Is Muscle Activation a Thing? Why Workout Cues are Important

Muscle activation and deactivation is the most important concept to understand in golf fitness and to learn during a golf conditioning program.

Big statement, I know.

It’s hard to argue against, though.

The golf swing sequence is about timing, and knowing when to activate muscles and shut them down is critical to the golf swing. 

Remember Tiger Woods taking shit for this statement?

Social media blew up with all kinds of “activating your ass” jokes, but Tiger probably was right, he knows his body and the golf swing.

Golf Swing Example

For example, at the top of your backswing, your pelvis moves slightly toward the target followed almost instantaneously by hip rotation. Some players even initiate the hip movement before finishing the backswing. 

So at the top of the backswing, the upper body is stationary or rotating clockwise (assuming right-handed player) while the pelvis is rotating counterclockwise. 

Therefore, a golfer needs to be able to separate movement between the upper and lower body, at a minimum, be able to move one without the other moving.

Several muscles are responsible for lower body rotation and to optimize the golf swing they all need to know when to deactivate or stop contracting, and the antagonistic pairs need to activate and contract to change the direction of rotation.

Now, this is an oversimplification, but that’s all that’s necessary to understand this next point. 

A right-handed golfer that can’t rotate their pelvis counterclockwise on demand is going to either slide toward the target or use only their upper body in the golf downswing, both actions cause a large loss of power and a lack of distance.

The reasons why the pelvis can’t rotate could be the lack of mobility (internal rotation of the left hip or external rotation of the right). Poor stability in the lumbar spine or knees. A lack of strength in the legs and core, or not being able to activate or deactivate muscles responsible for the rotation of the hips.

That’s right; mobility can be affected by both physical limitations and for the lack of a better word, mental limitations, by not being able to instruct the muscles to contract or relax. 


Yes, mental, sort of, kind of, but it’s more of a connection between the brain, nerves, and muscles.

You should be able to contract or activate a muscle by thinking about moving it. No doubt it’s easier when thinking about an action, after all, I don’t think about the muscles I need to move in my fingers and hands as I type this article.

But I can hold my arm out and think about contracting my bicep and have it tighten up.

Muscle Activation

A common muscle activation is when someone goes to punch you in the stomach. You activate the abdominals to protect yourself from the blow. This is almost subconscious even though you’re reacting to a visual stimulus. 

The muscle activation we want in the gym is purely conscious. we need to turn on a muscle on and having it activate by thinking about it.

For example, you should be thinking about activating your glutes before you do a deadlift. So when you feel the pull of gravity on the weight, your glutes are already in a position to hold the weight and to help extend your hips during the lift.

When I think of explaining voluntary muscle activation the old pec flex trick comes to mind. 

Funny story.

The first person I ever saw do a pec flex was a girl in my 7th-grade gym class.

She thought it was funny.

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And I was like…

Taylor Negron Wow GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Maybe she thought it was funny because of the look on my face?

She wasn’t in a bikini top, and she wasn’t moving to the beat of Jingle Bells like Sara X there, but still, nonetheless, it left an impression on me.

That Sara X gif is like the late 1970’s cartoon Wonder Twins.

Wonder Twin Powers Activate! 

Can you believe the funny little lines that those cartoons used that went right over our heads?

Balls to the Wall.


On a More Serious Note

Muscle activation plays a big part in the golf swing.

Like the example used in the beginning of the article, deactivating and activating muscles end and initiate sequences in the swing. 

Being able to activate muscles on cue is important in the gym too.

Because activating muscles can protect your body from injury and they can also increase the range of motion of joints. 

In the video below, I do a simple leg lift two different ways.

First, with my hands to the side, I tighten my core and use my hip flexors to lift my leg while keeping the other leg on the floor keeping my pelvis in posterior tilt so the arch of my back stays on the floor.

In the second leg lift, I pull resistance bands to the floor with my hands, this increases my core activation and the results speak for themselves.

Instead of having a hip mobility issue or tight hip flexors, the problem is a lack of core activation.

Wonder Twin Powers

Let’s use the leg raise video as an exercise example.

My trainer wants me to work on my hip range of motion as well as lengthen my hip flexors.

