What's the difference between "Muscle Activation" and "Muscle Strengthening"?
As promised, we are now going to dive into a topic that is both simple and complex and learn a little bit more about our bodies!
Strengthening: to make, grow, or become stronger or more powerful
Activation: the action or process of making something active or operative
When put that way, it's easy to see that strengthening and activating are two different things. If we were to compare a muscle to a light bulb, activation would be turning it on, and strengthening would be making it brighter.
I often get people giggling in my office when I give the most basic exercises.
I get comments like "I can squat 200 pounds, why am I doing this easy activation exercise" or "My glutes are strong because I deadlift all the time"
Often times, with everyday activities, certain muscles are not challenged, therefore they decide to take a hike and let the other muscles do the work. What happens is, when it comes to doing an exercise, this muscle is still out to lunch and therefore not pulling their own weight.
If we continue with the light bulb analogy, it would be hard to make the lightbulb any brighter if it isn't even turned on!
To avoid injury it is soooo important to be using the correct muscles.
In our bodies, we have multiple muscles that can do the same thing, however, in every situation there is an ideal muscle to be used in order to avoid injury. You may be okay in the short term using these complementary muscles as the primary power source, however it's just a matter of time before your body decides it has had enough.
That being said, why not ensure we are using the strongest, most correct muscles from the start in order to avoid injury all together.
I am a big advocate of activation exercises. Often times I can be found in the gym performing glute bridges before performing my deadlift. I want to make sure my glutes are firing (especially after sitting for prolonged periods of times) and ready to work before trying to move large weights. When I know my glutes are firing, I know I will be using the best muscle for the job when I start deadlifting.
I'm not talking 50 repetitions or anything, I'm talking 6 or 8 reps to ensure you have activation. I always place my fingers over the muscles I'm hoping to activate as this also helps the muscle fire. Once I feel the contraction under my fingers on every repetition, I know I'm ready. I try to remember that feeling when I'm moving on to something else, or my primary strengthening exercise.
This concept can also apply to distance runners, not just heavy lifters. As you run, you tend to fatigue and rely on other (less effective) muscles which can sometimes be less than optimal for your alignments. It's important that those important muscles stay activated throughout the duration of your run. Remember, you can't make the light bulb any brighter (strengthen your muscles) if it's not even on (if the muscle is not activated)!
Once you have that feeling in your head, use that to remind yourself to extend through the glutes and not simply cycling through the repetitions. At first it may seem tedious and require a lot of concentration, however as your body adapts, the sensation will become more and more normal.
Remember, to maximize your strength, you'll want to ensure you are recruiting your strongest, most important muscles while you're strengthening!
Follow our next few blog posts for my favourite activation exercises with easy to follow videos to ensure you are performing at the highest level possible and avoiding injury!