The human body is a beautiful, intricate machine. Its numerous cogs and bolts – the connected and synchronous muscles, bones, and joints – keep it running, facilitating a variety of specialised movements. And, like all intricate machines, the body needs ‘maintenance’ and handling with care.
The amount of stress or load borne by the muscles and joints, which work during movement, is a miracle. However, when subjected to excessive or undue loading (be it due to constant sitting, or intense workouts), things can snap. A third of the sports injuries reported in clinics are muscular injuries related to improper or inadequate activation before physical activity.
This is where having a consistent activation routine can make all the difference — it prevents injuries by ensuring the muscles remain supple and don’t weaken over time.
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Muscle activation (a set of exercises for priming specific muscles) is important ahead of any form of physical exertion – be it a gym workout, a game of football, cycling, swimming or running, arguably the most popular and natural fitness activity around. Runners (from sprinters to marathoners) primarily employ lower-body muscles, in addition to the core and a few major upper-body muscles. Muscle activation should be an integral part of their warm-up routine to significantly improve performance and deter injuries.
Activation is also recommended for sedentary individuals. So, not just athletes or fitness enthusiasts, everyone needs to include muscle activation exercises in their daily lives, say fitness experts.
What is muscle activation?
Samruddhi Zemse, a certified nutritionist and fitness coach from Pune, Maharashtra, defines activation as a “means to make something ready for work, [or in other words] activating the muscles to prepare for the long task”.
“If you have a bike that you want to ride, you will first turn it on, then wait for a few seconds for the engine to run smoothly or warm up before you twist the throttle,” says Samruddhi, founder-CEO of ATHLARC. “Why? So that the engine shouldn’t shut down or give a jerk and [then] go off. The same is with our body — when we try to perform a task, we need to turn on our muscles so that it shouldn’t be injured [from] sudden shock.”
Muscle activation = warmup?
Muscle activation and warmups are closely related. A typical workout includes a few warmup exercises, followed by the main workout/sport/activity, and ends with a cooldown or stretching routine.
But there is a subtle difference between warmup and activation.
“Where warmup is mainly focused on the whole body, including joints, giving a small kick to each muscle, muscle activation is specific to the needs of the sport for better performance,” says Samruddhi. “Warmup and muscle activation go hand in hand. By muscle activation, you also pinpoint the muscles that have become stiff due to training and ease them up. So basically, if there are any imbalances in the specific muscle group, you can use muscle-activation technique.”
The RAMP warmup model, developed by Dr Ian Jeffreys, professor of strength and conditioning at the University of South Wales, is a good representation of what an ideal warmup routine could look like. RAMP stands for Raise the body temperature, Activate and Mobilise the muscles, and Potentiate (mimic the activity for neuromuscular skill development). Many sports physiotherapists and fitness coaches use this model to prep their trainees prior to games, activities or workouts.
Muscle activation and performance
Gopakumar V, a senior physiotherapist and sports performance enhancement specialist and director-founder of Corephysio Academy of Sports Sciences, Bengaluru, says activation helps in maximising the working potential of a muscle.
“The key muscle groups involved in running are quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes,” says Gopakumar. “Activation of these key muscle groups will allow to see improvement in running performance. Doing proper warmups, followed by exercises, will keep them activated.”
During intense activities, muscles have to exert maximum force in a short period of time. Gopakumar says activation helps improve the ability to store energy between eccentric and concentric muscle contractions. It makes the muscle fibres stronger and more flexible. This, ultimately, advances running performance, speed and endurance.
Specific routine for runners
Activation exercises vary from sport to sport. The muscle groups to be targeted and activated for runners include the glutes, quads, calves and hamstrings, and secondary muscle groups corresponding to the lower body.
“The activation must be specific not only to the sport, but to individual abilities,” says Gopakumar. “In sprinters, large numbers of fast-twitch muscle fibres are required to accelerate in a transient period, whereas for long-distance runners a greater number of slow-twitch muscle fibres are required to maintain their own pace during a relatively long-lasting race.”
So, in running, activation routines must be prepared based on the distance, intensity and fitness levels.
Samruddhi lists out some common exercises to activate the muscle groups involved in running. “Always start from the top to bottom while targeting muscles during activation,” she says. “So, start with the glutes, then flexors, then quads and hams, and lastly the calves.”
- Glutes: Hip circles, single leg glute bridge, donkey kicks, lateral leg lifts, and standing/cable kickbacks. Resistance bands can be also used to add a little extra load.
- Hip flexors: Standing wall psoas march, standing lunges, donkey kicks and lateral leg lifts. Training the hip flexors helps runners improve pace. They consist of four main muscles, among which psoas and iliacus work together to bring the thigh muscle up and take steps quicker if activated.
- Hamstrings: Hamstring pikes, Romanian deadlift and single leg glute bridge. Samruddhi recommends hamstring pikes, which are “similar to the hip thrust, but you have to elevate your leg”.
- Calves: Calf raises, toe walks and wall sits. Each exercise can be performed for 30-40 seconds.
Does stretching help activation?
A common confusion that even seasoned athletes have is whether stretching should be performed before workout or during cooldown. It is important in both cases, but the exercises and the way they are done vary.
“Dynamic means active or activity, so dynamic stretching means activity or movement-based stretching,” says Samruddhi Zemse. “Dynamic stretches prepare your body for movements that lie ahead. Therefore, they are performed prior to the workout. Static stretches, as the name suggests, are performed in stationary position, which means you perform them by staying in one place. These stretches are performed by holding each stretch for 20-30 seconds to get a deep stretch in the intended muscle group. These stretches are performed after the activity and are also called cooldown.
“So, dynamic stretches are done when the body is cold and needs to warm up before exercise to prevent injury, whereas static stretches are performed when the body is warm after exercise and needs to be cooled down to increase the range of motion and flexibility of the muscle groups.
Risks of insufficient warmup
“Warming up helps gradually increase your heart rate and breathing to a level that will be able to meet the demands of your workout,” says Gopakumar. “If you start exercising at a strenuous level without warming up first, you will place unnecessary stress on your heart and lungs. Warming up is a significant component of fitness routine, and skipping it could result in unpleasant and dangerous results. Muscle strains, muscle injury and pain are just a few of them.”
According to a 2007 review article published in the journal Sports Medicine, muscular injury is highly prevalent among athletes, both recreational and professional. Injuries to skeletal muscle account for 30 per cent of the injuries reported in sports-medicine clinics. The article says “a warmup and stretching protocol should be implemented within the 15 minutes immediately prior to the activity in order to receive the most benefit”, thus minimising the potential for injuries.
Very useful and helpful information. Good trainers insist on doing warmup and cool down static stretches.
Glad you found it helpful, Harish.
Indeed, warmup and cool down are an integral part of workouts and sports.