Is Muscle Activation a Myth?

Around ten years ago this idea became popular that you must activate muscles prior to starting an activity, especially muscles that would be considered weak. In the last couple of years however, it’s come out that this isn’t really true. Muscles are either strong or they aren’t, there’s really no benefit to “turning muscles on” when they are still weak afterwards. A common example that I have heard almost endlessly would be: your glutes aren’t working, we need to “activate” them. And the next step would be to do some glute bridges or band resisted side-steps to, theoretically, turn on that muscle group.

The goal of this blog post is to talk about this idea of warming-up the body vs activating muscles vs strengthening muscles, and how I approach this today. 

Ten years ago, muscle activation was a cutting edge practice, so I adopted it as well because the information presented at the time made sense to me. Again, and especially at the time, the most common muscle group that seemingly always needed to be activated would be the glutes, with trainers and strength coaches and personal trainers alike all saying they need to be “turned on” to protect against knee injury. 

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At that time we would do lots activation drills in our dynamic warmup, which is one of the things I’ve changed my mind on a bit. I don't at all believe that we are mitigating injury risk in that moment by “activating” the glutes. The muscles are just weak, and it will take time to build the strength in those muscles to actually reduce the risk for injury. 

It’s a lot easier to say that someone got hurt because they didn’t “activate” their glutes, instead of telling the truth and saying the athlete is just weak in that area. The real solution is to continue to lift weights and get stronger. That's not the solution that people want to hear, because it's not a quick fix. Long term solutions are not nearly as popular as short term ones, but you have to actually get into a long term strength training program to get permanently stronger to have the best chance of staying injury free. 

However, I'm not sure you would see a massive difference in my written warm-ups between then and now. That's what's interesting about this. The thing that has changed is the mental side, or what I'm actually saying to my players. Instead of saying we are “activating” muscles, I say that we are just getting extra reps to warm-up. I will put in glute bridges of all kinds and add in monster walks to every pre-practice warm-up. But not because I’m activating a muscle, but because these are things that make the players feel good, and they are helping strengthen those muscles. It's the extra reps that are slowly playing their part in strengthening the hips. During the season when I’m trying to strike the best possible minimum effective dose (i.e., we don’t do one rep more than needed) and a frequent game schedule, this may be the only way we are able to train these muscles, as big lifts are few and far between in-season.

For me, everything always comes back to strength. Muscles don’t need to be “activated”, they need to be strengthened. A funny thing I’ve seen over the years is that when younger coaches look at “old school” training programs prioritizing squatting, deadlifting, and lunging, they are surprised at how simple they are. They think this can’t be everything, am I missing a page? 

But there's not, it just always comes back to the fundamentals. Strength is the base and that’s what I prioritize. I’m always looking for new things to add in to help build that base of strength, but the longer I do this the more I realize that it’s about getting stronger in very basic fundamental exercises. Athlete longevity and success, I firmly believe, is about being strong and having great technique.

This whole thing reminds me of the dramatic shifts that occur in science and medicine in relatively short time periods. When I was growing up, the idea was that you were supposed to put infants on their stomachs to sleep (because if they slept on their backs they might die). By the time that I had kids, it was the exact opposite, now they were supposed to sleep on their backs (because if they sleep on their stomachs they might die!). It only took 20-30 years to completely change the idea of how an infant is supposed to sleep. And this isn’t about the semantics or intention of activating or strengthening a muscle, this is about actual life and death!

So when we come to strength training and exercise science, you must use the common sense that comes with experience because the field itself is so young. That’s as a coach or as an athlete. Athletes have a pretty good sense of what is good or bad for them and what will or won’t work for them. 

The point is that even if you’re completely new or have a ton of experience, still listen to new ideas, but think about them before you take them as law. The biggest mistake is to just completely listen to someone, without remembering that the field is very new, and it’s changing all the time. This is why the main thing that changed about my warmups is my understanding of what we're doing and why. The methods used are still fairly similar, but the intention has shifted.

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