Vinculin regulates both cell-cell and cell-matrix junctions and anchors adhesion complexes to the actin cytoskeleton through its interactions with the vinculin binding sites of alpha-actinin or talin. Activation of vinculin requires a severing of the intramolecular interactions between its N- and C-terminal domains, which is necessary for vinculin to bind to F-actin; yet how this occurs in cells is not resolved. We tested the hypothesis that talin and alpha-actinin activate vinculin through their vinculin binding sites. Indeed, we show that these vinculin binding sites have a high affinity for full-length vinculin, are sufficient to sever the head-tail interactions of vinculin, and they induce conformational changes that allow vinculin to bind to F-actin. Finally, microinjection of these vinculin binding sites specifically targets vinculin in cells, disrupting its interactions with talin and alpha-actinin and disassembling focal adhesions. In their native (inactive) states the vinculin binding sites of talin and alpha-actinin are buried within helical bundles present in their central rod domains. Collectively, these results support a model where the engagement of adhesion receptors first activates talin or alpha-actinin, by provoking structural changes that allow their vinculin binding sites to swing out, which are then sufficient to bind to and activate vinculin.