous ways to diagnose and achieve activation in your muscles, but it is important to remember form is only a portion of the equation.
There are several areas that people generally lack awareness for activation. The top 4 that I find people have in common are the scapulas, the upper abdomen, the pelvic floor and the gluteal muscles.
Learning to activate these muscles groups will not only improve your fitness routine, but also improve how you perform daily tasks, such as sitting at a desk, driving a car, moving objects around your living environment and walking up and down stairs.
Scapular awareness appears to affect people the most in movement practices because the scapula is a major influencer of how well we move our arms and shoulders. When we lack awareness in the scapulas, we lack awareness in activating the major muscles groups that support our shoulders and core. (See my blog, “ Mini Pull Ups Give Major Results”)
Learning to activate the shoulder scapulas also helps activate the latissimus dorsi (the lats) which is imperative to maximize functionality and strength when pushing, pulling and overhead arm movement.
To activate the scapulas, you simply raise your shoulders up toward your ears and then gently draw your shoulders down your back. When you activate the scapulas, by default, you activate your latissimus dorsi (lats), which is the second largest muscle in the body. Once the lats are engaged, you will have more stability and ability within your upper body movement patterns.
The scapulas need to be activated before pushing or pulling until the climax of the movement has been reached, then reactivated as the motion is performed to return the weight or body back to its starting point.
The next major areas you must learn to properly activate is the upper abdomen and pelvic floor. These areas tend to go very well together to create a super strong functional core.
Practice activating these areas while you are sitting or standing around the house or work. I work on activating these core centers while sitting at my desk or driving in the car. See my blog, “ Real Men Vaccuum” for ways to activate your core.
Make sure to apply this activation technique when performing any major lift or intense movement. Couple this with the scapular activation technique to increase overall stability and strength.
Last But Not Least
Last are the gluteal muscles. Due to the excessive sitting our culture has created, most people don’t realize how deactivated our glutes have become.
Having awareness of glute activation is game changing on many levels. This next activation cue is an oldie but a goodie. When standing, you can test glute activation by pretending you are squeezing a penny between your glute muscles. You should experience intense engagement. If you don’t then this is something to work on. Pretending to squeeze a penny creates extreme activation. We only need about 50% of this activation intensity to do the trick.
You can also test glute activation by placing your foot on top of a step or box. Begin applying pressure into the heel. Notice your glute muscle on the raise leg activate. This should be the awareness given to every step during a lunge routine, squats or walking up and down stairs.
When you are bracing yourself to move weight with your lower body or just standing around notice how much more stabile you feel if you use this technique to engage your glute muscles.
Having awareness of activating these major muscle centers will provide you new strength and stability in all movement practices. Because these areas can be difficult at first, be sure to take the progress slowly and allow yourself time to find the proper activation within each area before testing the concepts with heavy weight or intense movement.
Having a balanced fitness lifestyle will also support quicker progress in these areas of activation. Many people like to stay with one discipline; however, I recommend having at least 2 that complement each other. The key is to give yourself various opportunities to apply this new knowledge so you can fully understand the importance of activation.
Josh was born and raised in Lexington, KY. He played collegiate soccer at Transylvania University where he also studied business and psychology. Upon graduating college in 2002 he chose to begin a professional career as a restaurateur. Josh watched his business grow exponentially over the course of a decade, while he watched his health steadily declined. In 2011 Josh developed a mysterious disease, that modern medicine could not explain. He decided to embark on an optimal health journey to discover a cure. His journey lead him to receive his certifications as a personal trainer, RKC Kettlebell instructor and Yoga Alliance instructor. Josh’s unique combination of business, personal training and ayurvedic nutrition experience organically spawned a system that is guaranteed to upgrade the life of everyone from office executive to professional athlete. Josh now pursues his passion in teaching others to find their perfect work, life balance.
Main Photo Credit & Fourth Photo Credit: Jasminko Ibrakovic/shutterstock.com; Second Photo Credit: wavebreakmedia/shutterstock.com; Third Photo Credit: Undrey/shutterstock.com