Are you struggling to activate all muscle fibers? Particularly the lower body?
Nowadays, most people have jobs that require them to sit a lot. In this position, especially the muscles on the back of your body (glutes, hamstrings, back) are stretched and inactive, whereas the entire front (quadriceps, chest muscles) is often very tight.
This can lead to muscular imbalances over time. Thus, it is important to activate the right muscles during your training. Studying in medical school has changed my outlook on fitness and exercise. While I work out, I think about the anatomy of the muscles and how they are activated by the brain. This helps me to fully stimulate a motor unit and thus hit all muscle fibers.
Today’s article gives tips on how to activate all muscles of the lower body: Glutes, Hamstrings and Quadriceps.
This post is the follow-up to science of muscle activation, I recommend you check that out first before reading on.
Hit all muscle fibers – Lower Body Edition
The Gluteus maximus, medius and minimus are hip extensors (raising your leg to the back) and abductors (raising your leg to the side).
They help stabilize your pelvis in a neutral position which is crucial to prevent back pain, disc herniation and all kinds of arthritis of the hip and knee-joint.
To fully engage the Glutes you need to posteriorly tilt the pelvis. This doesn’t mean you should thrust your hips forward in an uncontrolled manner. Always keep tension in the Glutes and think about them as your primary muscles to complete the exercise.
Don’t lift heavy until you can engage your Glutes with bodyweight exercises!
My glute activation routine will help you build a solid mind-muscle connection (click the image to read full routine):
Repeat this circuit 1-2x every day. If you are doing it right, your glutes should be on fire!
Do this for 1-2 weeks then add in these Glute Muscle building exercises. Only do these weighted if you have established a good mind-muscle connection:
The Glute Bridge with weights is an advanced exercise. You should only use weights if you can complete all repetitions without feeling them in your lower back. This exercise should activate your glutes, hamstrings and core. Make sure to push through your heels the whole time. I also recommend you start the movement by pressing your lower back on the ground and then raising your hips, while holding this position. This way, your hips will be tilted posteriorly and your glute activation will increase.
The Hip Thrust is one of the best exercises to target your glutes and build a bigger butt. It will also prevent back injuries. Start out bodyweight and then add weights.
If you struggle with proper form, check out my Hip Thrust Challenge for explanation.
Do these exercises before you do heavy strength training exercises like squats, or super set them.
- Side Clam -20x
- Side leg raise – 20x
- Glute bridge feel elevated – 20x
- Fire Hydrants -20x
Superset Squats- 10x with Donkey Kicks – 20x
Superset Lunges -10x with Bridges – 12x
Superset Reverse Hyper -15x with Deadlifts -8x
Repeat for 3-4 sets for each Super set
- Make sure to strengthen your transverse abdominis (deep pelvis muscle). This will help you to posterior pelvic tilt the hips and work the Glutes and Abs together.
As a side note, I noticed my Glutes activate to a much higher degree when I try to squeeze the Glutes and abdominal muscles together. Try that out when squatting or deadlifting.
- Hip Thrusts and Bridges: Press the lower back on the ground, raise the head and dig heels into ground. Push through as if you want to split the ground apart.
- Use resistance bands. The gluteus maximus is easier to activate but gluteus medius is a bit tricky. Gluteus medius needs to be strong to stabilize the pelvis and prevent knee arthritis.
- Use ankle weights: I use ankle weights on a daily basis to properly activate the glutes. Resistance bands are great to hit the outer part of the glutes (the “shelf”), while ankle weights hit more the lower part of your glutes (the hamstring tie-in). Combine both and you have your ultimate butt-burner workout!
Activate the Gluteus Medius:
- Use resistance bands around knees when you are doing Squats, Deadlifts, Bridges, Hip Thrusts, Fire Hydrants, Side Clam etc.
The hamstrings are also hip extensors and they help to curl your leg.
Thus, the best isolation exercise for the Hamstrings is the Leg Curl:
These can be done at home with Bands, at the Gym with the Hamstring Curl machine, or standing.
Also, all kinds of Glute Isolation exercises, especially elevated feet Bridges, work the Hamstrings too. It is not possible to solely activate one muscle group only, as many muscles in our body work together to complete a movement (synergistic).
Another favorite exercise of mine for the Hamstrings is the Ball Leg Curl. This is a tricky exercise. You need to be stiff as a board and really hold your pelvis stable. If you lack core strength, don’t do this exercise, as it can strain your back. If you are strong enough, this is an excellent exercise to work the entire back leg (Glutes and Hamstrings), as well as your core.
Sample Routine to target the Hamstrings
Super set traditional Deadlift – 10x with Leg curls with Bands – 15
Super set Stiff legged Deadlift -10x with Bridges -15x
Super set Sumo Squats -10x with Ball leg Curls -7x
Repeat for 3-4 sets for each Super set
- When doing Leg Curls, you need to hold your lower back still. Your pelvis should not rock forward and backward. The motion occurs just in the knee-joint. You should only use the back of your leg to curl the leg.
- Ball Leg curls: Dig your heels into the ball as you try to roll it. Simultaneously squeeze your Glutes, Abs and Hamstrings to create enough force.
- Squats: You should feel this exercise working your whole lower body, not just the Quadriceps (front of the thighs). Before lowering into a squat, squeeze your Glutes, Hamstrings and Abdominals and stabilize the pelvis. Try to hold this contraction as you lower into the Squat. It does not matter how deep you squat. If you don’t use proper form, you will not fully engage the muscles and risk injury, especially with heavy weight.
- The same goes for Lunges: Before stepping back or lowering into the Lunge position, dig your heels into the ground and squeeze the Glutes, Hamstrings and Abdominals.
- About weights: You will not be able to use as much weight if you try to contract multiple muscles at once. That does not matter though, as our muscles do not recognize how much weight we lift. What they do notice is the force you need to produce, that is what creates a bigger impulse to activate all muscle fibers. You can do a bodyweight exercise and squeeze the muscles so hard that the muscle gets activated as if you were lifting very heavy weight!
Part of the Quadriceps helps to extend the knee-joint and all of it flexes the hip-joint. Thus the quadriceps is kind of two-joint exercise.
Weak Quadriceps muscles lead to knee arthritis. As many people sit a lot these days, the muscle is in a contracted position all day long. That does not mean that it is strong though. In fact, it gets chronically tight and blood flow reduces, as the muscles are better supplied with blood when they are in a stretched position.
Many people do not have issues with activating their Quadriceps. The best Isolation exercise, which is also a knee rehabilitation exercise, is the Leg Extension:
This exercise can be done at a machine in the gym, in a standing position and in a seated position as well. Make sure to contract the whole front of the thigh to extend the leg.
How to get lean legs
To lose the fat on top of the thighs and glutes, you need to lower your overall body fat. None of these exercises will spot-reduce the fat from your lower body. It will improve blood flow, which is great for increased fat oxidation and building muscle though.
If you want to build beautiful legs and lose the fat simultaneously, my best tip is to utilize these activation exercises, followed by heavy strength training. That way you increase your metabolism by building more muscle.
Also, watch your portion sizes and make sure you eat enough Protein, Carbohydrates and Fats to nourish your muscles.
Starving will only leave you deprived and your metabolism will crash!
I hope you enjoyed today’s post!
Have you tried these activation exercises before? What other exercises do you like to use in your routines to fully engage the muscles?
I am constantly on the search of new exercises, so I would love to hear some of your tips!
Wish everyone a wonderful Friday!