muscle activation exercises

6 Essential Muscle Activation Exercises to do Before Your Next Workout

Your glutes will thank you later.

By Amy Gurvitz March 13, 2023


If you’ve taken any strength and conditioning classes, especially those that use weights, chances are your instructor has started with some exercises without weights called muscle activations. These are a specific type of warm-up move. While you might be tempted to jump right into your weight work, taking a minute or two to warm up with muscle activations can improve your workout performance and help prevent injuries. To break down the what, how, and why of activations, we turned to activation advocate, and Peloton Strength instructor, Andy Speer.

What is Muscle Activation?

“Activation is a term used to describe a focused contraction of a muscle, usually during the warm up, through a specific movement or isometric hold,” says Speer. “They are often focused on muscles and connective tissue that play an important supporting role in your upcoming workout, such as your rotator cuff, gluteus medius, ankles, or core.”

During a warm up, activations may be paired with larger movements to increase your heart rate and blood flow, or with mobility movements focused on rage of motion around a joint. How are muscle activation exercises different from stretching? Stretching is the opposite of an activation, says Speer, since when you stretch you’re relaxing your muscles and allowing your nervous system to recover.

“Activations should be challenging but not very demanding of your overall energy, which you want to save for your workout,” he notes. “You should feel the muscle working—that little burn tells you you're on the right track.”

Benefits of Muscle Activations Before Your Workout

Activations are little exercises that can make a big difference. “Preparing your mind and body for the demands of your upcoming workout can increase your performance, reduce risk of injury, and elevate your mental focus and enjoyment during your training,” Speer explains. “Activations play a big role in this preparation.”

These slow, controlled movements and isometric holds give your muscles and connective tissues time to prepare for more demanding exercises to follow. 

A 2019 study in the journal Frontiers in Physiology found that when participants performed a series of pre-activation isometric exercises for the quads prior to an eccentric loading exercise (for example, the lowering portion of a biceps curl, they improved their explosive force.

“Little drills go a long way in maintaining long-term performance and health,” states Speer. “Even if you don't feel like it's worth it in the moment, trust me, if you want to stay in the game for years to come, doing a few activation drills before you train is the way to go.”

How to do Muscle Activation Exercises

Now that we’ve discussed what activations are, it’s time to give them a try. Below, Speer shares three of his favorite activations for the upper and lower body. Try them at the start of your next workout, or make a workout out of them!

Upper Body Activations

Plank with single arm lift and hold

“This move fires up your posterior shoulder and upper back, works straight-arm shoulder stability and protraction in your support arm and hits your abs and obliques.” 

How to: 

A.) Start in a plank on palms, hands directly under shoulders.

B.) Extend one arm out in front of you while maintaining plank form. Hold for 2 seconds. Return to start.

C.) Repeat on opposite side.

Prone swimmers

“This move activates your entire back and posterior shoulders. The swimmers add internal and external rotation of the shoulder.”

How to: 

A.) Start lying face down on a mat, arms extended overhead.

B.) Engaging through your glutes and upper back, lift one arm up as you lift the opposite leg up.

C.) Switch sides. Continue switching at a pace that’s comfortable for you.

Plank march

“This is more of a general warm-up move, but I love it because it gets your triceps, chest, serratus, shoulders and core working together in an alternating pattern and limited range of motion.”

How to: 

A.) Start in a plank on palms, hands directly under shoulders.

B.) Lower down to a forearm plank, keeping hips stable.

C.) Return back to high plank, switching your leading arm each time.

Lower Body Activations

Side plank with leg raise

“This is great for glute medius and adductors, with oblique and shoulder engagement too.”

How to:  

A.) Start lying on side, one elbow on the ground under shoulder.

B.) With both legs extended in a straight line, press through shoulder to come to a side plank, balancing on the outer edge of your bottom foot.

C.) Raise top leg as high as you can while maintaining form. Hold for 2 seconds. Return to start.

D.) Repeat on opposite side.

Slow hurdle steps

“These actively move your hips through a full range of motion while your standing leg is stabilizing.”

How to:

A.) From standing, bring one leg out to the side with knee bent to 90 degrees.

B.) Maintaining leg position, circle leg forward until leg is front of you, thigh parallel to floor.

C.) Step down, returning to start. Begin on opposite leg. Movement can travel slowly forward.


“One of my all-time favorites. These activate your glutes, ankles and feet while your entire upper body and brain are working to balance.”

How to:

A.) From standing with both knees slightly bent, extend one leg behind you and hinge at hips so torso is almost parallel to the floor.

B.) Rotate hips in the direction of your standing leg. Return to center.

C.) Rotate hips to open out the side, in the direction of your extended leg. Return to center.

D.) Repeat several times before switching sides.

Final Thoughts

Warm-ups are a crucial component of exercise to prepare your body for movement and by including muscle activation exercises in your warm-up, you can specifically target the muscles you’ll be working. Doing muscle activation exercises is not just critical for injury prevention, but can also enhance performance so you get more out of every workout.


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