The RAMP Protocol Part 2: Activate
As per the Science for Sport blog post on the RAMP protocol, the "Activate" and "Mobilise" parts can be interchanged and will generally have a bit of overlap. For the sake of focusing on the physiological rationale and practical applications though, we will keep these two parts separate and discuss them in isolation. In practice though, they should be delivered together and fluidly combined.
The primary goals for the Activate phase are as follows:
- Activate key muscle groups
- Prime key movement patterns
The use of the word "key" in the two above goals is highly variable, as "key" muscles and movements will vary depending on the session, and depending on the athletes. Generally speaking, when activating "key muscles", always start with proximal prime movers and stabilisers, as these muscle groups generally have the greatest influence on injury and performance (compared to distal muscles, generally). Hence when analysing the upcoming session, consider what proximal muscles (consider shoulder girdle, trunk, and pelvis/hips) are responsible for most of the work (i.e. prime movers), and what muscles assist these prime movers in doing their job (i.e. proximal stabilisers). Hence if our athletes were about to complete a running/sprinting session, key proximal prime movers would be the hip extensors (primarily glute max) and hip flexors, whilst key stabilisers would be lateral glutes +/- the adductors. Therefore, from a muscular point of view, we would want to expose these muscles to a low threshold "activation" type exercise to improve nervous system input to the muscle, enhance sensory output from the muscle, and ideally increase the excitability of the muscle such that it is more readily activated by the nervous system, and when activated is capable of producing more force or a greater rate of force development. For the running example we may get out athletes to complete single leg glute bridge, side planks (for lateral glute), and a lying psoas march to prime these specific muscle groups and prepare them for action.
Whilst the above discussion might be a compelling argument, and it may seem like that's all there is to "activation", there are a few short comings of this method, and a (generally) better method of "activating" and preparing for training. Whilst completing isolated activation exercises will be an effective way at priming those specific muscles, given the intricately related anatomy of the body, and the complex methods that we use to move, isolating and activating single muscles likely has a very minor effect on performance. Instead, we should be looking to activate "movement patterns" that are relevant to the following training session. Similar to our previous justification for isolated activation of proximal prime movers and stabilisers, activating movement patterns will likely reap the benefits of activation across multiple muscle groups, and if designed well, with much more sport-relevant positions and movements. The benefit of activating a movement pattern rather than a movement, is then that we would expect more transfer from the activation task to the sport/training task, and would expect a stronger effect on performance given the number of muscles activated and the increased task-transfer. Referring to our glute example previously, when warming up for a sprinting session a single leg glute bridge could be used to activate the gluteus maximus, however this involves a single joint and muscle, it involves the athlete laying down in a low- arousal position, and is performed at a speed/intensity whereby it's unlikely the more powerful type 2b and 2x muscle fibres are unlikely to be recruited unless in extreme fatigue contexts. An alternative (as is demonstrated in the below video), would be a walking lunge into a knee drive, where the hip extensors (primarily gluteus maximus) of the stance leg must work rapidly to overcome bodyweight and propel the athlete forward and upward, whilst concurrently activating the contralateral hip flexors in a similar manner. Additionally, technical running drills would be an appropriate inclusion in this phase where the athlete is preparing for a running/sprinting session. Similarly prior to a gym session where the first exercise might be a heavy squat exercise, we could choose to isolate and activate hip extensors/stabilisers, or we could instead challenge the athlete with a bodyweight squat pattern and a band around their knees to instead activate the necessary muscles in a training-specific pattern.
Following on from the "activate muscles vs movements" discussion above, it is important to state that there are pro's and con's of both, and that there is likely a time and place where one will be superior to the other. Certainly when dealing with clinical populations with injury history, isolated activation may be required during earlier rehab to target certain areas that need more activation. However as these clinical populations progress and start entering "return to perform" phases, a movement based activation approach would be warranted.
From a dosage point of view, there are unfortunately no hard and fast rules for activation exercises. There are a few considerations that can guide our prescription, but unfortunately it remains a vague area. Generally speaking, we don't want to induce fatigue with our activation exercises as that would be detrimental to performance, but additionally we do want them to be sufficiently challenging such that we recruit as many type 2a/b/x muscle fibres as possible. Additionally, we want our athletes to sequence the patterns well such that the correct activation stimulus is achieved, hence we many need to allow our athletes several reps or a set to "learn" the movement such that the stimulus is achieved. Additionally, due to time constraints, keeping our warm-up as succinct as possible allows our athlete more "training" time. For these reasons, we generally stick to sets of 4-8 reps, and generally no more than 2-3 sets of each exercise, however this will always be very athlete, exercise, and session specific.
This may be a challenge for some coaches to implement, particularly coaches with minimal coaching or training experience themselves. We certainly don't expect coaches to walk in with a vast toolbox of fancy activation ideas. Hence, we're happy for coaches to start with basic, isolated activation exercises THAT FIT THE REQUIREMENT FOR THE WARM-UP (I.E. NO JUNK), with the intention of slowly incorporating more and more movement activation patterns as your tool box builds. The video below details some isolated and complex activation exercises that may be used at the start of a gym or court/field session, however this is not an exhaustive list, and we strongly encourage a little research and creativity to come up with some of your own exercises!