Muscle “activation” – The questions I have
I have been thinking about the whole notion of activating muscle groups prior to a strength or conditioning drill and its efficacy and validity of late. To clarify, I am speaking of a drill done for the purpose of ‘bringing more motor units into play that are needed for the subsequent multi-joint task.’ It is often an isometric drill/action.
Now, when I say, “Of late” – I actually mean for about the past 5 years, since some well-known and respected practitioners began advocating the use of activation drills to prepare the body for movement and/or velocity and/or load.
I have experimented with it, tested it with different sample groups, tried it on myself, but I am still not buying it….well not 100%. So, instead of throwing the notion out, I have decided to tackle it from a more clinical-research standpoint and ask some good questions. I really want to know: ”Is it really necessary, or WHEN is it necessary to perform an isometric type muscle action prior to a drill or lift for the purpose of performance enhancement on that drill?”
So, I began my formal enquiry today with an academic search, entering these key words: Muscle activation warm-up. I found 2 articles. 2 articles! I know I must not stop here and draw a conclusion. I found a LOT on dynamic warm-up and its effect on muscle activation patterns, but this is not the same thing, or rather, what the well-known practitioners are saying. So, I went to trusty google to find some sources and got over 140K hits, plus a whole bunch of you-tube university videos of how to activate muscle before your workout. I am not happy with this gap between the real science and the blog-world; perhaps I am not searching appropriately.
But, my purpose for blogging/writing about this today is not to winge about my search or the lack of formal research done in this area, but rather to raise some more questions (that I personally have) about this whole notion of activating a muscle group prior to a strengthening drill or movement drill.
I would be very happy if we could all work together to draw some great scientific conclusions here.
Is it necessary for all athletes / fitness participants to do?
I will answer my own question here, which is full of anecdote: “No, I do not think so.” I truly believe some athletes do well with a general warm-up to raise body temperature, some dynamic movements and mobility drills to increase pliability of tissue and lubricate joints and of course, warm-up sets with lighter loads and slower tempos to get going. I have worked with some really powerful athletes who, as soon as you give them a mini-band and ask them to do a walk, their glutes are on fire within seconds. These same athletes light up like a Xmas tree in a plank drill and this only makes them feel tight and fatigued prior to a lift. I have seen written programs for hockey players (typically tight, powerful kids) with a list of activation drills a mile long. By the time they get through them the only thing they might be prepared to do is crawl back into the womb because it literally makes them tighter.
I think, it is the hypermobile person that can really benefit from these isometric drills – it is almost like going in with a screwdriver to each articulation and tightening their bodies up to create tension, which is necessary for them to do so they do not load their bodies inappropriately. These types of clients have a lesser ability to recruit, due to genetics and perhaps exposure (training history). They may need the extra stimulation.
It is also those with a low exercise I.Q. (not much knowledge of their body or training) that may need the extra feedback to elicit the correct response, but to be honest, if you really know your motor learning research, you would know that the brain learns better from extrinsic cues than intrinsic cues (like body position and parts) anyways. So, perhaps they benefit from ‘activation drills.’
Does it improve strength? Does it improve performance?
From my quick search today, and from what I can see in the research a general warm-up (raise body temp) combined with a specific warm-up (do the intended movements) seems to be the best combo for performance in measurable performance parameters like vertical jump or squat strength. I did not find anything on the use of an isometric drill to ‘activate’ a certain muscle group or awaken a movement pattern and its relationship to performance. In fact, I would hypothesize that it is very dose – specific, meaning if you do too much activation, then it becomes ‘pre-exhaustion’ and thus would either decrease performance or change intermuscular recruitment patterns.
What precisely is the benefit?
For example – why do we need to do a single leg glute bridge prior to a linear strength day? What exact effect does it have on the nervous system? Please enlighten me!
Is it supposed to improve recruitment?
Why use the term: “Muscle Activation”
Why not stick with science and say motor unit recruitment? Isn’t that what we are trying to do: Recruit more motor units for a given task in a specific sequence so we are stronger and more powerful and even more efficient?
I would love some input on this post – to me, my blog must be about asking more questions and giving everyone an opportunity to think twice about what they are doing. Please feel free to post on my Human Motion facebook page, or email me directly at email@example.com
Thanks for tuning in!
Yours in strength,
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