She suggests the leg raise exercise. 

Doing the leg raise without the resistance band wouldn’t have worked my hip flexors or hamstrings because the lack of core activation didn’t allow either to move in the full range of motion or stretch to their full length.

But add the resistance band, and immediately my core is activated. When I raise my leg, now I’m pulling on the hip flexors at their full range as well as all the muscles trying to keep my pelvis tilted posteriorly. 

So by adding the resistance band to the exercise, I have activated the Twin Powers in the form of core stability and in the shape of longer hip flexors.

See what I did there? You were probably wondering why I included the Twin Power video.

Don’t Forget Deactivation

At times, your movement is impaired because a muscle doesn’t deactivate. 

Failure to deactivate also causes decreased range of motion in joints. Especially in the shoulders. 

People have a hard time lifting overhead, including me. My lat muscles are tight, they don’t relax and they end up pushing my lumbar spine into extension. My lats also push my shoulders forward so I have to forcefully pull them back. 

I try to relax them but it’s like I’m always tense. I use the following exercise to help me deactivate my lats.

It Comes Down to This

When a trainer asks you to activate a muscle there’s a good reason. Plus, you can’t count on the exercise to do all the work for you.

Sometimes you need to make sure the work is being done by the muscles you’re trying to train. Otherwise, your body will find other ways to get the work done and the exercise will be useless. 

That’s the job of a trainer, to make sure you’re getting benefit out of each exercise, but when you’re doing exercises at home, by yourself, you need to know it’s working the targeted muscle. 

Being able to activate muscles that protect your back is vital when working out. It’s also important to know that the muscles you want to exercise are doing the majority of the work. And the easiest way is to realize in your head that you can feel that muscle doing the majority of the work.

How Do Improve Muscle Activation?

There are specialists that work only on muscle activation techniques. The specialist manipulates your muscles and puts you into positions so you recognize how it feels when they’re activated.

Then it’s like anything else, practice.

We all have the same muscles, so people that can pelvic tilt, and keep their upper body still while they rotate their pelvis clockwise and counterclockwise have nothing on those of us that can’t. Except they can activate and control their muscles better than we can. 

It comes down to practice.

I’ve had clients get mad when I tell them their homework is to get to the point where they can clinch their glutes tight at will. Maybe they would rather have me schedule deadlifts, shit I would rather tell them to do deadlifts, but if they can’t activate their glutes they will blow out their back. 

So what is the point of adding strength to a dysfunction and getting yourself hurt.

We all want to progress fast, but it has to be done correctly. It’s the whole walk before you run routine. 

Like a building, your body needs a proper foundation before you can build it up.

No matter how insignificant it seems to practice activating muscles it’s very important to proper movement and getting stronger in the gym.

A muscle that doesn’t activate will not get stronger, instead, other muscles will take over for the inactive muscle. These muscles aren’t designed to carry the load and the result will be poor performance or injury. 

If you want to improve your golf game, it’s important that your joints have full range of motion and proper stability. Without being able to activate key muscles neither will happen and your golf game will suffer. 

The Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) has designed a series of mobility and stability screens that help identify areas of your body that with some work would help improve your golf game. The screens are also designed to identify if key muscles can be activated and deactivated. 


Here is a summary of the article

  • Being able to activate and deactivate muscles is important to the golf swing and exercise.
  • Joint range of motion can increase when supporting muscles are activated.
  • Sara X has the Wonder Twin Powers
  • 70’s cartoons aren’t as good now as they seemed at the time.
  • It’s nearly impossible to strengthen inactive muscles without running the risk of imbalances or injuries.
  • You need the ability to activate key muscles before you work out.
  • Muscles can be activated with practice and without specific exercises.
  • Adding strength to dysfunction or inactive muscles is a no-no.

strength and dysfunctionI have a free guide called Don’t Add Strength to Dysfunction (recently revised) it gets more in-depth why you should correct limitations and dysfunctions before you lift weights. Click the button below and the guide will download immediately.

Click to Download the Guide

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Copyright: woodoo007 / 123RF Stock Photo

Exercise video from Tony Gentilcore

Gif files from Giphy


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