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Using Muscle Activation to Boost Football Performance

Using Muscle Activation to Boost Football Performance

You may have heard of strength coaches and physios saying things like ‘the muscle’s not firing’ or ‘it’s not activated’, which then leaves you nodding with a puzzled look on your face as to what that really means?

In this article we’ll explain exactly what muscle activation is, how it will enhance your performance and what you can do to get your in-active muscles activated.

What is muscle activation?

Muscle activation reconnects the communication between your muscle and the central nervous system A.K.A the ‘mind-muscle connection’.

It aids in improving and maintaining joint stability and efficiency without the need of medical assistance as well as correcting bi-lateral imbalances within the body to help you move more fluidly.

The aim of muscle activation is to ‘switch on’ muscle so that it's firing optimally for when you need it most (i.e. on the pitch). The positive effects of muscle activation should last for the duration of the activity you are about to perform (however fatigued muscles become harder to activate).

Why are some muscles no longer active?

Muscles which are weaker (often felt as muscle tightness or pain) or previously injured are generally harder to activate. Weak, switched off glutes are a common issue nowadays because more and more people are becoming sedentary for long parts of the day (sitting at a computer desk for example). When habits such as this are consistently repeated, mechanical deficiencies begin to develop and alter the way you move, even producing pain and stiffness.

Stronger muscles are more easily activated, tend to become dominant in producing certain movements and are often overworked. A classic example…players who are ‘quad-dominant’ - meaning that your quadriceps are firing but the opposing muscle group (the hamstrings) aren’t fully activated.

Overuse of the quads puts them under immense strain and increases injury risk directly within the quads – but it could also lead to other injuries such as an ACL injury. You should pay extra attention to this if your approaching the twilight of your career, as evidence reveals that muscle activation worsens with age!

How will muscle activation improve your performance? 

Muscle activation will reduce your risk of getting injured as it prevents certain muscles from becoming over-used whilst strengthening the weaker muscles. By correcting bi-lateral imbalances, you’ll also increase your joint mobility and capacity to produce force - meaning you can jump higher, accelerate and decelerate faster and be stronger in the tackle. Furthermore, it’s been shown to help your muscles better tolerate fatigue and even improve ball control!

When’s the best time to do it? 

If you are having ongoing problems with muscular pain and mobility it would be wise to go and see a muscle activation specialist for a full professional assessment. They’ll look at your body as a whole and understand that your issues may be as a result of an issue elsewhere in your body, in many cases this can be corrected in just a few seconds by applying pressure to specific areas of your body where the issue is believed to originate.

In terms of your personal muscle activation work, the crucial time to utilise this is as part of any warm up. With the use of the exercises outlined below and by applying direct pressure to key areas of the body (to reform the ‘mind-muscle connection’ and release tension – routine found in our in-season programme), you’ll do a thorough job at making sure your body is primed to perform.

How to ‘self-activate’?

There are two types of muscle activation:

  1. Selective muscle activation (Example: Clam exercise for gluted)
  2. Muscle co-activation (Example: Glute Bridge exercise for quads, glutes and hamstrings)

Selective muscle activation is used to switch on a particular muscle or muscle group, such as the quads. Muscle co-activation is used to switch on more than one muscle or muscle group at the same time, such as the quads and the hamstrings.

Following ‘’RAMP’’ is a good way to structure your warm up, it covers 3 main phases:

  • Raise
  • Activate & Mobilise
  • Potentiate/performance 

The raise portion involves increasing the heart rate, body temperature, respiration rate, blood flow and lubricating the joints.


Muscle activation occurs as part of the ‘activate and mobilise’ phase, this really should form a key part of your preparation before every training session and match. This phase could involve:

  • Isometrics
  • Mini-band work
  • Balance work
  • Clams
  • Superman exercises
  • Bodyweight squats and lunges
  • Sumo shuffles as well as
  • Spinal mobility exercises (flexion, extension, lateral flexion, and rotation)

There's lots more, but the exercises need to be appropriate to the activity (i.e. a strength training session, football-specific training session or match play).

The final phase is potentiation or priming for performance which involves performing football-specific drills, including plyometrics, reactive agility and multi-directional sprints with various intensities and distances.

Here’s some more good muscle activation exercises

Glutes and hamstrings

Glute Bridge

  • Lie face up on the floor, with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Keep your arms at your side with your palms facing down.
  • Lift your hips off the ground until your knees, hips and shoulders form a straight line. Squeeze your glutes hard and keep your abs drawn in so you don’t overextend your back during the exercise.
  • Hold your bridged position for a couple of seconds before easing back down and repeat.


