The Lyapunov exponent characterizes the asymptotic behavior of long matrix products. Recognizing scenarios where the Lyapunov exponent is strictly positive is a fundamental challenge that is relevant in many applications. In this work we establish a novel tool for this task by deriving a quantitative lower bound on the Lyapunov exponent in terms of a matrix sum which is efficiently computable in ergodic situations. Our approach combines two deep results from matrix analysis --- the $n$-matrix extension of the Golden-Thompson inequality and the Avalanche-Principle. We apply these bounds to the Lyapunov exponents of Schrödinger cocycles with certain ergodic potentials of polymer type and arbitrary correlation structure. We also derive related quantitative stability results for the Lyapunov exponent near aligned diagonal matrices and a bound for almost-commuting matrices.