Grab Your Balls!

A New Perspective on Activation

By Jim Smith, CSCS, RKC

Over the last 3 years I have made a huge change in the programming for my athletes.  The warm-up that was once a formality has now become the center for the entire program.


Because it is that important!

When I started focusing on the warm-up and pre-workout activation and mobility movements, everything changed.  My athletes started the sessions with more speed, more power and more enthusiasm.  Not only that, their recovery was much better because the same exercises I used in their warm-up, became a means to help them recover faster between sessions.

Another thing I noticed in this journey was something of equal importance; tension.  I really started paying attention to the time under tension (TUT) each exercise provided for the athletes.  Think explosive reverse hypers on a reverse hyper bench vs. controlled reverse hypers on an elevated swiss ball with a tempo of 333.  Now you’re starting to get the idea.

When you start making tension a focus and finding exercises where the tension is “leaking”, you will finally start to make the transition from the risk to reward and partial benefit to full benefit.

A major find in our program was in a shoulder warm-up / rehab complex; the Rotator Y, T, W, L series.  A few of the benefits range from rhomboid and mid-to-low trap activation, scapular mobility, better posture, etc.  You know all of that, but have you ever thought of what is used to create the tension?

Typically a light dumbbell(s) are used for these exercises.  We still use them (and sometimes elastic bands) but only after the athletes are taught tension.

Let me ask you a question:  What happens when the hands and grip are loose on the dumbbells?  Optimal tension is lost.  The body is a kinetic chain and the tension in our hands translates across the arms, shoulders and upper back if our grip is tight.

And if the grip is tight AND we engage the full kinetic chain by removing an incline bench (lying face down) and performing the movements standing, we will be closer to achieving optimal tension.  And optimal tension will have the highest impact and best results.

The movement patterns are retrained with the athlete holding and squeezing a tennis ball in each hand.  The coaching cue is to squeeze the hell out of the tennis ball and allow the tension to travel across the forearms, biceps, triceps, and shoulders into the upper back during the concentric and eccentric phases of the pattern.

Let’s look at how we can incorporate more tension with the introductory movements.  A simple tennis ball is used to create a lot of constant tension throughout the engaged movement pattern.  The coaching cue will be to squeeze the tennis ball as hard as you can throughout the exercise execution.

Bent-Over “Y”

Bent-Over "Y" Start
Bent-Over "Y" Finish

Bent-Over “T”

Bent-Over "T" Start
Bent-Over "T" Finish

Bent-Over “W”

Bent-Over "W" Start
Bent-Over "W" Finish

Rotator Cuff “L” with Rotation

Bent-Over "L" Start
Bent-Over "L" Position 1
Bent-Over "L" Position 2
Bent-Over "L" Finish

The transition from tennis balls to greater tension can be facilitated with elastic bands and finally with the incorporation of dumbbells (Note:  A combination of dumbbells and elastic bands can also be utilized), but the cue is still the same.  Squeeze the implement hard.

Remember, the implement doesn’t matter as much as the tension.  The tension is the key to true motor unit recruitment and activation.  As the athlete learns how to create and maintain the tension throughout the exercise, progression can then take place.

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(Lead Photo Courtesy of Mattsip)


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  1. Great Post!! I totally agree about the importance of the start of the workout. We look at it as an opportunity to develop, refine movement patterns; develop or maintain mobility (3D along fascial lines), active key targeted areas (such as postural muscle, as you’ve described), but not really tension – but you’re right.

    It’s interested that you’ve decided to use a ball squeeze, which emphasizes a flexion based pattern. Not always a great idea in athletes that display typical upper and lower cross syndromes – they love flexion. We typically wrap bands that ensheath the hand and ask them to extend their fingers. The reason why is to increase extensor tension, optimize joint balance, and to elongate the system with distal extension. Give it a try.
    That’s gotten me to think about other elements that we need to involve during our “dynamic warm-up”. I’ve written about them at

    Thanks!!! I’ll be back for more!


  2. Holy bat balls! What a great modification. I just tried it out and could feel Y’s like never before. I even tried this with wall slides and could really get through a greater range of motion with great activation through the lower traps.

    This is something I will be experimenting with for a while. It reminds of gripping the ground and spreading the floor with the feet while squatting.

  3. Awesome post…thanks for sharing. I never thought of using the tennis balls but this makes perfect sense. I don’t think a lot of trainers understand the role of tension but you’re right on point. I’ll have to share with my team. Thanks again! Shane

  4. Smitty,

    I like the idea and have been working quite a bit lately with the concurrent activation potentiation literature. I wonder sometimes if sending the alarm signal from the get-go facilitates some of the higher threshold tissues to come into play during a relatively low load endeavor. I suspect that the tonic chain responds best to this stimulus, so I don’t know that it happens, but do you have any experience with it making the big boys work more?

    Carson Boddicker

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