Weak or inactive glutes – which are all too common – can contribute to lower back, hip, knee and ankle pain, not to mention reduced daily function and decreased endurance, strength and power.
The causes include excessive sitting (tight hip flexors), habituated improper loading patterns (over-recruitment of quads and lower back) and motor-control deficits. Even those who perform exercises that theoretically strengthen the glutes tend to unknowingly recruit other muscles.
A quick anatomy lesson
Glutes is a lay term referring to the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus and deep rotators. These muscles not only control the pelvis, they impact the integrity – and rate of injury – of the entire kinetic chain (a term that describes how nerves, muscles and joints work together to create motion).
How weak glutes can lead to injuries
Walking, jogging and running require hip extension – i.e., the leg moving backward to propel the body forward. The gluteus maximus is theoretically responsible for this motion. When you lack adequate hip extension, the body compensates, often by extending through the lower back or tilting the pelvis. These compensations stress the lower back, contributing to degenerative changes in the spine, muscle pain and an inefficient gait, and the pelvic tilt can cause the hamstrings to become over-lengthened and thus easily strained.
Pelvis stability (or lack thereof) impacts the knee. The femur makes up half the knee joint. The femur is controlled by pelvis muscles (primarily glutes). Thus, hip control is knee control. One common result of weak glutes is knee pain from an internally rotated femur that torques the knee.
How to activate and strengthen your glutes
Stretch your hip flexors
This is especially if you have a fairly sedentary lifestyle, which most of us do.
Sitting shortens hip flexors. Tight hip flexors inhibit the glutes. The bum can't fully engage when hip flexors are tight.
- Lunge stretch: Step your left leg forward into a shallow lunge, both feet facing forward. Tuck your pelvis – your right hip bones should move toward your ribs. Feel a stretch up the front of your right thigh. Hold for 30 seconds or more. Switch sides.
“Activate” so you can integrate.
Activation exercises "turn on" muscles that are not firing appropriately.
- Isometric hip extensions: Tie a resistance band around your thighs. Lie on your right side, head supported, bottom leg bent, top leg straight and top hip long. Lift the top leg up and back in space slightly. Hold for 10 seconds. Initiate the motion from your bum. Release. Repeat for 10 reps. No band? Do the exercise without the band but hold for 30 seconds, working up to 60 seconds.
- Band squats: Stand with a band tied around your thighs, feet slightly wider than shoulder width. Use the hip strategy outlined below to sit backward and imagine your sit bones widening as you squat. Hold for 10 seconds, engaging your bum to meet the tension of the band. Repeat 10 times. No band? Do body-weight squat holds for 20 seconds each.
The long-term goal is to integrate the now-active muscle into functional movement patterns such as squats. This way, motions that should theoretically work the glutes will actually work them. Do activation exercises daily until your bum is able to engage. Once activated, these exercises work well as part of a warm-up before training your lower body.
Utilize a "hip strategy" when squatting, lunging, performing step-ups, etc.
- Hip strategy: This biases the glutes. To perform, lean up to 45 degrees forward, have a proportionally greater bend at the hip than the knee and when possible load the exercise from the back versus the front.
- Knee strategy: This biases the quads. To perform, have an erect torso (shoulders over hips) and a proportionally larger bend at the knee versus the hip.
One strategy is not "good" and the other "bad." What you use depends on your goal. If you require stronger thighs, use the knee strategy. To get your glutes to join the party, use the hip strategy. Once your glutes are active, alternate strategies week to week.
The greatest predictor of future injury is previous injury. If you've had ankle, knee, hip or back injuries, don't wait for pain – pre-emptively train your glutes. Consider having an expert assess your overall movement mechanics. The body is a series of dominoes – every muscle and joint affect the muscles and joints above and below. To improve function and decrease rates of injury, work to understand your kinetic chain as a whole.
The goal of this program is to make unconsciously "active glutes" a new norm. I want your bum to work appropriately when you run, walk, sit or stand without you consciously deciding to use it. To make this a reality, purposeful thought – at least initially – is required. Turn your music off and stop chatting. Consider putting a hand on the muscle being worked. The brain responds well to tactile feedback. Concentrate on form and the muscles you're attempting to work.
Kathleen Trotter is a personal trainer, Pilates equipment specialist and author of Finding Your Fit.