Pre-activation, otherwise known as corrective exercise, active warm-up or post-activation potentiation (PAP), is a strategy that involves “switching on” or “firing up” a target muscle (or muscle group) with an isolation or conditioning exercise before engaging in activity.
For a number of reasons - inflexibility, disuse (sitting for much of the day), prior injury, and irregular movement - some muscles have simply lost stimulation. Notorious for doing so are muscles such as the gluteals, lats, deep abdominals, and other core stabilisers’. The relative laziness of these muscles means that other muscles — namely your quads, lower back and traps — take over as a result, reducing the efficiency of the exercise, reinforcing poor movement patterns and putting you at risk for injury.
Ultimately, the impediment of sub-par, or insufficient activation, results in a less than ideal performance, and likely, frustration. Pre-activating the muscles you’re trying to work (or the muscles that you know are responsible for creating the movement you are about to perform) with a specific movement will fire-up your nervous system — specific components of your nervous system — and get you on the road to the results you’re after.
Whilst ‘moving’ is the key to an effective PAP strategy, it is perhaps more important to ensure that you are engaging your mind. Wiring the brain-muscle circuit takes mental effort (especially after years of frayed circuitry), and so switching the brain off during exercise is far from ideal.
Research has shown that deliberately focusing on a muscle and/or visualising it shortening can improve activation, and subsequent goals of improving muscular size, tone and endurance etc are far less problematic to achieve. For example, if you concentrate hard on your gluteal group when doing a one-legged hip lift, you are more likely to replicate this strategy when performing a deadlift, or a squat. At the very least, when preparing for squatting (or deadlifting) using a gluteal activation exercise like a hip lift, you will have some sensation in the areas responsible for creating that movement, and this can only be beneficial.
This neuromuscular re-wiring — enhancing the brain to muscle connection— will eventually become a sub-conscious pattern. Until such time, repetitive practice is key. Using the canonical 10,000 rep principle, it stands to reason that for any alteration in muscular recruitment to occur, significant time, and energy must be expended in ‘training’. In essence, the process of pre-activation serves to make movement ‘precise’ – both in quality, and in quantity - and less injudicious.
The challenge with pre-activation is to fire-up and utilise the right muscles without unnecessarily fatiguing them – this would be counterproductive. In order to prepare the neuromuscular system to turn on those muscles without ‘burning them out’, pre-activation exercises have to be done either at a light to moderate intensity or at a high intensity for just a few reps. With this in mind, my encouragement for you, in whatever capacity this seems reasonable, is that you start to explore what muscles are responsible for the movements you readily engage in. If it’s kayaking, for example, then perhaps a little research into Kayak force production, and associated musculature, would be helpful in getting you started on the right PAP routine.