• Alex Uding

Activation - A Quick Performance Game Changer

I am the type of gym goer who wants to get my workout done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because of this mentality, I tend to brush off prep work at the beginning so I can dive into my routine right away. The worst part is, I know better than this. As a physical therapist and coach, I know I am cheating myself from an optimized workout and denying my body the care it needs to keep moving well. Therefore, I am going to use this article as a call to action, not only for myself, but perhaps to help you learn the value in activation and mobility work. Together, let’s improve performance through good training routines.

What is activation?

Activation exercises are designed to help turn on our muscles to prepare for performance by enhancing communication between the brain and the body.

Why can activation benefit us?

1. Activation can help address strength and recruitment imbalances. Most of us have daily routines that have us move or position ourselves in ways that can cause us to repetitively use certain muscle groups and underuse other ones. These loading habits over time can cause potential imbalances within our body. If we then go to the gym or perform a workout after we have been in these positions for extended periods of time, we may be more predisposed to continuing to fire the muscles that have been on all day or underuse the muscles that haven’t been working. From here, the overused muscles have the potential to fatigue or risk being overworked and the underused muscles can get weak. Like most things in life, the body performs best when it is balanced. Activation is a great solution to helping with this!!

2. Activation improves coordination. Activation is about moving with intent and quality. The body often likes to turn on what it is good at versus what it should. Therefore, correct use of activation exercises targets specific muscle groups, making it important to know what you are trying to activate and that you are feeling it in the correct place. Learning to connect with the different muscles in our body improves coordination and utilization of the muscle groups we don’t use as frequently(1). In addition, they can down regulate the muscles we tend to overuse.

3. Turning on more muscles before we workout leads to better strength gains. As mentioned above, by accessing more muscles in our body through activation movements, we can utilize more muscles when we workout. Research has shown pre-activation enhances muscle recruitment during lifting(2,3). Therefore, more recruitment leads to improved strength gains.

4. Activation can help promote mobility and flexibility. When we have tendencies to over-recruit or position ourselves consistently in specific ways, we can develop stiffness in some muscle and excess movement at other locations. Activation exercises assist in accessing some of the ranges we may be stiff moving into and stabilize places where we may have been moving too much. By reducing recruitment of overactive muscle groups and utilizing other muscle groups, ranges of motion in the position of the activation exercise often increases with repetition(4,5).

5. Promotes positive movement patterns and reduces injury risk. Due to the fact activation exercises are meant to be specific in nature, they can be used to help mentally and physically prepare use for our workout routine. By creating a connection with the body, we can regulate our nervous system, stress, and focus to the workout. Bringing our attention to the task at hand can help us concentrate on the quality, control, and consistency of our movements. This can reinforce good movement patterns that will carry over into the techniques in our training session, potentially reducing injury risk(1,2).

What are recommendations for an activation routine?

1) Don’t make it last too long!! A big pitfall with activation is that we think it will add a lot more time to the workout, so we decide to ditch it. An efficient activation routine should not be more than 5-10 minutes. Personally, I know I can waste 10 minutes doing far less productive things than preparing physically and mentally for my workout!

2) Sets and Reps: About 1-2 sets of 10 -12 reps is plenty to tune in with your muscle groups and prep them for the workout they are about to endure.

3) Balance your muscle groups: Target your breathing muscles, shoulder blades and shoulders, trunk and abdominals, pelvic floor, and lower extremity muscle groups to make sure your whole body is ready to move. We will discuss in future articles some of our favorite activation exercises for these muscle groups, so stay tuned!!

4) Be mindful and methodical. Move slowly so you can ensure you are executing the movement appropriately. Closing your eyes, using hand placement on the muscle group we want to turn on, and intentional breath can help us target the exercise.

5) Ask us for help! If you are unsure where to begin or uncertain of the muscle groups exercises should be targeting, please ask us. We would love to help turn your workout routine into the best it can be!

Do you have activation favorites? Share them, we would love to hear from you! Together, let's get the most out of our training.


1. Chan MKY, Chow KW, Lai AYS, Mak NKC, Sze JCh, Tsang SMH. The effects of therapeutic hip exercise with abdominal core activation on recruitment of the hip muscles. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders. 2017;18:313.https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-017-1674-2.

2. Meierbachtoal A, Rohman E, Paur E, Bottoms J. Quantitative improvements in hop test scores after a 6-week neuromuscular training program. Sports Health.2016;9(1):22-29.

3. O'Halloran J, Milligan G, Old J, Sawaya A, Bowen J. The use of pre-activation exercise for the hamstrings to optimise the amount of muscle activity present within a nordic hamstring curl. Sports Biomech.2017: 923-926.

4. Oh J-S, Cynn H-S, Won J-H, Kwon O-Y, Yi C-H. Effects of performing an abdominal drawing-in maneuver during prone hip extension exercises on hip and back extensor muscle activity and amount of anterior pelvic tilt. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2007;37(6):320–4.

5. Presswood L, Cronin J, Keogh J, Whatman C. Gluteus medius: applied anatomy, dysfunction, assessment and progressive strengthening. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2008;30(5):41–53.

Empowering Your Movement Journey

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