The procedures for helping athletes prepare to train, practice and compete have changed significantly over the last decade. The decade started with “authorities” recommending that players perform static stretches prior to activity. From there it advanced to dynamic warm-up, movement preparation and self-myofascial release. The current recommended by many in the field of sports performance is muscle activation. Muscle activation, sometimes called muscle recruitment, refers to the process of “turning on” muscle fibers prior to use to help “wake up” the communication lines between the nervous system and the muscular system in order to better prepare the body for activity. Proponents of muscle activation cite several advantages of this procedure over more “traditional” techniques to include increased mobility with control and ease of movement, improved coordination, increased stability and strength, decreased pain, relaxation of tight muscles and reduced risk of injury.
Most muscle activation programs are divided into five progressive steps.
• Step 1: Increase core temperature. In step 1, athletes perform 5-10 minutes of low-impact, aerobic exercise on a stationary bike, elliptical trainer, stair climber, etc. The primary objectives are to increase core temperature, lubricate the joints and improve efficiency of movement.
• Step 2: Self myofascial release: The objectives in this step are to use foam rollers, lacrosse balls and sports sticks to increase blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, reduce muscle density, increase tissue length, maintain tissue integrity and alleviate soreness. This step usually takes about 5 minutes and involves exercises for the upper body, core, hips and lower body.
• Step 3: Joint mobility. The objective in this step is to use dynamic mobility and joint range of motion exercises such as jumping jacks, hurdles, T-spine movements, etc. to prepare the body for the dynamic movements required during training, exercise and/or competition. This step takes 3 to 5 minutes and includes dynamic, multi-joint, multi-plane movements to increase joint range of motion, stabilize the core, reduce soreness and prevent injury.
• Step 4: Corrective exercise. This step takes approximately 10 minutes and uses movements that reduce muscle imbalances, increase joint mobility, enhance joint stability and improve the mind-to-muscle connection of specific muscles essential to efficient movement and safe, effective performance. Squats, overhead squats, push-ups, reverse lunges, glute-hip bridges, lifts and chops, inclined mountain climbers and quadruped torso exercises are often used as corrective exercises.
• Step 5: CNS Activation. The final step uses quick, coordinated and fairly explosive, skill oriented movements with a medicine ball to stimulate the nervous system and improve motor unit recruitment. The exercises in this step, MD ball passes and slams are total body movements that integrate the actions of the lower body, core and upper body from the ground up. Movements are explosive and usually take less than 30 seconds to complete.
Muscle activation is currently considered to be one of the most effective ways to prepare the body for physical activity. For best results do it approximately 20 to 25 minutes before the first activity of the day. During spring training, do it first thing in the morning. During the off-season, do it before workouts and during the season, do it before conditioning workouts, batting practice and bull pen work. When performed properly, the series of dynamic movements performed in a properly designed muscle activation program will increase core temperature, reduce muscle density, improve joint mobility, correct movement problems, prepare the nervous system for activity, activate the key muscles used in training, practice and competition, improve movement and reduce the risk of injury. Give it a try this off-season and make it a habit. It only takes about 20 to 25 minutes and it could become one of the most important things you do to improve your fitness, elevate your game and reduce your risk of injury.
Rick Slate, MS, CSCS-E and James J. Gonzalez, RSCC-D, USAW, CF-L1 Trainer
Editor Note: Future postings will include descriptions of the muscle activation programs currently used by the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates.