How to Get Your Inactive Muscles to Wake Up and Fire
People often ask me how to strengthen or “activate” weak or inactive muscles. Well, there’s a difference between weak and inactive, and it’s important to understand this difference.
Do you feel like you can’t get a certain muscle group to “fire” no matter how hard you try? Weakness is probably not the problem. Read this post to learn how to go about getting your inactive muscles to wake up and fire, and how doing so can help you balance out your full-body patterns and keep you out of pain.
The difference between weak and inactive muscles
A weak muscle is one that is not strong; not capable of lifting heavy weight or giving much resistance. For example, my biceps are weak because I don’t lift weights—much to the dismay of my bodybuilding partner. Strengthening muscles is pretty straightforward: You do enough repetitions with enough weight or resistance that you start to fatigue the muscle. Muscle fibers are damaged, and you take a couple of days off to let the healing process take place. On your rest days, your damaged muscle cells are repaired or replaced, resulting in thicker and more plentiful muscle fibers. As you continue to lift progressively heavier weights or use more resistance, your muscles continue to get bigger and more powerful.
If you have an inactive muscle, it feels like you can’t get it to contract at all—“not firing” is how many people describe it. You’re trying so hard to use it, and it just won’t wake up and do it’s job! Weakness can be a factor in this, but the bigger issue is that your habitual patterns of movement and muscle tension are actually preventing this muscle from working the way it’s supposed to.
So, while strengthening muscles is a physical endeavor, activating muscles is mainly a mental one that requires releasing chronic muscle tension and retraining the way you use your body. Let’s learn how!
First: Release the tight opposing muscles
If you have a muscle or muscle group that just won’t fire, most likely the opposing muscles (antagonists) are chronically tight. People most often report that their abdominals or gluteus maximus are inactive, and those are the ones I’ve experienced in my own body as well, so those are the muscles I’ll be using as examples for the rest of the post.
Let’s start with the abdominals and lower back. When the lower back muscles are very tight, it’s difficult to fully contract the abdominals. The lower back muscles aren’t able to lengthen in order to let the abdominals contract and get shorter. The tighter the back muscles are, the harder it will be to use the abdominals, and the more “inactive” they’ll feel. It won’t just be hard to do a crunch or sit-up; it will also feel difficult or impossible to activate your stomach muscles while you’re working out or moving through your daily activities.
If you feel like this is an issue for you, here are the exercises from Levels One & Two that you should focus on to release your lower back muscles:
Arch & Flatten
Arch & Curl
One-sided Arch & Curl
Diagonal Arch & Curl
Flowering Arch & Curl
Lower Back Release
Standing Hamstring Release
Seated Hamstring Release
If you feel like your gluteus maximus (the large, strong muscle of the buttocks) won’t fire, then most likely the opposing muscles—the hip flexors—are very tight. Your hip flexors flex your hip, bringing your knee up toward your chest and stomach. The gluteus maximus does the opposite action: it extends the hip, pulling your leg behind you and lengthening the front of your hip. The tighter your hip flexors are, the harder it will be for your gluteus maximus to do its job. But as you release your hip flexors, you may notice your gluteus maximus naturally waking up!
If you feel like this is an issue for you, the exercises that most effectively release tight hip flexors are the Iliopsoas Release and Hip Rotation exercises from Level One, and the Quadriceps Release from Level Two. Other exercises you may find helpful are Hip Slides & Hip Raises, Hip Circles, Flowering Arch & Curl, and Inversion & Eversion (all from Level One).
Second: Start activating the inactive muscles
As you make progress in releasing the chronically tight antagonist muscles, you should find that it gradually becomes easier to use your inactive muscles. And while our focus in Clinical Somatics is always on releasing tension, you can actually use the exercises to start gently activating your muscles as well. This part is a mental workout—you’re training your nervous system to use muscles that you haven’t in a while—and the more slowly you move, the more effectively your nervous system will be able to learn.
If you feel like you’ve begun to release your tight lower back muscles, you can start spending some time gently activating your abdominals. The exercises that will best allow you to do this are (all from Level One):
Arch & Flatten
Arch & Curl
One-sided Arch & Curl
Diagonal Arch & Curl
Flowering Arch & Curl
Always start with the Arch & Flatten, which will gently wake up your abdominals and back muscles. Take the time and attention to explore how it feels to hollow out your belly as you flatten. Hollowing out the belly engages your transverse abdominis, which many people rarely—or never—engage consciously. The transverse abdominis compresses the contents of the abdomen, and flattening the back and hollowing out the belly is the best way to engage it. You may feel your rectus abdominis (the six-pack muscle) contracting as well.
After doing the Arch & Flatten, you may find it helpful to turn over and do the Back Lift to release your lower back muscles. After releasing the lower back, the Curl exercises should feel easier.
As you get into the Curl exercises, your rectus abdominis and obliques will be doing the work. Start by moving as slowly as you need to, and making your Curls as small as you need to, in order to feel that you have total control over your rectus abdominis. Try to feel the whole length of it contracting: from the bottom where it attaches to your pubic bone, to the top where it attaches to your ribs. You can start curling up farther as you feel able to. But, don’t speed up! You’re still training yourself how to have total voluntary control of your abs, and you need to move slowly.