Bird dog

  • Kneel on an exercise mat or floor, positioning your knees and feet hip-width apart, with your feet dorsi-flexed (toes pointing towards your body).
  • Slowly lean forward to place your hands on the mat, positioning them directly under your shoulders at shoulder-width with your fingers facing forward. Reposition your hands and knees as necessary so that your knees are directly under your hips and hands are directly under your shoulders.
  • Stiffen your core and abdominal muscles to position your spine in a neutral position.
  • Slowly extend your left hip (raise and straighten the knee) attempting to extend it until it is at, or near parallel, to the floor without any rotation in the hip. At the same time, slowly flex your right arm (raise and straighten the arm) attempting to raise it until it is at, or near parallel, to the floor without any tilting at the shoulders.
  • Gently lower yourself back to your starting position and repeat with the opposite limbs.


Clams

  • Lie on your side with your hips and shoulders in a straight line.
  • Bend your top arm and place your hand on the floor in front of your chest for extra stability. 
  • Stack your hips directly on top of each other vertically. Do the same with your shoulders.
  • Keep your big toes together as you slowly rotate your leg in the hip socket so that the top knee opens.
  • Slowly bring your knee back to the start position.


*When activating glutes and hamstrings, remember to also stretch the hip flexors and the groin muscles.

Quads

Squats

  • Stand with your feet hip width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward. Your arms should be hanging loose by your side. Then engage your core muscles and push out your chest slightly.
  • Bend your knees and push your glutes and your hips out and down behind you as if you were sitting into a chair. Keep your weight on your heels.
  • Come down until your thighs are below parallel to the ground, or as far down as you can get them. Make an effort to keep your knees externally rotated. 
  • Straighten your legs and squeeze your glutes to come back up, lowering your arms back to your side.


Box jumps

  • Begin with a box of an appropriate height 1-2 feet in front of you. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. 
  • Perform a short squat in preparation for jumping, swinging your arms behind you.
  • Rebound out of this position, extending through the hips, knees, and ankles to jump as high as possible. Swing your arms forward and up.
  • Land on the box with the knees bent, absorbing the impact through the legs. You can then jump from the box back to the ground, or preferably step down one leg at a time. 


Walking lunges

  • Begin standing with your feet shoulder width apart and your hands on your hips.
  • Step forward with one leg, flexing the knees to drop your hips. Descend until your rear knee nearly touches the ground. Your posture should remain upright, and your front knee should stay above the front foot. 
  • Drive through the heel of your lead foot and extend both knees to raise yourself back up.
  • Step forward with your rear foot, repeating the lunge on the opposite leg. 


Calves

Bodyweight calf raise

  • Get a block or a step. Stand with the balls of your feet on the edge of the step/block and let your heels drop down as far as possible. 
  • Slowly raise your heels up as high as possible. 
  • Pause, and then slowly lower your heels back to the starting position. 
  • Do not rest at the bottom, and immediately start the next rep.

To sum up…

Muscle activation is probably one of the fastest ways to see dramatic improvements in your athleticism with immediate effect. Many players will spend months training for the same increase in strength and force output that can be unlocked in as little as 10 seconds of specialist muscle activation work. Not only that, you can see instant improvements in joint range of movement and release pain and tightness – again, with other training methods progressions like this could take weeks if not months to see. Better still, when you couple the benefits of muscle activation with additional strength and conditioning work you will be gaining a significant edge over your competition.

Our full season programme below includes a full muscle activation section as part of your pre-match routine, to prime your body to perform. But we also recommend youtubing ‘muscle activation techniques’ to see some of the MAT specialists in action and to see the results that are possible for you.


References
Hanson, A. M., Padua, D. A., Troy Blackburn, J., Prentice, W. E., & Hirth, C. J. (2008). Muscle activation during side-step cutting maneuvers in male and female soccer athletes. Journal of athletic training, 43(2), 133-143.

Hart, J. M., Pietrosimone, B., Hertel, J., & Ingersoll, C. D. (2010). Quadriceps activation following knee injuries: a systematic review. Journal of athletic training, 45(1), 87-97.

Jakobi, J. M., & Rice, C. L. (2002). Voluntary muscle activation varies with age and muscle group. Journal of Applied Physiology, 93(2), 457-462.

Jeffreys, I. (2007). Warm-up revisited: The ramp method of optimizing warm-ups. Professional Strength and Conditioning, 2(6), 12-18.

Katis, A., Giannadakis, E., Kannas, T., Amiridis, I., Kellis, E., & Lees, A. (2013). Mechanisms that influence accuracy of the soccer kick. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, 23(1), 125-131.

Oliver, J., Armstrong, N., & Williams, C. (2008). Changes in jump performance and muscle activity following soccer-specific exercise. Journal of Sports Sciences, 26(2), 141-148.

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