Fishes generate force to swim by activating muscles on either side of their flexible bodies. To accelerate, they must produce higher muscle forces, which leads to higher reaction forces back on their bodies from the environment. If their bodies are too flexible, the forces during acceleration could not be transmitted effectively to the environment, but fish can potentially use their muscles to increase the effective stiffness of their body. Here, we quantified red muscle activity during acceleration and steady swimming, looking for patterns that would be consistent with the hypothesis of body stiffening. We used high-speed video, electromyographic recordings, and a new digital inertial measurement unit to quantify body kinematics, red muscle activity, and 3D orientation and centre of mass acceleration during forward accelerations and steady swimming over several speeds. During acceleration, fish co-activated anterior muscle on the left and right side, and activated all muscle sooner and kept it active for a larger fraction of the tail beat cycle. These activity patterns are both known to increase effective stiffness for muscle tissue in vitro, which is consistent with our hypothesis that fish use their red muscle to stiffen their bodies during acceleration. We suggest that during impulsive movements, flexible organisms like fishes can use their muscles not only to generate propulsive power but to tune the effective mechanical properties of their bodies, increasing performance during rapid movements and maintaining flexibility for slow, steady movements.