Redefining ‘Muscle Firing’

Redefining ‘Muscle Firing’

Tom Morrison

 

Have you ever been told or thought that a certain muscle just isn’t firing?

 

Unfortunately, a muscle firing has nothing to do with cool laser beams shooting from your double bicep pose… much to my immense disappointment… but instead it’s a much more confusing term that has people scratching their heads or assuming some part of their body “doesn’t work”.

So, what does muscle firing even mean?

 

It’s a strange crossover phrase which refers to both your brain and your muscles. When a motor neuron sends a signal to your muscles, we say it’s “firing”, and when it fires it activates/contracts the motor units in your muscles that it’s in control of.

It’s pretty much another way of saying muscle activation.

 

Like with anything, you can be good or bad at it. If you don’t use a muscle very much (or very well) you won’t have very strong motor neuron patterns, meaning it’s possible that only a few motor units in your muscles are activated, or that the signals are a bit slow or erratic.

 

But, if a muscle/neuron really wasn’t firing at all, your glutes for example, then you’d fall over a lot more. You shouldn’t confuse a muscle firing normally with generating maximum contraction.

 

Similarly, it’s nigh on impossible to isolate a single muscle or motor unit in your body, even in seemingly muscle-specific exercises you are still recruiting multiple areas at once, so latching onto a very specific area is a fruitless endeavour anyway.

 

You should always be wary of “your [x/y/z] muscles aren’t firing” advice and start to question what might be going on.

I want to give you THREE things to consider if you think you have a problem with muscle firing/activation:

 

1.      Were you tested out of context?
2.      Are there gaps in your strength?

3.      Are you just lacking muscle awareness?

 

Let’s get into them and discuss some ways to combat each!

 

1.  Were You Tested Out of Context?

There are many tests that can be used to determine weakness in a muscle and some tests put you immediately into a disadvantaged position, namely, lying down on a table or never having performed the test before. If you don’t know what you’re meant to be doing or even know what it’s meant to feels like… well, no you probably won’t use your muscles very well.

Say you’re strong enough to lift elephants above your head from breakfast, but If I lie you down on a table and lift your leg up as high as it can go and ask you to push, your body may deem as a threat or dangerous then your muscle is going to famously “switch off” to protect itself, which basically is your brain sending fewer signals until it’s had time to assess the situation or prepare other parts of your body to fight/flight.
Then, I can dance to the sun and shake my maracas while singing about milkshakes and yards and then perform the test again.

 

Almost certainly there will be an immediate improvement because, well, not only have you stayed calm while this crazy person performed a sun dance so everything must be fine, but more importantly this is now the second time you’ve been put in this position. Nothing bad happened the first time, so your brain & muscles now have knowledge based off previous stimulus and will react better the second time, regardless of what was performed in between.
Your muscles could be firing just fine, but when put into an unknown or new situation they will deliberately be held back by your brain. Unfairly, subconsciously, but it happens… and as a result you can start to believe that this is just an inbuilt weakness that you have, and that whatever the treatment or exercises performed between the two tests are essential for getting your muscles firing.

 

The other funny thing of note is that we have a deep desire to do well (especially in front of a person of high authority like a doctor), and because you “failed” the first time you’ll have a strong desire to “win” and beat your previous performance the second time!

 

A common test for the shoulders is to resist your arm being pushed down at different angles when your arm is fully stretched out. This is used to discover areas of pain following things like subluxations, dislocations, tears, etc.

 

If pain is discovered, further medical investigations would take place, but, if you just seemingly had a big weakness in one direction… simply being shown better posture and bracing will vastly improve your performance. Which comes back to the earlier point of trying to pinpoint a specific weak muscle – your body works as a unit. Putting pressure specifically on your shoulder joint without the support of your upper back and core probably will cause a reduction of strength.

 

If your body doesn’t feel safe or thinks that applying pressure or force will cause damage, it simply won’t contract your muscles effectively.

 

Another common test for Glutes is lay belly down on a table, lift a leg up and resist it being pushed down. Problem is, by lying down and lifting your leg your hips are already fully (or over) extended, so your glutes are already at the limit of what they can do. To try and achieve this goal of “resist being pushed down”, your body will probably extend your spine to get even more height. The result? Oh, your glutes don’t seem to be firing.

 

But if I take that same bum and let you stand, brace and flex from the hip first and then push back into extension by squeezing your glutes without extending your spine, it’ll work fine.

If we then took you back onto the table and ask you to perform the leg resisting task again, you’d probably be more successful because your body isn’t trying to get maximum height, it’s learned what the limit of good glute contraction feels like and won’t simply try to extend the spine for the sake of it.

