You know it’s important to warm up properly before strength training—but does your warm-up involve activation exercises? This common strategy is used by athletes, bodybuilders, and recreational fitness enthusiasts alike—and makes a significant difference in your workouts.
Here’s what to know about activation exercises—and how to incorporate them into your routine.
What Are Activation Exercises?
Activation exercises are typically small, isolation exercises used to “wake up” a target muscle group. A great example I think many people are familiar with: using band exercises to activate their glutes before a lower-body workout.
There are two primary areas in which activation exercises can be extremely useful:
1. Large Muscle Groups
Typically, the larger a muscle, the more difficult it is to voluntarily activate. Small muscle groups like the biceps, for example, are extremely easy to activate, while the quads are one of the most difficult muscle groups to activate. Anecdotal evidence and training experience also supports the theory that glutes don’t activate very well. Therefore, activation exercises can be useful for “waking up” larger, difficult-to-activate muscle groups.
2. Small, Often-Overpowered Muscles
Activation exercises also allow you to isolate small muscles that are often overpowered by larger muscles. Though typically easier to activate, these small muscles don’t produce as much force as larger muscles.
A common example here: the rotator cuff group. Though active during all kinds of pushing and pulling exercises, these muscles are never really the prime movers. Therefore, activation exercises can help you provide a greater training stimulus and strengthen them. While developing small muscle groups like the rotator cuff may not do a ton for your physique, it can improve joint function and stability, which are very important for training longevity.
How To Use Activation Exercises
Ultimately, how you incorporate activation exercises into your training program depends on your goals. Typically, people perform them at the beginning of their workout in order to “feel” the muscles they’ll be targeting a little better.
If you usually have a hard time feeling your glutes during squats, for example, you may have a more difficult time exaggerating your glute contraction. Activation exercises come in to help smooth out your mind-muscle connection, making it easier to feel your glutes more. Ultimately, this can be beneficial if you’re performing squats with the goal of improving your glute aesthetics.
If you’re using activation exercises to show smaller muscle groups like your rotator cuff some love, you have two options:
1. During Your Warm-Up
You can perform rotator cuff exercises before your workout to ensure that these small stabilizing muscles are ready to do their job in your workout. To avoid fatiguing these muscles and sacrificing some joint stability, I recommend finding a volume level at which you can wake up the rotator cuff (or similar muscle groups) without fatiguing them. Since most people don’t specifically target these muscles, they might fatigue pretty easily the first few times you add in some activation exercises.
2. As A Finisher
You can also perform these exercises later on in a workout once your larger muscles are fatigued. (We typically encourage people to train larger muscles early on in a workout and progress to smaller muscles.) If your goal is to strengthen these muscles as much as possible, do a set or two early on and then another three or four more challenging sets later on.
Activation Techniques To Try
Now that you’re convinced you should probably add some activation exercises into your routine, here are a few specific ideas to try.
Probably the most common activation technique out there, band work is extremely useful for improving your mind-muscle connection with your glutes. There’s a wealth of band exercises for the glutes, but banded glute walks are my personal favorite. You can perform these in a side-to-side or forward-and-backward fashion (which some refer to as “monster walks”).
Whichever approach you choose, focus on keeping your feet as wide as possible and tension in your glutes. If you want a real challenge, try placing the band around your ankles instead of just above your knees. Shoot for two or three sets of 10 steps in each direction.
You can also use bands and perform hip rotation and abduction exercises, like fire hydrants and clamshells. These can be helpful for isolating the smaller glute muscles, the gluteus medius and minimus.
Like I mentioned earlier, the rotator cuff is active during many pushing and pulling exercises, but it is mostly isolated in shoulder rotation exercises. This includes internal and external rotations and can be performed at a variety of angles. I typically recommend that people start internal and external rotation exercises with their elbows at their side. As you get stronger, start moving your elbow away from your side. I usually prefer small bands for these, as they help keep tension on the muscle throughout the entire exercise.
For activation purposes, do one or two sets of 10 reps of both internal and external rotations. For strengthening purposes, do three to four sets of 10 to 20 reps.
Some people have a hard time feeling their chest during bench press exercises. For these people, I recommend activating with some chest flies before performing benching. If possible, use a machine or cables to keep tension on the pecs the entire time.
Shoot for two sets of 15-20 reps with a light weight. Take your time and really think about targeting your chest. You don’t want to fatigue it, but you do want to wake it up!
The lats can occasionally be another muscle group that people have a hard time feeling during pulling exercises. If this is the case, I like to activate with lightweight cable straight arm pulldowns so you can really focus on pulling from the lats.
Again, I’d only shoot for about two sets of 15 to 20 reps so you don’t fatigue the lats, but this can help get your mind-muscle connection rolling for your bigger back exercises.
This one is a little more uncommon in recreational fitness settings, but it is a common practice in strength sports like powerlifting. It’s important to keep in mind that our abs are tasked not only with stabilizing the spine and pelvis, but also with transferring force between the lower and upper body. If your abs aren’t awake, they might not perform these functions to the best of their ability.
An easy way to remedy this: Perform a 15-second front plank and a 15-second side plank on each side. This recommendation comes from Dr. Stuart McGill, Ph.D., one of the most highly-regarded spine and abdominal experts in the field. This simple 45-second warmup can be very useful for getting your core ready for heavy squats or deadlifts and, in my experience, people often report less lower back tightness after using it.
The Bottom Line
No matter what your goal is, activation exercises can be a useful tool. In addition to supporting joint stability and training safety, they also promote muscle development and overall performance. Just keep in mind that you’re aiming to activate the muscle before training, rather than fatiguing it. Fatiguing the muscle before training it will only make it more difficult to activate during the actual workout, which is the opposite of what you want!
References & Further Reading
- Muscle & Nerve: Intermuscle differences in activation.
- Journal of Applied Physiology: Voluntary activation level and muscle fiber recruitment of human quadriceps during lengthening contractions.
- Journal of Applied Physiology: Older adults can maximally activate the biceps brachii muscle by voluntary command.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.