The Scoop on Activation Exercises
Have you ever seen runners do goofy-looking exercises before they begin their training sessions
? I’m talking about a seemingly random splattering of squats, lunges, stretches, back bends, and hip thrusts -leaving onlookers raising an eyebrow and wondering (perhaps out-loud) what on earth these strange people are doing! And they have accessories. Oh yes, the props. Foam rollers, balls, giant elastic bands, towels – any runner will proudly show off their collection of toys.
So what’s the deal? You might overhear someone say that they need five minutes to “activate” before starting a run. Activate? Activate what? I used to think that activation meant getting out the door and beginning to move my legs quicker than walking pace.
When you decide to make a movement, your brain sends a signal to recruit, or “fire”, necessary muscle fibers. This is a neuromuscular connection – neuro being brain, and muscular meaning muscle, of course. The more muscle fibers that are activated, the stronger the muscle contraction and subsequent power production. However, neuromuscular connections can become rusty with disuse, like a night’s sleep or sitting at a desk.
You see, most of us have lazy bums. And lazy bums do not make good runners. While your glut and hip muscles are hugely powerful, they often become specifically deactivated after long periods of hip flexion (aka SITTING). When they aren’t activated properly, your stride may become less efficient and pelvis less stable. This is because other muscles such as your quads, hamstrings, and/or calves are overused in compensation. In theory, this could lead to injury due to poor loading patterns, increasing risk of injury.
The good news is that activation of the gluts and hips only takes a few minutes, with virtually no down side. Performing a few exercises to mindfully activate your gluts and hips primes the neuromuscular connection between your brain and targeted muscles, increasing muscle recruitment and usage during your run session that follows.
As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them. After being repeatedly educated by multiple physios, chiros, massage therapists, and sports doctors, I’ve adopted a quick activation exercise routine which I quite enjoy. In my experience, I feel stronger and more balanced after activation exercises, which translates into a powerful, more durable stride. I am an activation exercise convert, and I hope that I’ve convinced you to do the same!
Try these exercises to warm up the connection between your brain and gluts/hips before your next run:
1. Dead Bug (X5 per side). Begin on your back with arms and legs raised, pressing the small of your back into the floor so that your entire spine is touching the ground. Slowly extend an opposite arm and leg to a 180 degree angle. Return to starting position and repeat with other leg/arm. Ensure that your back remains pressed to the ground the entire time.
2. Hip Bridges (x10/side). Beginning on back, cross one leg over the other, resting your foot on your opposite knee. Squeeze your butt on side of grounded leg. Raise hips high enough to achieve a flat line from your shoulders to your rounded knee. Hold for 3 seconds, then slowly lower. VARIATION: If you find that you are cheating and using predominately hamstrings rather than gluts for this exercise, begin by doing bridges with both legs grounded, and progress to single leg.
3. Sideways Leg Extensions (x10/side). While lying on side, slowly extend top leg backwards at a 45 degree angle, making sure foot is flexed. Return to starting position and repeat.
4. Leg extensions (x5/side/position). Place mini-band around ankles. Slowly extend your leg sideways from body. Return and repeat five times. Then, extend leg at a 45 degree angle behind your body. Return and repeat five times.
5. Single Leg Squats with Mini-Band (X5/side). Place mini-band around your thighs. Rotate knees outward. Stand on one foot and squat, taking care to keep knees rotated outward. When raising out of squat, focus on pushing upward with your glut.