- Re-activating and strengthening the gluteal muscles
- Shoulder instability and rotator cuff issues
- Training for power and speed
- Exercise groups in-depth
- Core training part I: Inner and outer unit
- Effective and safe supplements
- Planes of motion
- Core training part II: a functional approach
- Prevention and rehabilitation of hamstring injuries
- Knee flexion exercises - friend or foe?
Re-activating and strengthening the gluteal muscles
By Bram Swinnen
The gluteus maximus is the strongest and biggest muscle of the body. The gluteus maximus is not only a hip extensor but also plays an important role in pelvic and spinal stabilisation [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]. The gluteal muscles (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus) stabilise the hip by counteracting gravity’s hip adduction torque and maintain proper leg alignment by eccentrically controlling adduction and internal rotation of the thigh [6, 7].
The gluteus maximus allows us to maintain an upright position needed for bipedalism. Through evolution the gluteus maximus enlarged in humans as a means to stabilise the trunk while standing and counteract the high impact forces that tend to flex the trunk anteriorly during running and sprinting. Consequently the glute muscles gradually lose tone during our chair-laden lifestyle [8, 9]. The terms ‘gluteal amnesia’ and ‘sleeping giant’ probably sound familiar. These terms refer to inhibition and delayed activation of the gluteal muscles, which in time leads to weakness of these muscles. Gluteal inhibition negatively affects performance and lower body strength and is a root cause for many injuries and chronic pain [10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19]. Low back pain and lower body injuries result in delayed and reduced glute activation with concurrent hamstring and low back compensation [20, 21, 22, 23, 24].
Note the big gluteal muscles of the Bushmen
Because of our lifestyle, the glutes are almost always asleep and they are not targeted in most strength programs. What is the last time your glutes felt really sore after a workout? Many athletes and lifters don’t know how to turn on the glutes, because the compensation pattern to get around using the glutes are so engraved.
This article focuses on exercises that address the major functions of the glutes and result in the greatest level of glute activation. These exercises will help to switch your glutes back on and re-establish correct muscle recruitment patterns. Re-activating your glutes will positively affect every compound lower body lift, improve your core stability, prevent lower-body injuries and enhance sport performance.
The gluteus maximus and lower back stability
Activating and strengthening the glutes needs to form an important part of your core routine.
Co-contraction of the gluteus maximus with the psoas major (part of iliopsoas muscle) contributes to lumbo-sacral stabilisation [25, 26]. The gluteus maximus provides stability to the sacroiliac joint (SI joint) by bracing and compression [4, 5]. Excess movement at the SI joint would compromise the L5-S1 intervertebral joints and disc and could lead to SI joint dysfunction and low back pain.
The gluteus maximus also provides lower back stability through its connection with the erector spinae and thoraco-lumbar fascia [27, 28]. Some of its fibres are continuous with the fibres of the erector spinae. A contraction of the gluteus maximus will generate tension in the erector spinae muscle on the same side, providing stiffness to the spinal column [27, 28].
Gluteus maximus contraction also exerts a pull on the lower end of the thoraco-lumbar fascia, which is a thick layer of ligamentous connective tissue. Tightening of this fascia stabilises the vertebras. People with low back pain often have weak and deconditioned glutes .
Inhibition of the gluteal muscles
Low back pain has been associated with inhibition of the gluteus maximus [20, 21, 30]. The activation of the gluteus maximus during hip extension is delayed in people with a history of low back pain compared to people with no back pain. In people with low back pain hip extension is initiated by the hamstrings and erector spinae instead of the gluteus maximus [20, 30, 31]. Even after the episode of low back pain has resolved, the altered firing patterns in the gluteus maximus remain .
Janda described a similar pattern of delayed activation of the gluteus medius during hip abduction in patients with low back pain .
People suffering from ankle sprain injuries also have been shown to have reduced activation levels of the gluteus maximus .
The gluteus maximus plays an important role in maintaining an upright standing position [8, 9]. Lengthened gluteal muscles as a result of our sitting lifestyle leads to a decreased stabilizing function in the gluteus maximus .
Inhibition and delayed activation of the gluteus maximus compromises pelvic stability . This can result in compensation by the lower back and more altered muscular firing patterns and function. In the case of low back pain, ankle and probably all lower body injuries, rehabilitation needs to focus on re-activating the gluteal muscles.
Weak or inhibited gluteal muscles contribute to injury
Weak or delayed activation of the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius is a root cause for many injuries and chronic pain.
- Hamstring strains: Due to delayed gluteus maximus activity, the hamstring muscles become dominant during hip extension, which can cause hamstring strains . A lot of athletes that pulled a hamstring keep suffering re-injuries despite their focus and efforts to strengthen the hamstrings. They are reinforcing a compensation pattern instead of reactivating their inhibited glutes. Shirley Sahrmann said, "Any time you see an injured muscle, look for a weak synergist.” A synergist is a muscle that performs the same joint motion.
