Muscle activation exercises: how they work and why they are important

Ever wondered why exactly activation exercises and drills are important and how they differ to static stretches? Dominic Richmond from explains what you need to know, and shares some good exercises for activating the glutes, a group of key muscles for running and cycling

Muscle activation exercises: how they work and why they are important

 Activation exercises and drills drills are based on a principle taken from the field of strength and conditioning, and utilised in the field of physiotherapy in order to facilitate both pre-hab and rehab.

Advertisement MPU article

They are much more than a quick stretch. Static stretches can increase your flexibility, but activation drills are designed to prepare your nervous system for the exercise you are about to do, and begin activating the muscles you will be using, whilst increasing your range of motion.

The idea is to switch on key muscles to help prevent injury and improve your performance ahead of the task you are about to complete, whether it be a park run, bike ride, tennis match or even some Sunday morning bowls.

Your muscles are activated by electrical signals sent from the brain. These signals trigger motor units, which subsequently causes contraction of the fibres that they control. Each motor unit is responsible for only some of the fibres in the muscle it controls; for instance, the calf may have 20 motor units.

Each motor unit operate by an ‘all or nothing’ system, meaning they are either firing or not. Therefore, the amount of units activated depends on the size of the signal and their thresholds. If you’re mechanically efficient your motor units are being activated in good synchronicity with other motor units in other muscles, allowing the same force produced at a much smaller energy cost. Some motor units can become over used and more readily available, while some can become underused and less readily available.

The term ‘key muscles’ is relevant here. It is very important to be specific and in order to do this we must perform movement analysis and couple this with the demands of your task. Only then can we carefully pick exercises for the correct muscles, although it is true even general drills can be useful.

Remember to do these ahead of a pulse-raising warm up, as this can increase efficiency. If you are not training on a given day it is still really useful to find time to complete these exercises in order to reinforce neurological patterns (muscle activation pathways).

Activation drills are not going to make you sweat, scream with the discomfort of lactic acid build up. So if you are wondering how to know if they work, some postural muscles give off a very localised dull ache when being activated.

Another fool-proof way to check if an activation drill is working is to feel the muscles you’re trying to switch on, are they soft during the movement? If so they there is a good chance they are not working… Can you feel the contracting? Bingo – they are activating.

Feeling the muscles also provides a sensory input that prompts muscular activation, so checking the muscles are activating is always important. The more you do these exercises, the quicker the muscles are activated and the more transferable activation come to other tasks, this making you more mechanically efficient and less at risk of injury!

Practice makes perfect and consistency breeds change – so keep at it.

If you are worried about any kind of soft tissue injury or medical issue it is best to seek medical advice and get it checked out by a physiotherapist.  

Dominic Richmond is a Chartered Physiotherapist with PhysioFixx

Advertisement MPU article

Click here to find more glute activation exercises, which are good for cycling and running