The Best Exercises to Activate Muscles, According to Physical Therapists

Even if work-from-home life has left you with more time on your hands, we all still want our workouts to be effective and efficient. Unfortunately, they might not be either if you don’t activate muscles correctly.

“A muscle loses the ability to activate when the joint associated with it loses range of motion, strength, and control,” says Matt Pippin, C.S.C.S., a strength and mobility coach and co-founder of Pippin Performance. For instance, if you’ve lost range of motion in your hips, your glutes might not activate properly anymore.

That can lead to aches and tightness from other muscles taking over and controlling a motion, either during regular movement as you go about your day or mid-workout. Let’s say you’re doing hip thrusts but your glutes aren’t activating correctly; you might feel it more in your hamstrings and lower back instead. Or during squats, your quads might totally take the brunt of the exercise. “When these other muscles start to chip in, they’re performing movements they’re not technically designed to do,” explains Pippin. “Eventually they start to break down, and aches, pains, and tightness start to set in.”

Of course it’s hard to activate muscles and stay limber as we’ve been holed up at home, working remotely, sitting all day and walking less than usual. “Prolonged sitting and lack of movement leads to increased tightness of all the muscles in the front of our body and weakness on the back side,” says Brian Gurney, DPT, C.S.C.S., a trainer, board-certified sports clinical specialist, and physical therapist at BeFit Therapy in New York City. “The less movement we have, the more our body feeds into these problems.” So when you go for a run or work out, the underutilized muscles will resist activating and others will step in to pick up the slack—which may be okay in the short run but can leave you with tightness and pain before long.

Here are some of the usual suspects that don’t activate correctly, plus go-to moves from physical therapists and trainers to get those muscles working again. Try these moves first thing in the a.m. to get your joints mobile and muscles activated for the day, plus right before working out to lower your risk of getting hurt.

The Best Exercises to Activate Muscles, According to Physical Therapists

The Muscle Group: Glutes

Probably the most common offender, when the glutes don’t kick in correctly during moves like lunges or squats, your quads and hamstrings will take over (and your lower back will feel it). Pippin loves the following exercise for getting the hips to move in a full range of motion, which in turn will allow your glutes to get back in on the action. Focus on keeping the movement slow and controlled.

The Exercise: Slow Knee Circle

Stand to the left of a chair or counter with feet hip-width apart, resting right hand on chair gently for support. Transfer weight to right foot and lift left leg, knee bent, until thigh is parallel to floor. Rotate leg to the left about 90 degrees. Keeping knee in place, rotate left foot out to the side, then lower left knee and rotate it around and behind you until knee is in line with right leg. Repeat in opposite direction for 1 rep. Do 5 reps, then repeat on opposite side.

The Muscle Group: Abs

When your core muscles don’t activate, “It creates instability and knocks your musculoskeletal system out of alignment,” says Martin Ridley, a doctor of physical therapy at Tru Whole Care in NYC, who notes that our abdominals and muscles along the spine are getting extra lazy right now with everyone’s increased time couch surfing. This challenging stretch is one Gurney uses to get the entire core—especially abs and glutes—to fire up.

The Exercise: Wheel pose

Lie faceup, knees bent and feet on floor. Place your palms on floor by ears, fingers pointing toward shoulders. Press into feet and push hips up. Press into
hands to bring crown of head hand to the floor. Pressing into feet and hands equally, straighten arms and lift head off floor. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat three times. (To modify, try wheel post lying on a yoga bolster or a couple stacked pillows and lifting as much as feels comfortable.)

The Muscle Group: Lats

These muscles down your back have likely gotten lazy from your day alternating between sitting at a desk and sitting on the couch, says Todd Sinett, founder of Tru Whole Care in NYC and creator of the Backbridge. He turns to this move to help those lats activate while also unwinding tight pecs.

The Exercise: Thumb-Underarm Stretch

While standing with feet hip-width apart, place your thumbs under your armpits with fingertips pointing to the ceiling. Tilt head back and lift thumbs as high as possible. Hold for 10 seconds, repeat.

Bonus Exercise: Slow Spine Wave

This exercise, a favorite of both Pippin and Ridley, is another great one to get your back activating again. It’s like the cat-cow flow of a yoga class, but take it extra-slowly get every little muscle to wake up.

Start on all fours, knees directly under hips and hands directly under shoulders, with a neutral spine. Starting at the base of your spine, slowly curve your back up toward the ceiling one vertebra at a time. Let your head hang down when you reach the top of your neck. Then lift head and do the opposite movement back down, dropping your back one vertebra at a time until it’s arched. Repeat five times.

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