Muscle Strength vs Muscle Activation

Everyone wants their muscles to be nice and strong. It can help them pick up heavy objects, do lots of sit ups and even prevent back pain. What if I told you that as part of your rehab you should be focusing on more muscle activation rather than just strength? And what exactly is the difference?

Muscle Strength

I think most people would understand muscle strength so I wont go into it too deeply. Muscle strength is your muscles ability to produce force. The stronger your muscle the more force it can produce. This is important in terms of resisting and moving load.
muscle strength

Muscle Activation

Your muscles ability to switch on and work is what we describe as muscle activation. This often comes down to the mind-muscle connection. You require a greater connection between your mind and muscles to make it more active.
What does that actually mean? It means your brain has an easier time engaging a particular muscle. This makes sure that you are using the correct muscles at the correct time which is something that we see in our clinic daily that needs to improve.
This concept is important because in order to do an exercise or movement efficiently and safely you need the appropriate muscles to work. You’ve heard the saying before; there are many ways to skin a cat. This applies to movement. There are many ways that you can do a particular movement but there are some more efficient and safer ways than others.

Let me give you an example

Lets look at a shoulder abduction movement. You have many muscles within the shoulder complex that assist with this movement whether its for stability or movement of the arm.
Shoulder abduction
The muscles that should be doing majority of the work are the Deltoid and Supraspinatus muscles. They are the muscles that move the arm up away from the body. A common pattern that we see is when the Upper Trapezius and Levator Scapulae muscles are overactive. What you will notice is that your shoulders shrug as you lift your arm up and away from the body. This Upper Trapezius should only be used as a stabilizing muscle rather than contributing to the movement. This mismatch shows how muscles activate and dominate during certain movements. Muscle activation is good but over-activation is not necessarily a good thing.
Have a look at someones Shoulder Blades while they abduct the arms and see if you notice a difference between the right and left side. If you notice a difference, it is the muscle activation that is doing this.
In certain movements a muscles contribution may be required more or less. Not only can a muscle be too active but others become less active.  The reason certain muscles become overactive and others under-active often comes down to habits such as performing movements in alternate ways or as a reactive due to injury. You need to work on both overactive and under-active muscles to have the best outcome.

OK that’s great, but how to I build or reduce my muscle activation?

Great question, glad you asked. Lets look at deactivating muscles first. Stretching is a very common and simple way to switch a muscle off. Don’t fall into the trap of doing heavy stretching as this creates a contractile reflex in the muscle as a safe guard. Start light and work your way into the stretch.
stretch armstrong
Another great way is through a method we like to call recipricol inhibition. You might be thinking what the hell is that, well let me explain. When you use a muscle, its opposing muscle relax. The easiest way to think about this is with your biceps. When you show off your guns and flex your biceps, the biceps are activating and the triceps are deactivating to allow for the movement of the arm.
Another example is in the glutes and hamstrings. When you flex your hip, the hamstring and glute muscles which control hip extension relax to allow for the flexion movement.
Hamstring Stretch
We can use this to our advantage. Say you want to switch off your hamstrings, contract your quads whilst getting into a hamstring stretch. This switches off the hamstrings through the use of the quads and allows for a better stretch.

Now to turn on the correct muscles


Once the overactive muscles are switched off, now you need to switch on the correct muscles. Sending the right feedback to your brain is essential in cementing a new way of moving. You do this by engaging the correct muscles during a movement or exercise.
One way you can activate the right muscles through practising a movement without excess load or with minimal load. You are not trying to build strength, just engaging the correct muscles and get that mind-muscle connection working more efficiently. Once you master the movement then you can add load to challenge it even further and create stronger connections.
Lets look back at the shoulder abduction movement. It is a common gym exercise to build and strengthen the deltoid. If you are using the Upper Trapezius muscle then you wont be benefiting from the exercise as much as possible. Go through the exercise with no or minimal weight. Concentrate on pinning the shoulder down and stopping the Upper Trapezius from activating. Run through this until you don’t have to concentrate so hard to achieve this. Sometimes dialling back the exercise like this is a simple way of activating the right muscles.
One great exercise that activates the core in a very beneficial and supportive way is the Deadbug exercise. This exercise is great for activating the core to provide support whilst you are moving the rest of your body. This can apply to almost any movement or action as poor core stability will have an influence on performance but also stress out other structures which can lead to injury and pain.
dead bug
The gist of activating the correct muscle comes down to knowing what you need to activate during particular movements and practise that movement or other appropriate movements, ensuring the desired muscle is working. Dial back on using load until you can comfortably use the correct muscles as excess weight can alter how you recruit your muscles.
You can see how doing an exercise to “strengthen” the muscle might not necessarily be what you need. Making sure your activating the right muscles must come first before you think about strengthening muscles through big exercises such as squats or deadlifts.
If you are unsure what muscles you need to work on, whether it is activating or deactivating, talk to one of our specialist who can guide you.