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Activation Exercises: Definition, Examples, and Uses

What Are Activation Exercises?

Activation exercises are designed to engage the muscles you plan on training and temporarily improve the connection between the brain and muscles. Improving muscle activation can allow for stronger contractions, better performance, and cleaner technique, resulting in safer and more effective training.

A Deeper Look at Activation Exercises

The idea behind activation exercises is to essentially wake up muscles before training. Doing so could improve muscle activation and make it easier for trainees to feel the target muscles during each set. 

For example, the banded monster walk is a movement coaches often prescribe to athletes before lower body training. It is simple, requires only a loop band, and forces muscle activation to overcome the band’s resistance without generating fatigue.

As a result, it warms up the muscles in the hip region and primes the nervous system, potentially resulting in better performance and improved mind-muscle connection in movements like glute bridges, hip thrusts, deadlifts, and squats.

Another simple example is performing wrist pronation and supination to warm up and potentially improve the mind-muscle connection with the bicep of the non-dominant side.

9 Activation Exercises to Prepare For Training and Optimize Performance

  • Glute bridge: This is a good movement to activate the glutes before lower body training. The single-leg version could be more beneficial for advanced athletes.
  • Bird dog: This balanced activity primarily activates the glutes and hamstrings but also works the back, shoulders, and midsection.
  • Glute kickback: This movement can effectively engage the glutes and help with activation during training.
  • Single-arm cable lat pulldown: This exercise targets the lats and is particularly valuable for trainees who struggle to feel their back during pulling exercises. Adding a lateral torso crunch in the direction of the pull can further activate the muscles.
  • Dead bug: This activity is beneficial for engaging the core musculature and promoting whole-body stability before training.
  • Band pull-aparts: This movement engages and warms the shoulders, particularly the rear portion.
  • Fire hydrants: Similar to a monster walk, these can activate the hip muscles and temporarily increase the range of motion to improve performance on squats, deadlifts, and similar exercises.
  • Bodyweight squats: These are fantastic for activating and warming up the lower body (particularly the quads).
  • Scapular push-ups: Forcing scapular protraction and retraction can improve thoracic mobility and help trainees feel looser, especially on exercises like the bench press or front squat. 

How to Program Activation Exercises

Here is how to do it in three simple steps:

  1. Determine what muscles will be trained during the workout. 
  2. Choose two to three movements to activate these target muscles. 
  3. Incorporate the activities into a regular warm-up sequence.

Identify what muscles your clients struggle to activate or ‘feel’ during their training and see if they experience any stiffness at the start of workout sessions that could affect their performance. 

For example, let’s say you’ll be doing a leg day with a client. Talking about it is a simple way to determine how much activation work the person needs and what movements would be more fitting.

If a client struggles to feel their glutes (this is relatively common), you could incorporate one or two activities that directly target the area, such as a glute bridge and a kickback.

If the client also experiences some hip tightness at the start of the workout, consider activities that could temporarily open up the area more––for instance, fire hydrants and monster band walks.

Keep activation sequences short and start with fewer movements and sets to determine the minimum effective dose. The goal is to prepare your athletes for training and generate as little fatigue as possible.


1. Are activation exercises necessary?

Activation exercises are beneficial but optional. Trainees who struggle to engage the target muscles can include these in their warm-ups.

2. What tools do you need for activation exercises?

Many activation exercises don’t require any equipment. Those that do typically only involve a light resistance band, an exercise mat, and some light weight plates or dumbbells.

3. Are activation exercises the same as stretching?

Activation exercises can involve an element of dynamic stretching, but the two are not the same. The goal of activation exercises is to wake the target muscles, whereas stretching offers other benefits, such as temporarily improving the range of motion for better performance on complex lifts.

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