Muscle Activation | Practice Makes Perfect

Written by Tim Andersson Lind

Muscle Activation

All movements require muscle activation, meaning if you can perform a well-rehearsed movement with good technique it would imply that yes you are accurately activating the muscle you want! But if I told you to perform a novel movement, meaning a movement you never done before it would require a set of prerequisites before you can progress.

For example, take any elite athlete that performs within a sport with a predetermined set of motions, such as Olympic Weightlifting, swimming, running etc. They perform their motions with almost flawless technique, however it must not be ignored that they have practiced for many years to reach that level. Although, if you told a beginner to perform these same movements, they would have extreme difficulty to match the technical ability, due to the generic ‘practice makes perfect’!


running technique

Even Olympians had to learn the initial movement within their chosen discipline. In reality, Olympic level athletes were once in your shoes, learning new techniques and adapting their bodies to their chosen sport. However this is progressed via a relationship; the brain and the body. Together, the brain and body adapt in order to produce a movement. Assuming the athlete understands the movement to be performed, the body can progress to adapt to the stimulus from the brain. The brain sends signals to the muscles through nerves, the nerves then begin to adapt. As the nerve signals become stronger and motor units are recruited, the technique and muscle activation becomes stronger. This leads to improvement as the nerve signals get stronger and more motor units are recruited to perform the necessary movement. If there is a lack of force or a lot of tension generated in the muscles, the body adapts and hypertrophies the muscle to enable higher forces to be produced.

Hence, the Olympians have developed all parts of the system required for movement, the brain, nerves and muscles to perform at the top percentile of the world. They are the best of the best because their whole body is adapted.

swimming workout

Despite being the best at what they do and being an inspiration to their fans and followers, your interest may not be to receive a gold medal but simply increase your muscle mass, thus requiring a greater muscle activation process. Training is hard, if it was easy- we wouldn’t do it! However, achieving results is what pushes us through the learning curve, allowing muscle activation to take place.

To activate the muscle you want there is usually a list of movements or actions. Take the latissimus dorsi for example, it is involved in a lot of actions and movements. It helps the shoulder joint perform extension, adduction and internal rotation. When exercising you can perform various pulling movements (hands moving towards the body against some kind of resistance). Or as in the case with pull-ups and chin-ups, the body moving towards the hands.

Rowing machine

Rowing exercises or movements are excellent choices if you want to want activate or train your lats. Pull-overs and deadlifts are also great choices for activating the lats. Another suggestion is to try gymnastic and calisthenics moves, handstands in particular require highly activated and coordinated musculature. The lats help stabilise the body when performing a handstand and generates a lot of tension on the muscles when the body is an inverted position. Another tip is to perform exercises in a unilateral fashion. You can isolate the movement more easily helping the brain readily activate the desired muscle. It should come as no surprise as this is why Arnold performed his famed concentration curls. He was focusing on one bicep at a time, really focused on performing the curl with strong intent, thus activating the muscle to a higher degree.

Altogether, movement requires muscle activation. Elite athletes have a better quality of movement which is a product of learning and training. If you are an athlete wanting to perform you need learn and train the movement, and the more complex it is the longer it will take to master. Interests including bodybuilding require many years of training to achieve desired results especially if aiming for size. Therefore I urge you to experiment with movements to see if you can have more fun training and activating the muscles you want.


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Faye Reid

Faye Reid

Writer and expert

Faye Reid has a Bachelor of Science in Sport and Exercise Physiology and a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition. Faye has worked with numerous high-profile oranisations, such as Men's Health, Sky Sports, Huddersfield Giants, Warrington Wolves, British Dressage and GB Rowing, providing her expert sports science support. Find out more about Faye's experience here: She puts her passion into practice as goal attack for her netball team, and in competitive event riding.

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