What is muscle activation?

Woman doing donkey kick muscle activation exercise
(Image credit: Getty)

Making sure that your workout is working for you can be one of the most important parts of planning out your fitness journey, but what is muscle activation and how can you go about achieving it? 

Whenever you’re exercising, whether it’s on one of the best treadmills (opens in new tab) or cycling in the great outdoors, you want to get the maximum amount of benefits for the effort you’re putting in — ensuring your muscles are working as hard as they can is one way to achieve just that, which is where muscle activation comes in.

Defined as your muscles’ ability to turn on and work, muscle activation hinges on the mind-muscle connection. Ideally, building this mind-muscle connection will assist with the development of your overall mind-body connection in addition to helping your muscles engage and therefore work harder, be more efficient, and increase stability. 

Although this idea is relatively simple, and probably won’t hurt you, there is some skepticism about whether or not muscle activation has any impact on performance. One study from Acta Physiologica (opens in new tab) found insignificant differences between isometric training and imagined isometric training, posing the question as to whether a focus on muscle activation actually matters. However, many people still subscribe to the idea. 

What is muscle activation?

In order to break it down, we spoke to Jacob Earp, Ph.D., CSCS, USAW, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut, and he described muscle activation in these terms: 

“Muscle activation is an electrophysiology term. It means the level of neurological stimulus to cause contraction. Full activation of a muscle can be reached by the superimposed twitch method which involves having a person activate a muscle as much as they can by pushing against an immovable object and then adding a supra-maximal electrical stimulation added onto of the volitional activation. This test shows the highest level of activation possible for a muscle in its current state. In research muscle activation is often misrepresented as muscle activity, which is similar, but doesn’t have the same physiological basis.”

Jacob Earp
Jacob Earp, Ph.D

Jacob Earp is an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, working within the Sports Optimization & Rehabilitation lab.  His research primarily focuses on improving health, function and sports performance by improving muscle quality and tendon function.  He has worked with countless athletes and sports organizations including the Olympic programs for four different countries (US, China, Australia & Indonesia). 

Keeping this in mind, it’s important not to confuse muscle activation with muscle engagement. Earp said, “Muscle engagement is not a technical term. There’s no basis of measurement. It’s usually used to just say that a muscle was activated at some point. When I was a strength and conditioning coach I’d sometimes tell athletes to try to engage a muscle as a way of telling them to focus on contracting it.” 

Woman doing push-ups at home

(Image credit: Getty)

How to keep muscles activated

If muscle activation is one of the ways you can make your workout work most effectively for you, it makes sense that you’d want to figure out how to do it as often as possible. Earp confirmed: “If you’re relying on a muscle that’s not properly activated to produce force then the muscle might not be able to perform the action it’s needed for. For instance, poor activation of the quadriceps and glutes during landing or cutting in sport will result in passive structures such as ligaments being stretched.”

Additionally, not activating your muscles can also lead to the muscles in the surrounding areas overcompensating during exercise.

In order to keep your muscles activated, Earp advises performing the activity slowly while contracting the muscle, or doing an isolation exercise — although this will vary depending on the movements in question. “Mindful repetitions with biofeedback and proper technique will go a long way for motor learning,” adds Earp.

Exercises for muscle activation

While any exercise should ideally involve muscle activation, there are some specific movements that can specifically target muscle activation, although these need to be tailored to an individual’s requirements.  

Man using resistance band on chest

(Image credit: Getty)

Earp said of this: “These [exercises] are muscle specific and there’s typically a progression that’s done since a chronically inhibited muscle is likely very weak and has poor endurance. For the transversus abdominis you could learn the draw in technique, then do the same technique during other activities such as dead-bug or bird-dog exercises.”

Usually, like the example Earp gave, working the same muscle movements with different activities and exercises tends to be the best methodology to go about muscle activation, if that’s your target. You can also discuss this with your physical therapist, personal trainer, or whichever professional you’re working with in order to get the best results for you. 

Jamie Kahn is a Brooklyn-based journalist, editor, and certified yoga instructor whose work has been featured in HuffPost, Epiphany Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Far Out Magazine, Atwood Magazine, and Live Science. She serves as the contributing features editor for Epiphany Magazine.