Is neuromuscular activation the next great fitness fad or the latest fitness marketing technique? "Both and neither," says Mike Ceja, a sports therapist at Lloyd Athletic Club in Portland, Oregon. "Neuromuscular activation just makes good sense." 

The term neuromuscular describes the integral connection between the brain and nervous systems (neural system) and the muscles (muscular system).  Activation means creating new nerve synapses that send new messages between the two systems.  The more complex or intricate the task you ask your muscles to do, the more involvement it requires from your nervous system.  In order to activate the most involvement between the two systems, you need to:

  • Increase muscular involvement. Choose exercises that involve more than one muscle group (for example, bodyweight exercises) instead of isolating muscles (single-movement weight machines). 


  • Increase nervous system involvement. Perform exercises more slowly with more control, better form, and involving more muscles. This requires more concentration and therefore more brainwork.  This might mean slowing down your weight machine repetitions, using more core strength, and focusing intently on using perfect form.  

The more involvement that happens between the two systems, the stronger, fitter, and more responsive they each become. That means stronger, better-toned muscles and better performance.

Neuromuscular activation is an important concept in physical therapy where there's often a disconnect or disrupted message between specific muscle groups and the brain. By training muscles in specific ways, physical therapists help patients reprogram damaged muscles and nerves to work together and get stronger.   Fitness experts and sports therapists like Ceja know that if neuromuscular activation works for injured people, why not apply it to fitness?

Ceja says, "Any exercise can become a neuromuscular activity. It's all about performing complex movements that require specific coordination and concentration. It might mean something like doing walking lunges with shoulder presses. It might mean doing a bench press while activating the core muscles, and using precise movements of your shoulders, arms, etc.  It's difficult to get everything exactly right, and that requires your brain and muscles to work in sync.

Is neuromuscular activation a new fitness fad?  Ceja says, "Well, sort of, but it's really just a new way of re-energizing an old message.  Doing complex exercises intentionally and correctly is the best way to maximize fitness. We're focusing on this with bodyweight exercises, free weights, hand weights, weight machines, resistance bands, kettle bells, everything...form and focus are key to building strength and avoiding injury."