“Dave, what’s your opinion on activation exercises?”
This question cave from a client during the week, he asked it after observing me working with another client who need guys technique changed due to an injury.
Activation exercises are useful I told him, but like many things, people get the wrong end of the stick with them.
Usually an activation exercise is a controlled, low load movement selected to target, as specifically as possible, a certain set of muscle fibres.
Perhaps the most common areas targeted for activation would be the Glutes, particularly the Glute med and the mid Traps and /or rhomboid area.
Are these common problems areas that clients have issues with? Absolutely.
Are the pain science guys reading this and shaking their heads? Probably.
Do activation exercises work? Often, but usually temporarily
Are they misused? Abso-fucking-lutely!
Like the foam roller, stretching and mobility work, activation drills can be over done to the point that it takes you longer to warm up than it does to train.
There are people getting out their mini bands and spending 20 minutes or so on their glutes. 3 sets of 10 for the left glute med 3 sets of 10 for the right glute med 3 sets of 10 for the left glute minimus 3 sets of 10 for the right glute minimus 3 sets of 10 for the left inferior gemellus 3 sets of 10 for the right inferior gemellus
And so on.
A screenshot of a Google search on “activation exercises”
Is this really necessary? I don’t think it is.
The idea is, you stimulate a muscle to fire in isolation to “activate” it, then you integrate it. Not like the old body building protocol of Isolate and Exhaust where you train a target muscle in isolation then go to a compound movement that incorporates said muscle so it gets worked further.
This works. Try a few X-band walks immediately prior to deadlifts. Try some band pull aparts immediately prior to pressing.
Where do Activation Exercises fail?
If you are constantly having to activate a muscle, or for that matter, stretch a muscle or foam roll a muscle. Then take a hint. That muscle isn’t the problem. That muscle is a symptom.
Let’s take the middle traps as an example. If every training session you have to activate them with band pull aparts or prone Y’s and T’s, have you considered why they aren’t firing in their preprogrammed, natural and reflexive manner?
Is it because they’re in an anatomically weak position to fire? Are your shoulders rounded forward? Is your head carried forward? Are either of those points significant?
What if you tucked that chin while looking straight ahead, can you now voluntarily contract those mid traps? If yes, congratulations, you’re on the way to permanently active traps. If no, try something else. Then something else and then something else.
Or better still, book in with someone trained to spot these things.
From a mechanical perspective, muscles that are improperly loaded, tend to become tetchy. Either becoming painful or “going to sleep”
From a neuroscience perspective, we can “choose” to adjust the way our tissues load and unload as a protective response to an injury.
And from a training perspective, we can create muscular imbalances very easily if we’re not paying attention.
All of which can lead us to that constant search for the right activation exercise or the right stretch.
But how do you know which ones are the right ones?
P.S. muscles don’t “sleep” is merely a descriptive teen we use, many explanations for how the body really operates are ridiculously complicated, so simpler stories are used to convey the message. Don’t take everything you read literally.