Be sure to release down as slowly as you can, as you always do with these exercises, in order to fully release your abdominals. Even though you’re teaching yourself to activate and use these muscles, that doesn’t mean you want to start building up excess muscle tension, which you’ll do if you focus only on the contraction phase. And, the more fully you’re able to release your muscles, the more you’ll be able to use them through their full range of motion: fully contracting when you need them, and then fully releasing when you’re done moving.
When you feel that you’ve made some progress in releasing your hip flexors, you can take this same approach to train yourself to activate your gluteus maximus. Start by doing the Hip Rotation, Iliopsoas Release, and Quadriceps Release to release your hip flexors. Then, do the Back Lift, paying special attention to how your gluteus maximus engages as you lift up your leg. You can even skip the rest of the Back Lift and just focus on the leg lift if you want. Lift up slowly, just a few inches, feeling the muscles in your buttocks and lower back gently contract. You can reach around and put your hand on your buttocks to feel the muscles contracting—bringing the sensation of touch to a muscle can help you contract it. Then, release down as slowly as you can.
You can gradually lift your leg higher each time in order to contract your gluteus maximus more fully. But, keep moving as slowly as possible, and don’t force it. There’s no benefit to lifting your leg high if you don’t have full voluntary control of the movement.
The Gluteal Release exercise (Level Two) is the other exercise that will help you activate your gluteus maximus. However, this exercise works with external rotation. If you feel that your gluteus maximus is inactive because your inner thigh muscles are tight, pulling your legs together, then this exercise will be helpful for you. Be sure to start by practicing the Internal Hip Rotator Release (the part of Hip Rotation in which you slowly lower your knee out to the side). Then, practice the Gluteal Release with the same approach as described above. Start by making the movement very small, and only make it bigger as you can while maintaining full voluntary control. Contract up and release down as slowly as you can.
Third: Explore how you’re using—or not using—your inactive muscles in your daily life
You’ve done the two most important steps: Releasing your chronically tight muscles, and starting to activate your inactive muscles. By now, you may have noticed that you’re naturally starting to use those previously inactive muscles during your workouts and as you move through your daily life. They may even feel sore from time to time, because they haven’t been used in a while!
You should start to pay attention to how you’re using—or not using—those inactive muscles as you move. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
When it comes to your abdominals, there’s no need to consciously contract them as you’re walking around and doing regular daily activities. Doing this will probably result in building up excess tension in your abdominals, eventually leading to shallow breathing and rounded posture. The best way to allow your abs to do their job is to keep your lower back muscles released as you move through your daily life. Keep checking in with yourself throughout the day to make sure you’re not standing and walking with your back arched and stomach sticking out. Relax your back muscles, let your pelvis naturally come into a straight up and down position, and then your abdominals will be able to do their work.
When you’re working out or lifting heavy objects, you should take the time and attention to consciously engage your abdominals to support you as you move. With practice, it will feel more natural and automatic to use your abdominals when working out or lifting.
A simple movement pattern that gives the opportunity to retrain your use of your gluteus maximus is bending over to pick something up. Try this first with your right side: Put a light object on the floor. Reach down with your right hand to pick it up, bending your right hip and knee. Notice if it feels like the front of your right hip creases and your right side glutes engage. Or, notice that maybe you tend to tuck your pelvis under, not creasing the front of your right hip, and not engaging your right side glutes. Now, try this with your left side. You may need to repeat this a few times on each side, slowly and gently, in order to notice what your natural pattern is on each side.
The more natural and efficient pattern in this case is allowing the front of your hip to crease, which should allow your glutes to engage. If this doesn’t feel natural to you, then you can start slowly, gently practicing this every day. You may want to hold onto the back of a chair or something else as you bend down—support yourself as needed so that you can do this safely. When you’re on the floor practicing your somatics exercises, you can also explore slowly and gently bringing your knee into your chest, and very slowly moving your knee forward and backward through a small range of motion. This will get you comfortable with the movement and sensation of letting the front of your hip crease.
When we develop unnatural movement patterns and start overusing certain muscles, they get chronically tight. They keep us stuck in our unnatural patterns, and eventually lead to pain. The more you can train your full-body patterns to be natural and efficient, allowing all of your muscles to do what they’re meant to do (and not more), the better you’ll be able to stay out of pain.
Do you want to strengthen your inactive muscles?
Once you feel like you’ve made good progress in releasing the tight antagonist muscles and activating your inactive muscles, you can go ahead and start strengthening them. But please—follow these tips so you don’t create more problems for yourself!
1. Always warm up very slowly and gently. Start by doing a very slow, gentle version of the strengthening exercise. Take the time and attention to fully engage your muscles while moving very slowly. When you feel like your muscles are working as they should, then gradually increase the size and/or resistance of the movement. But every single time you work out, you should always warm up like this. Never jump right into a big movement or one with a lot of resistance without warming up slowly and consciously.
2. Release out of contractions slowly and with control. This prevents you from building up excess muscle tension. Doing sudden, strong contractions and then dropping the weight suddenly creates short, tight, bulky muscles—which over time will lead to tension, pain, and injury.
Always remember: Learning how to activate inactive muscles is a mental workout, not a physical one. So, slow down as much as you need to and use your brain. If you’re feeling frustrated, it means you need to slow down even more. Take the time to release the antagonist muscles, and focus on your internal sensations. Don’t be goal oriented, and don’t force your body to do things it’s not ready for.
The Pain Relief Secret: How to Retrain Your Nervous System, Heal Your Body, and Overcome Chronic Pain by Sarah Warren, CSE
Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health by Thomas Hanna