 

 

The key takeaway being: if you are not 100% confident of how to do something then you’re not going to have access to your own strength, and even if the task is simple, if you aren’t in a good position or bracing properly then your brain will shut you down to avoid you straining or injuring yourself.

 

If you are genuinely injured with a break, tear, dislocation, etc then yes, you will have a legitimate neural & physical disruption, but otherwise try not to label yourself with weaknesses based off isolated tests.

 

You should always try testing and retesting yourself or problem areas after a variety of different stimulus – try morning or evening, different days, different positions, different weights… even rubbing a certain area for 30 seconds before you test it can improve performance!

 

2. Do You Have Complete Strength or Have Gaps in Your Muscle Strength?

At a very basic level, all you are is a bunch of levers and pulleys.

 

Muscles rarely work in isolation. Even when you’re doing bro curls in front of the mirror, the very fact that you’re standing up and able to do reps means that your legs, back and core must be keeping you upright.

 

Those who most commonly have complaints of a weak lower back, weak glutes, dodgy shoulder etc, are those who miss a lot of complete joint movement.

 

When your joints aren’t moving well, it comes right back to your brain protecting your body again – why should it allow for strong contractions if you could cause more damage because your ball and socket shoulder joint is all decentralised? You could cause yourself a lot of damage that way.

 

But the fix is so simple it’s crazy: move your joints like joints are supposed to move! It’s not rest, it’s not getting your 3kg dumbbell and doing isolated external rotation exercises, it’s going through full ranges of motion.

Some of my favourite ones to throw out there are rotating your joints that are designed to rotate: shoulders and hips. So many aches, pains, weaknesses and other problems in the shoulders, neck, upper back, upper arm, glutes, thighs, back and more can be fixed by getting these two areas rotating.

 

Why do you think they feel so stiff when you never move them the way they were designed to move? And I’m not talking about the splits here I’m just talking internal and external rotation like the 90/90 hip drill, or this lovely shoulder warm up I got from MR Calisthenics.

 

 

If joints don’t feel mobile or that it doesn’t have wiggle room at any angle then of course it’s going to feel like they’re switching off or cutting out on you, they’re trying to protect you from putting your max effort into something and wrecking yourself.

 

When you adjust your mindset and think about full joint movement rather than hating on a particular muscle it’s a much easier life and takes up less time… as you can avoid that inevitable cycle of doing 10,000 clamshells to fire your glutes every day or 30,000 face pulls to retract your shoulders.

 

Another issue that can seemingly present itself as a muscle “switching off” is a weakness in the opposing muscle, i.e. not the one you think is the problem. One of my favourite muscle group pairings to illustrate this is the relationship between the Adductors and Abductors.

 

All the commonly prescribed exercises to fix hip dysfunctions and back pain, even knee valgus (when the knees collapse inwards) are all Glute focused and Abduction centred (abduction is moving your leg out, away from your body).

 

In all my years of working with people, I have seen those who could win the Glute Bridge Olympics, that could Clam a Shell until it crumbled… but give them a simple Adduction exercise (moving your leg in, towards your body) such as a Copenhagen plank and they would be shaking or even completely unable to perform it. And this isn’t just your average joe I’m talking about here, I’ve seen this multiple times with advanced, competitive athletes – these things can just be missed, and people can spend years chasing down the wrong rabbit holes!

 

When you put a band around your knees for the classic abduction Monster/Crab Walks, Clamshells or Banded Glute Bridges, it is pulling your knees in. It is doing the job of the adductors.

 

 

Yes, your glutes feel like they’re firing, you’re getting an awesome burn! …but as soon as you take the band off, your weak adductors simply don’t have the strength to resist your awesome glutes, so they have nothing to work against. You’ve only worked one half of the pulley system so it can seem like you’re doing “everything right” but making no progress.

 

This can quite obviously present itself as a problem for squatting when people get extreme knee valgus and it can affect running through your ability to decelerate and absorb force through the hips, meaning the knees or back will take more impact than it should. You could get away with these weaknesses for years (your body is great at adapting), but eventually it will catch up with you.

 

You can find out more about the Glutes vs Adductors in this video.

 

This is not to start saying that you should totally get obsessed with your adductors and internal hip rotation, it’s just to always keep the big picture in mind and treat your body like a whole and when one area is presenting you with a problem.

 

If you feel like you have a problem in a certain area, ask the supporting muscles if they are feeling ok. Muscles don’t just decide to be lazy, weak or painful for fun, there’s usually a few factors – thinking that a foam rolling “mobility routine” is all you need could be one of them…

 

3. Are You Just Lacking Muscle Awareness?

I have seen countless deadlifts that are either nothing more than a drinking bird (all levers but no pulley), and/or the lower back is doing more of the work than the hamstrings and glutes (which can be very subtle).

