I love the concept of trying to optimize most things in life. This is because I'm a pretty lazy person, so whatever I can do to make my life easier and more efficient, I do. When it comes to working out, I want to get the most out of it so I don't have to do as many reps and sets in my workouts (did I mention I'm lazy?) This translates into me spending a little bit of time not just activating and fire muscles that I know tend to behave as weak-sauce (glutes for example), but also deactivating my overactive, compensating muscles.
My train of thought before I engage in any form of activation is that I first must look at what exercises I am going to perform in my workout. This determines what muscles to activate prior, how they need to be activated, but also what muscles to try and deactivate. For example, if my workout will include squats and lunges, I need to think about what muscles that are supposed to be driving these movements, what the optimal sequencing of these exercises should be, as well as taking my western, muscular dysfunctions and compensations into the equation.
To follow the above structure of figuring out our activation and deactivation, we'll begin by dissecting the biomechanics of the squat a little. During the eccentric phase of the squat (when we squat down), our glutes are moving and stabilizing through hip flexion, adduction and internal rotation; aka our glutes are lengthening in all three planes of motion. This is supposed to enable us to rise back up safely using our glutes as they concentrically extend, abduct and externally rotates our hips. That is, if our glutes are working properly. Also in the eccentric phase, the mechanics of the knee is flexion and a slight internal rotation (internal rotation of the femur). This means hipflexors are contracting during the eccentric phase, and quads are contracting as you stand up, extending your knees.
Now that we have an idea of what muscles that are at work during the squat, we can move on to the next step of looking at our muscular imbalances and dysfunctions. Most of us westerners suffer from a little something I like to call butt amnesia. I have yet to assess one single client over the years that has had an adequate, normal function of the glutes. In the world of muscular imbalances and compensations, this means that our quads and hipflexor complex are dominant and overactive. Therefore, activation of these areas in any form in order to prepare for squatting (or lunging) makes no sense. In my opinion it's a waste of time as we don't have to worry about them engaging during the squat. They're already overactive and more than excited to work, combined with the fact that activating them further also encourages an even greater inhibition of the glutes. The quads and hipflexors are therefore areas that I would encourage to try and de-activate prior to squatting. This can be done utilizing SMR with the help of a foamroller, as it can help relax and get very active muscles to chill out a little bit. Moving on to activation! Here the focus should be ass, ass, ass! If you're suffering from severe butt amnesia, I recommend following the protocol of first releasing your TFL through foamrolling, then moving onto an exercise like clams so you get to feel your glute medius, and then do a couple of sets of single leg deadlifts so you get to feel your entire glute complex working, all while teaching it to stabilize your hip and knee in hip flexion and extension.
Only performing exercises such as glute bridges and hip thrusts will not prepare your muscles for squatting! Don't get me wrong, I love using these exercises as a gateway to allow clients to feel their butts again, but in terms of using it as an activation exercise for squatting, they're pretty useless. This because we're limited to only teaching our glutes how to extend the hip with these exercises, combined with a nervous system that's pretty much asleep due to the supine position (we're not fighting gravity the same way as when we squat). Also, when we do these exercises, the glutes are working in isolation, which isn't conducive when it comes to squat prep. When we squat, we use multiple muscles which requires correct neurological communication, so if we really want to optimize (and safe-proof) our squats we're much better off doing an activation exercise that actually practices and re-establishes correct neurological function and pathways. This is where the lunge comes in handy! I suggest starting with a few sets of stationary lunges without any added weight, using the exercise in itself as an activation. Although the biomechanics of the lunge isn't exactly the same as the squat, the joint motions of the hip (of the leg in front) are similar enough; hip flexion, adduction as you lower down and internal rotation of the hip. This way you're teaching your glute how to work together with all the other muscles of the hip, as well as getting the ankle, knee and spine to move properly with the hip as well. It's also time efficient, as this means that you can incorporate activation into your workout, as long as you sequence everything properly (meaning, lunge before you squat). I'll try and get a lunge-post up as well later this week to explain how to do it correctly. Maybe I'll also write a little bit about how to get some abs even if you're a total sloth. Maybe. XO