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How to activate your muscles

Train movements, and the muscles will follow.

People like to speak of “muscle activation”. Physiotherapists make entire careers from diagnosing people with particular “sleepy” muscles and coming up with exercises to wake them up. Personal trainers with aspirations to internet fame will sometimes pick a particularly neglected muscle and attach themselves to it. Go to most physiotherapists or some pretentious personal trainer and you’ll be diagnosed with a lack of activation of vastus medialis, rhomboids, transverse abdominus, gluteus maximus or piriformis, if you’re lucky all five. If you’ve not heard of those muscles, that’s okay, generally once a muscle becomes well-known it becomes less trendy to speak about activating it.

Generally speaking, muscle activation is bollocks. There is some value in that it teaches people to be aware of what their bodies are doing. Anyone who’s ever tried to coach someone else to squat or the like will know that most people have poor bodily awareness, at the start they can’t consciously contract their lower back muscles, etc. Anything that can help with this is good.

But you don’t really need it. You just need to be coached properly in your movements in the gym. Train movements, and the muscles will follow. The best way to activate your muscles is to use heavy weights over a full range of motion in the basic movements of squat, push, pull, hip hinge and loaded carry.

If you’re squatting, don’t worry about squeezing your glutes, just squat deep with your knees out and chest up, and then stand up, your glutes will be used whether you want them to be used or not. Squat deep. This means below parallel, having the crease of your hips between your leg and pelvis drop below your kneecap. On every rep, yes even the heavy ones. Don’t overthink it, your body knows what to do, you just have to let it.

If you do this, you will use your glutes during the lift, just as doing bicep curls all the way from your elbow being straight out while keeping your trunk steady will ensure you use your biceps. Whether you “feel” it or not is irrelevant. When your hips are flexed, you simply have to use your hip extensor muscles to extend your hip, ie your glutes and hamstrings.

If you go deep in a squat it is physically impossible to rise from the bottom of the squat without using your glutes and hamstrings. You may not feel it to begin with, but it will happen. Squat deep, and your glutes will be activated. Looking at the image of the person squatting, I have yet to receive a biomechanical explanation of how the lifter can rise from there without using their glutes.

Of course, watching someone squat properly is not as exciting for a straight male trainer as having a bunch of models in his condo thrusting their hips in the air. If he really gets excited, he may even in his comments invite women trainers he knows to mud wrestle. I’ve searched across the internet, but have yet to find a female trainer giving barbell hip thrusts to her clients, or anyone giving them to ugly old guys, it’s all young male trainers giving them to attractive young women, funny that. So it is possible, just possible, that there are other motivations.

But it’s all about what the trainer is trying to achieve, effective training for their clients and athletes, or internet fame. For effective training, train movements and the muscles will follow.

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