The application of muscle activation techniques is increasing among gym goers and the fitness coaches they hire, which is great. But, like most things in the health and fitness industry, there’s more information than guidance.
This article is to provide information about the different ways we can activate a muscle so you can avoid wasting time and money guessing.
Before we dive into that let’s first talk about how a muscle can become over-stretched, inhibited, or weak therefore needing activation techniques.
How muscles become inhibited.
Rarely will a muscle become completely inactive, a muscle can be inhibited by another muscle overpowering it, the muscle just doesn’t know its place or action within a movement, or the joint moving isn’t in the ideal position for a certain muscle to be used or preferred.
One way a muscle or joint position may become inhibited is through the brains incredible feature neuroplasticity, a phenomenon called ‘neural smudging’ may occur. Through the information the brain receives from the body it creates an avatar of what your body looks like, and its name is the Homunculus man. Now because this avatar is created through information gathered from the body while exploring movement, you build your Homunculus man by moving and smudging him out if you stop moving or have pain.
To paint a clearer picture of this neural smudging in a protective sense remember back to a point in time you’ve had an injury like a broken finger that had to be pinned to the partnering finger to heal, or maybe a broken arm that had the elbow plasted for 6-8 months, can even be a time you’ve sprained an ankle and started limping. As the body is healing from something, say a broken finger, and you have your two fingers pinned together, your homunculus man molds two fingers to one, making a four-fingered hand. After you heal and your fingers are free from the pins it takes a few weeks to get used to using the five finger hand like you once did.
This is neuroplasticity’s neural smudging feature.
If the brains plasticity is the problem, the brains plasticity is also the solution.
Reciprocal inhibition is the term used for another way your muscle can be inhibited.
This describes the relaxation of muscles on one side of a joint to accommodate contraction on the other side. This flicking on and off of the antagonist’s muscles allows us to move freely, smoothly, and without lagging restrictions.
Through the theory of reciprocal inhibition, a joint imbalance will occur if one muscle is used excessively in comparison to its antagonist.
Poor posture and/or a poorly designed exercise program can create this problem. A poorly stacked posture will have a muscle on one side of the joint really loose, while the muscle on the other side is pulled super tight. To accommodate for this uncomfortable feeling, and to sit for hours, the loosened muscle becomes short and tight, while the other is stretched, and probably feeling sore after a few hours, becomes long and relaxed.
A poorly designed exercise program that overloads certain muscle groups over others will over time create a poor posture with the same side effects.
This is a hugely underappreciated tactic that our bodies have, it allows us to adapt to our daily duties with as little energy spent as possible. But as people’s day to day become less active and more repetitive this tactic now costs us.
The last way I’ll discuss how a muscle may become inhibited has a part to do with neuroplasticity again. We like to call this one a habitually confused muscle. After the brain receives the sensory input from the body the brain then sends out a motor output, and this motor output doesn’t always look pretty. Sometimes a muscle doesn’t know if it’s meant to stabilize a joint or move it, be a synergistic muscle or the prime mover, does the muscle do a single action or can it do more than it should?
Think of this as the wrong equalizer settings on a stereo.
So, with the above ways a muscle can be in a situation where it may need to be activated in mind we can match the different ways we can restore the muscle to the joint function.
A good entry point to activation techniques is doing it in isolation.
Great for rehab and beginners that aren’t body aware yet as this is the opportunity they get to practice controlling a single joint and searching for the movement or muscle. Once the target muscle is found contracting will help the brain hold onto it and slowly start to build the homunculus man. Only thing is, this method doesn’t have very far to progress as it doesn’t help the homunculus man understand how to use that muscle within a multi-joint functional movement. An example of this would be doing glute clams for glute med activation, this only helps you do calms better and has little cross-over to help prevent internal rotation during a squat or lunge.
How do we cross the bridge between an isolated activation like the clam to helping a squat or lunge?
Iso-integration or Proprioceptive touch
Proprioception is a sensory input and is your body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location. It’s present in every muscle movement you have. Without proprioception, you wouldn’t be able to move without thinking about your next step.
Altering your body’s perception through touch or iso-integration (isolating a muscle while integrated within a movement) techniques can help the brain activate a specific muscle that is lagging.
Once a muscle has been given neural activity, joint mechanics have been taught and what it feels like implementing iso-integration techniques is the crossover needed to improve the functional movement pattern.
For example, instead of, or straight after clams you could perform a lunge with a band pulling the knee into the midline. This serves the clams purpose of strengthening external rotation of the leg, but while performing the lunge – the functional movement that needs improvement. It’s isolating the glute med and integrating it into the lunge.
Another way proprioception can be altered is by simply touching. By touching or tapping on the target muscle while an exercise is being performed we can help the athlete locate the muscle and its action during a movement.
These techniques can easily be progressed from absolute beginners still learning movement to rehab settings, all the way to higher-level performance.
Hard for the beginner that doesn’t understand how to find the target muscle, or is able to hold good joint mechanics but fantastic for the athlete that does. Co-contraction techniques allow the athlete to be hyper-focused on a muscle at a certain joint range as little to no movement is occurring and increase strength endurance as we bridge back to performance.
The Irradiation theory comes from Sherringtons Law of Irradiation, which states:
“A muscle working hard recruits the neighboring muscles, and if they are already part of the action, it amplifies their strength. The neural impulses emitted by the contracting muscle reach other muscles and ‘turn them on’ as an electric current starts a motor.”
A real-life example would be attempting to open a door heavier than you first assumed. When you approach this door you may only think you need to contract the muscles within the hand and fingers to open the door. But if the door is heavier you will recruit the muscles of the forearm to help. Still too heavy? The upper arm may be recruited next. This process of muscle recruitment will continue until the door is open or all pull muscles are activated and you’ve now realized it’s a push door, not a pull…
To make this work within a program you will have to find an exercise that the muscle needing to be activated can help and maximally contract that limb. Hopefully, the stronger muscles will recruit the weaker muscles.
Joint angle advantages
The last method of muscle activation I like to use is finding exercises that place the target muscle in an advantaged position to integrate and strengthen a movement pattern. An exercise selection consideration most don’t think about is what length muscles are placed over a joint’s angle while executing a movement or lift. Often a shorter muscle will hold preference over a longer muscle to move or stabilize a joint.
A few examples would be if you wanted to activate Serratus Anterior for a better overhead press, instead of having the arm abducted laterally you could press with the arm in front which places a greater request for Serratus to be integrated. Or, if you needed better shoulder retraction for a bench press but the pec minor is inhibiting the lower trap from pulling the scapula downwards you could help the lower trap by performing an incline bench press which allows the shoulders to retract easier than the flat bench position.
For athletic performance to continue progressing with minimal injury stability must first be found. If you workout or live in a way that allows muscles to be overpowered it can create a strength gap whereby the strength gained far surpasses the strength of the inhibited, weak, or lagging muscle that, in the future will need ‘activation drills’ to assist with the pain, injury, or dysfunction you’re working with. Target the weakest areas to build strength and fitness up from there, if certain muscles need activation you now have some guidance to effectively do so.
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