Exercise smarter #1: activate dormant muscles

back of a woman indicating neck painIf you routinely suffer from pains and aches and recurring overuse injuries hamper your training, dormant (weak and inactive) muscles may be the culprit.

To be able progress with your exercise, you may need to learn to reactivate your dormant muscles first.

What the heck are “dormant” muscles?

Well, for some reason some muscles tend to shut off (get inhibited) while others take over their work (overactive / dominant muscles).

For example, if your transversus abdominus (TA), multifidii (deep back muscles), muscles of your pelvic floor and glutes shut off, the muscles in your low back take over. The long-term consequence of this process may be chronic low back pain.

Other common problem areas are neck and upper back. The upper trapezius muscle typically takes over the work of transverse abdominus, lower trapezius and serratus anterior (even more muscles may be involved). That means you end up lifting objects with your upper trapezius and neck.

The consequence? Pain in the neck and an overuse injury in your upper trapezius.

This is why I have such a hard time doing push ups: I tend to use my already chronically taxed upper traps for push ups too. If I do push ups anyway, I usually get a nasty migraine. Also, it is no coincidence my upper trapezius is big and bulky and feels like it’s made of dense rubber – ugh!


One reason for active and dominant muscles taking over is our sedentary lifestyle. Because we sit all day – at work, driving a car, during our free time, the muscles of our core and the glutes tend to shut off out of underuse.

Injuries are another reason for muscles becoming weak and inactive. For example, low back injury can switch off your TA and leave it permanently inactivated even though the original injury healed a long time ago.

What to do if you have weak and inactive muscles?

The key is to learn to reactivate your inactive muscles.

My first piece of advice is to educate yourself about the subject. Lisa Morrone’s book Overcoming Back and Neck Pain is a good place to start. You should also get acquainted with the anatomy of your dominant and inactive muscles so you know where you should feel the muscle activation when you retrain the weak muscles.

You need to pay careful attention to the muscles that are actually activated during the exercise. Are you using more quads than glutes when doing lunges? If you’re retraining your core, are you really activating your transverse abdominus or are you just using rectus abdominis?  Do your shoulders rise up toward your ears when you do pull downs?

Luckily, you can find lots of videos explaining how to activate specific muscles on Youtube.

It’s also a good idea to add exercises designed to activate your underused muscle groups to the warm up period or off-days. My warm up consists of exercises that are specifically designed to activate my weak muscle groups – clams and bridges to activate my glutes, other exercises to activate my lower traps and serratus anterior, bird dogs to activate my multifidi etc.

It’s not a bad idea to see a physical therapist or hire a properly educated personal trainer or Pilates instructor to help you tackle the problem.

Retraining your weak and inactive muscles requires time and dogged persistence because the dominant muscles tend to stubbornly intervene.