Posted by on Aug 8, 2013

Strength Training
JC Deen is a personal trainer and writer out of Nashville, TN. He’s been seen in Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Forbes.com, Bodybuilding.com, ZenHabits.net and is the author of LGN365.

Visit JC on his websiteTwitterFitocracy or Google.

Last month, I wrote a series of emails to my subscribers that were completely content-focused, and all about how to activate your muscles more effectively for a better training stimulus, and ultimately more gains in aesthetics.

The title of the emails were Training for ‘The Feels,’ which is a spin off of the meme about ‘feels,’ or feelings of whatever that person is experiencing… It might be joy, sadness, excitement, and is often used in the following fashion:

“That movie sure gave me the feels.” or “Every time I hear you sing, I get those feels, bro.”

Anyway, in this context, I am referring to ‘these feels’ as the feeling you get when you fully activate your muscles during your training.

While this may seem common knowledge to some, it’s brand new to many, especially those who’ve just been exercising without paying much attention to what’s going on with how the training makes them feel.

I wrote an intro to this previously on the KC with my article Mind Tricks For More Muscle and Greater Intensities.

Now why is paying attention to muscle activation so important? For starters, we want certain muscles to work during certain movements.

An example of this is how many people perform the bench press. While I don’t believe the bench press to be the best chest builder, many people use it for this purpose.

Depending on your previous experiences and training history, you might differ from others. Some people are going to feel their chest more than their triceps when doing a bench press.

Others might feel their triceps and shoulders, and hardly any chest. Others might only feel triceps.

Countless times I’ve heard “I just can’t feel this movement working my pecs” and it makes sense… sometimes it’s rather hard to get the activation we want, due to other muscles taking over and doing more of the work.

It’s simply the other muscles compensating for weaknesses.

Today we’ll cover some techniques you can begin using in your training right now that will help you improve your muscle activation during various movements, all with the goal of helping you get stronger and improving your aesthetics, if that’s of any importance to you.

While we won’t cover every muscle group, I’ll give you some examples that will allow you understand the concept, and then begin experimenting with other movements as you see fit.

Activating The Pecs

For most people, I find that traditional flat bench press, and incline with a straight bar doesn’t do a ton for chest activation alone. But this doesn’t mean they aren’t useful in helping to build the chest.

What I like to do, especially during the warm-up, are some chest flies with a seated machine, or standing in a cable stack. I will start with a light weight I can get 12-15 reps with very easily.

I’ll perform 2-3 sets of 12-15 with short rest periods (30-45 seconds) before my primary chest movement.

I find that I get a much better chest activation on my flat dumbbell presses when I do these lighter flies before my work sets. As a result, I’m able to pay a lot more attention to the contraction quality and how the muscles feel as they fatigue.

Shoulder Activation

Similarly to the chest example above, I like to start with light dumbbell lateral raises for a few sets of 12-15 reps, and follow it up with dumbbell, barbell, or machine presses to ensure I’m getting the activation I want.

Activating The Back Muscles

The back is quite a large group of muscles, and there are many variations of movements that hit each sections. We have lat movements, mid back movements, and of course exercises you can do for your traps.

Like the other examples, the goal is to start with lighter weights first.

Personally, I start all my back-focused training days with some low cable rows. I like the stretch they provide, and the movement gives me a pretty good pump within 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps.

I will then move on to chin-ups, rows, shrugs, or whatever movement I have scheduled for the day. If you don’t have a low cable row, lat pulldowns, or dumbbell rows are good too.

Activating the Glutes

Out of all the people I’ve trained, very few have been able to activate their glutes very well. I’ve always been a decent squatter, so I learned early on during my athletic days how to activate my glutes and hamstrings.

I understand that many don’t have an athletic background (with tons of practice training), and are often finding their glutes just don’t want to fire as well as they’d like.

This can create problems with posture, and set us up for injury if not addressed properly.

A few good ways to get your glutes activated is to start with some foam rolling, or to use a lacrosse ball for self myofascial release (SMR). After a few minutes of SMR, we can move to body weight exercises like side lying clams or glute bridges.

Both of these movements are great for getting your glutes to activate, which then can be followed by more demanding exercises such as squats, barbell hip thrusts, or deadlifts, which require a strong backside.

Activating The Hamstrings

Like the glutes, some have a hard time getting the hamstrings activated. During deadlifts, it’s easy to allow yourself to lift with your back, as opposed to squeezing your glutes and hamstrings to power the movement.

However, if you include some activation work into your warm-up, you shouldn’t have a problem. You might even need to leave traditional deadlifts behind for a while until you get better at activating them… I touched on this some in an article I wrote here. As you’ll see, even a basic hip hinge can be good for hamstring activation.

Basically, performing some body weight glute bridges (the single leg variation is great) are a good way to engage your hamstrings. The same can be said for lying leg curls by doing 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps to get the blood flowing.

Physio ball leg curls are a good alternative, but it’s an advanced exercise, so keep that in mind if you’re a beginner.

After you’ve gotten your hammies activated, romanian deadlifts, glute-ham raises, and hyperextensions are good movements to utilize.

If you would like to take a sample training program for a spin, you can download it here, completely free.

Wrapping Up – What You Need To Know

The goal, as I’ve stated previously, is to make sure you spend the time getting your muscles activated with the lighter sets.

The aim is to move through a full range of motion, and pay attention to feeling your muscles working. In other words, you’re going for a pump. The pump is also known as simply filling your muscles with blood.

Bodybuilders have been known for loving the pump, but it’s for good reason, as it means they’re actually activating the muscles they are aiming to work.

Warm up properly, then spend the time working through the movements and getting your muscles to slight fatigue as you activate them.

Then when you perform your primary movements, you should feel the targeted muscles engaging better than before.

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