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

Triathlete cycling at Kona

 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.


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.

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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.

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

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

Dominic Richmond is a Chartered Physiotherapist with

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Side Lying Clam

Lie on your side with your feet and knees together. Hips and knees should be flexed at 30-45 degrees. Keeping your feet together, slowly lift your top knee up and then lower it down.

Perform at a tempo of 2 seconds up and 2 seconds down.

12 repetitions on each side.




Gluteal bridge

Lie on your back with your feet on the floor and knees up. Feet and knees, hip width apart. Push through your feet lifting your hips into the air, concentrate on the squeeze of your buttock muscles.

Perform at a tempo of 2 seconds up and 2 seconds down.

12 repetitions.




Fire hydrant 

– In 4-point kneeling have your hands directly beneath your shoulders and your knees directly beneath your hips. Slowly push your knee up and out to the side, while maintaining a level pelvis. Hold for 2 seconds and slowly lower to your starting position.

Perform at a tempo of 2 seconds up and 2 seconds down.

12 repetitions on each side.





Gluteal prompt squat 

– In standing, place a resistance band just above your knees. Start with hips slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Descend down to the bottom of a squat while ‘tearing the band apart’.

Return to standing while maintaining tension on the band.

Perform at a tempo of 2 seconds up and 2 seconds down.

12 repetitions.

Monster walk (gluteal activation) 

Tie a resistance band around your ankles.

Begin in standing with your knees slightly flexed. Take a step to the left or right, while maintaining a bend in the knees. Now bring the trailing leg towards the leading leg making sure the movement is slow and controlled.

Try to keep your hips at the same height and level throughout.

Perform at a tempo of 2 with the trailing leg.   12 repetitions on each direction.  


Runner’s March activation 

In a standing position apply a resistance band around one knee so the resistance is pull your knee towards the midline. Starting from a standing position, lift your knee up to a high march position, making sure it does not drift inwards. Pause, and then slowly lower your leg to the ground. It is important that the rest of the body stays as still as possible.

Perform at a tempo of 2 seconds up and 2 seconds down.


12 repetitions on each side