Why you need to ‘turn up the volume’ on your muscles before exercise

Have you ever woken up in the morning and tried to make a really tight fist?

It’s hard right? You just can’t seem to generate strength.

And maybe feel heavy getting out of bed.

And even taking the lid off the tube of toothpaste feels more difficult than it did the night before.

It’s all got to do with how ‘turned on’ our neuromuscular system is. The level of activation of the nerves and muscles that create movement.

And by understanding this, we can improve our pre- exercise routines to ensure our exercise session is safer, stronger, and more effective. We use these principles extensively when programming for our Range of Motion Individualised Programming clients.

As you probably know, different nerves exit our spinal column at different levels. The nerves that turn on the muscles in our arms come from the top of our spine, while the nerves that turn on the muscles in our legs come from the bottom of our spine. Sure, this is a little oversimplified, but you get the idea.

Now, imagine all those nerves, at all those different levels of the spine, have a volume knob on them. You can turn the volume up to ten, or down to zero.

The ‘volume’ that nerve is turned up to is the level of ‘activation’. If the volume is turned down on one nerve, it’s hard to activate the muscles that are controlled by that nerve. If the volume is turned up, it’s easier to activate those muscles.

And when we wake up in the morning, all those volume knobs are turned down. We’re in a resting state.

Then as we go about our day, all of these volume knobs hover around maybe a four or a five. Our muscles are semi-prepared to do some work if they need to, but they’re not turned all the way up (because that would be exhausting and unsustainable).

So imagine you start an exercise session with all those volume knobs set to four.

You’re setting yourself up for failure. At best, you won’t be able to move as well or lift as much weight. At worst, you’ll get injured.

You see, there are certain muscles we really want to be ‘turned on’ prior to doing certain exercises.

We want the muscles around our hips to be turned on prior to squatting, jumping or explosive lifting. The muscles around our lower back to be turned on before lifting weights off the ground. The muscles of our abs to be turned on to maintain a safe spine position in all movements. The muscles around our shoulder blades to be turned on to create what’s called ‘scapula stability’ prior to doing upper body exercises.

And this is why it’s important that you’re doing pre- exercise activation exercises. To ‘turn the volume up’ on those nerves and muscles that we need for the training we’re about to do.

So how can we actually apply this to our training?

Look at the exercises you’re performing, and identify the major faults. Often, these faults are there because the muscles are underactive. Then, complete some pre- exercise activation work that’s designed to turn on those underactive muscles.

If you’d like to check out some of the activation exercises we suggest and program for our Range of Motion and online Range of Motion Individualised Programming clients, we’ve broken them down into 12 different groups here. At this resource, you can learn about the different faults for each of the 12 groups, and the activation (as well as mobility) drills to do to correct these faults.

Dan Williams

Dan Williams


Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.

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