 

That’s where you see people who seem to have good technique get to a certain point and the bar just doesn’t budge OR they’re able to get to their knees and start doing that hitching, calve raise, jumpy dance to finish the lift.

 

Regularly failing or getting a painful lower back when doing deadlifts can make you think that, well shucks, my glutes just aren’t firing! So, you jump onto the Glute Bridge & Clamshell bandwagon we discussed earlier.

 

First thing to remember is: there is a big difference between maximal tension & normal/useful function. You don’t NEED your glutes to be fully squeezed to do deadlifts, but you do need to learn how to use & be aware of them through the full range of motion

 

Let’s take a Glute Bridge as an example. It is a great warm up exercise for Deadlift and it will help bring awareness to your glutes. But… do you use your glutes to drive and extend your hips? Or do you just lift your hips up and squeeze your glutes at the top?

 

 

I want you to try a couple – right now if you can! Just do them as you normally would and see what you do (don’t worry, I’m not judging you….)

 

Then, I want you to squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement and aim to keep that contraction and your pelvis tucked as you lower your hips down. You’ll feel yourself slowly lose the contraction as your glutes stretch towards the bottom so it won’t feel as strong as it did at full hip extension, but the conscious attention you’re putting in will mean there’s more signals firing there than before.

 

Try around 10 reps like that and feel the difference.

 

If you can’t get it at first keep practicing, this can take some people weeks to get the hang of.

 

So, even though you can’t always get maximum contraction, you can still create muscle activation through awareness. This is what so many people miss: their muscles are strong; they just don’t know how to use them.

 

The deadlift has two main muscle groups that we want to bring awareness to: hamstrings & glutes.

 

In the start position, your hamstrings will feel tension (which is a good thing) as you flex the hips and elongate them – imagine the string of a bow being pulled back ready to be let go. However, you can’t feel your glutes very much here because your hip is flexed the same as at the bottom of a glute bridge.

But even though we can’t feel them much, you want to imagine that same sensation in our glute bridge, as if you’re trying to activate your glutes through the full range of motion and drive your hips forwards using strength.

 

The magic happens when you get the bar past your knees and the roles reverse: your hamstrings start to go quiet and your glutes will suddenly feel more active – but this time there’s no delay, pause or struggle during this handover because you’ve continuously been bringing awareness to your glutes through the full lift.

 

 

Of course, this is only one piece of the puzzle, if your ability to hinge or brace aren’t great then your spine won’t feel safe, or you won’t be using your hamstrings properly etc. But it just goes to show you that simply by bringing awareness and conscious effort to your technique could literally be all you needed to improve your lifts. Without hours of accessory work or crazy warmups.

 

The same goes for the shoulders for upper body training. Lats are a common muscle to feel “switched off” but doing a million band Lat pulls won’t help if you’re just flopping the band up and down and only squeezing when you’ve already got the Lat at full contraction.
If you still find you struggle to activate or bring awareness to a muscle just my shifting your focus, there’s are a couple of tricks you can do, such as touching yourself and filming … just don’t film yourself touching yourself, that would be weird…

 

Poking or pressing the muscle/area you want to work can create extra stimulus for your body, pretty much making it go “Ohhh, you meant that one!”. Then filming yourself may reveal a funky position or movement pattern that you were never aware of before!

Practice activating/firing problem areas without weight, but make sure you then integrate it to your barbell/dumbbell/running/sport – whatever you actually need it for! Doing accessory exercises in isolation is good but if you then just go back to your training and do the same as you did before… you’re going to get nowhere.

 

Assess Your Body Regularly

Keeping on top of muscles getting lazy/weak is always a good thing. I like to have quick assessment exercises that will immediately let me know if something’s off, and the best assessment exercises are those which you can’t just muscle through and compensate if something is wrong.

One of the simplest ones is your balance on one leg – can you do it for 30 seconds per leg? If not, you may have a weakness, but the great thing is that just by practising balancing you will get better on it, and you’ll probably find that’s all you need to bring back awareness to your body. Like we discussed early, sometimes a little awareness is all you need.

 

Who’s the best person to know this and make you do this? YOU, you are the best person to get more in tune with your body, no one else.

 

If you know you’re doing a bit of daily movement, you know that your mobility work is on point and that your technique is good, you don’t NEED to worry about muscle activation or firing, you just can enjoy yourself and breathe. How do you get to that point? Practice!

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