What Muscles Are You Using? Activation, Inhibition, and Why Not All Squats Are Created Equal

Knowing which muscles and movements you want to exercise, and being able to choose the right exercises to do so, are important whether your goals involve sculpting, sporting performance, injury rehabilitation or just general good health. Most people can make common-sense decisions about this – it’s not difficult to conclude that one should do squats to target glutes, quads and hamstrings, for example.

But how do you know that the muscles you are targeting are actually active and functioning in the right way during your exercise?

Although your squat may look the same as anyone else’s in the mirror, it’s possible that your muscles may not be activating correctly, or in the correct sequence, in order for the exercise to be as safe and effective as it needs to be. This can happen in any exercise or movement, but for now let’s use the squat as our example.

A common dysfunction with this exercise, particularly in people who are seated for long periods of time, is for the hamstrings to activate before the glutes. Gluteus maximus, the big muscles in your butt, are the most powerful muscles for extending the hip (for example, when standing up from a squat.) They are the muscles that you want to develop if you want a firmer, rounder rear. Ideally, they should activate first, with the hamstrings acting in a supporting role. When gluteus maximus becomes inhibited, whether through incorrect technique, a history of injury, or long periods spent seated, the hamstrings take over to compensate. Not only does this mean that you are not developing the correct muscles in order the create ideal body shape, but that you are placing excessive strain on the relatively long, thin muscles of the hamstring and placing them at risk of injury.

Muscles can become inhibited for many reasons, including a history of injury, a sedentary lifestyle, a job that requires you to be seated, poor posture, lack of mobility, or simply incorrect exercise technique. Once inhibition has been identified, you will then need to discern how best to re-activate the muscle. It may be a matter of learning good activation technique through a series of isolation exercises before re-integrating the movement into more functional exercise. You may need to slightly inhibit over-active muscles which have been acting in a compensation role, or in the case of muscles which are tight and inhibited, you may need to perform some self-myofascial release as well as stretches.

However, even if you are trained and educated in these principles and methods, it is nearly impossible to assess these things on your own body, which is why I am now incorporating these techniques of assessment and corrective exercise in the personal training sessions that I deliver to my clients. A full assessment can include postural analysis, flexibility testing, walking and jogging gait analysis, and a series of exercises designed to reveal whether your body is activating the correct muscles in the right sequence. This is not a high-intensity session of the kind that people normally expect from a personal trainer, but rather a high-yield session that provides valuable information about the your body. This provides the basis of future exercise prescription and progression. It allows us to create a foundation of good technique and posture that will allow intense exercise to be performed safely and effectively long into the future.

If you’re interested in finding out how you can ensure that you are exercising in the most effective way possible, would like to improve your posture, manage back pain, or want to learn correct exercise technique from the very beginning, contact me to book your one-hour assessment session now on 0422 124 244.

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