In recent years the phrase ” activation exercises” has been thrown around to help with muscles that aren’t “firing” properly when people exercise or are in pain . This observation seems to be made despite the absence of any real scientific assessment of the individuals muscle activity. As renowned coach and and movement specialist Vern Gambetta points out ” if they ain’t firing you ain’t moving”.
He does make the analogy that when a person is injured then the body looks to its “reserve players” to help play the game . Part of injury management is about bringing the main players back into the team. This means redressing the strength and endurance deficits as well as the coordination of the muscles that help perform an activity
Are activation exercises more about getting the movement patterns “primed” for an activity ?
The purpose of a warm-up before exercise or sport is to prepare the body for the upcoming activity and maximise performance. The warm-up is often includes a ‘activation’ exercises which are thought to promote and improve the recruitment of specific muscle groups.
It has been thought that by performing these low intensity body weight exercises may be beneficial in “waking up ” or “priming” the nervous system for more demanding activities such as running , weightlifting or beginning training for sports.
As such there has been increasing interest and inclusion of activation exercises into individuals warm ups in the gym and sports field in recent years.
Is there any evidence to support using activation exercises ?
Most of the research appears to have been done looking at targeting the power generating hip muscles or glutes. This is because they are integral in effective movement and maximum power development for activities such as running , jumping ,changing direction. Also they play a role in the prevention of hip, knee and ankle injuries.
Do activation exercises provide any benefit in the warm up ?
Do activation exercises help to improve the way you move ?
One study demonstrated that there was a trend towards reducing the classic “valgus” knee position that is often implicated in many ankle knee and hip injuries. Despite the results being non -significant in a research sense these small changes may help with preventing unnecessary non -contact injuries.
The exercises they used were :
single leg squat.Hip extension in a plank position.
side plank with hip extension.
Do activation exercises help improve performance ?
In another study looked at a specific activation warm using 7 exercises in 30 Aussie rules football players and how it affected their jumping ability.
The study found that there was a 4% improvement in their jumping ability when using this type of warm up. However this was not as good as when the players used higher load type exercises in their warm up. Also the more highly trained the individual the less benefit they seemed to get from them.
Contrary to that study are others that have shown little to no benefit from including these exercises into the warm up for competitive sports.
Should you include activation exercises in your warm up ?
The million dollar question and the answer is … it depends.
It would appear that they have some benefit however small. This may be significant to you in your training or chosen sport but may not appear significant from a research front.
Personally i am a proponent of making sure any warm up exercises are specific and closely related to the main activity to be performed. The further away they are from a movement or activity then the smaller the impact they will have on the main event so to speak.
However if you feel they are working then where is the harm and maybe that’s the most important factor.
3)Cochrane DJ, Harnett MC, Pinfold SC. Does short-term gluteal activation enhance muscle performance? Res Sports Med. 2017 Apr-Jun;25(2):156-165.
4)Gambetta V: Muscles firing , where is the switch ?