- Low back pain: Gluteus maximus activation plays an important role in stabilising the pelvis during the task of lifting [2, 3]. Delayed gluteus maximus activation also causes excessive compensation of the back extensors .
- Anterior knee pain: The excessive internal rotation of the femur as a result of glute weakness increases the pressure on the patellar cartilage [11, 12, 13].
- Anterior hip pain: Decreased force production from the gluteus maximus during hip extension is associated with increased anterior translation of the femur in the acetabulum. The increased femoral anterior glide could lead to increased force and wear and tear on the anterior hip joint structures [10, 14]
- Lower-body malalignment: Weak glutes results in increased internal rotation of the femur, knee valgus and foot pronation .
- Gluteal weakness also has been associated with anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) sprains [15, 16, 17], chronic ankle instability , and iliotibial friction syndrome .
Exercises to re-activate the gluteal muscles
Re-activating the gluteal muscles will re-establish correct muscle recruitment patterns and enhance strength and performance.
The gluteus maximus is the strongest muscle of the body and has a multi-tasking function . This muscle is able to combine a local stabiliser, global stabiliser and global mobiliser role.
Eccentric lengthening or isometric holding to control range of motion
Produce high force or power
The gluteus maximus is especially active during stair climbing, running and activities that involve stabilising the trunk against flexion [9, 37, 38, 39]. An exercise that combines these movements would trigger a strong contraction of the gluteus maximus and addresses both the stabilising and movement role. Single-leg stance exercises require the gluteus medius, minimus and upper part of the gluteus maximus to resist gravity’s hip adduction torque.
Sprinting highly activates the glutes. Gluteus maximus strength is related to maximal sprint speed.
In the resisted slide-board back lunge the pull of the cable creates a hip flexion force against which the gluteus maximus has to stabilise. The movement also mimics the hip action of running and stair climbing. Like in running, the body has to be pulled over the foot by a powerful hip extension. The single-leg stance emphasizes the gluteus medius, the gluteus minimus and the upper fibres of the gluteus maximus.
As an advanced progression the exercise can be combined with a shoulder press. This compound exercise emphasizes the stabilising role of the gluteus maximus even more. Pressing dumbbells overhead requires anti-flexion stability from the core. The co-contraction of the gluteus maximus, psoas major and deeper trunk muscles stabilises the spine, so forces can be effectively transferred from the lower to the upper body.
Other exercises that elicit a high gluteus maximus and medius activity are the single-leg squat and the single-leg Romanian deadlift [6, 40, 41]. These single-leg exercises require concentric or eccentric hip extension throughout a large range of motion, frontal plane pelvic stability, together with a control of the stance leg in the frontal and transverse plane, which results in a high neural drive to the gluteus maximus, medius and other muscles of the lateral system.
In the single-leg squat & pull and the single-leg Romanian deadlift & pull the hand opposite to the stance leg is loaded. The added rotary force stimulates the external rotator capability of the gluteus maximus and medius and gives these exercises a multi-planar character. The glutes need to stabilise the hip in the frontal (resisting gravity’s hip adduction torque) and transverse plane (preventing internal rotation of the thigh) and generate movement in the sagittal plane (concentric/eccentric hip extension). These exercises train the cross-body connection (posterior oblique system), that transmits forces from the ground through the leg and hip, across the SI-joint via the thoracodorsal fascia, into the opposite lattisimus dorsi.
A great warm-up exercise that addresses all major functions of the gluteal muscles is the superband X walk. This exercise combines hip extension and hip abduction and requires stabilisation of the lumbar-pelvic region, which are all major functions of the glutes. This exercises also trains the cross-body connection.
High activation levels of the gluteus medius, upper part of the gluteus maximus and lateral system muscles have been observed during the side bridge and the side bridge with abduction exercises [42, 43].
The slide-board lateral slide combines a powerful hip extension and abduction and really activates the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. Skating develops and shapes the hips and glutes best.
These exercises can be used in the warm-up to activate and wake up the glutes, before heading over to the squat rack. It is also possible to integrate them as part of your workout.
Due to our lifestyle, low back pain or other injuries our glutes may be inhibited and do not fire when they are supposed to. Because of compensatory patterns it may be difficult to target and strengthen the glutes with bilateral leg exercises like squats. Exercises that require single-leg balance, stability of the lumbo-pelvic region, hip extension or eccentric control of hip flexion, which are all major functions of the gluteus maximus result in the greatest level of glute activation. These exercises will help to switch your glutes back on and re-establish correct movement patterns. Re-activating your glutes will positively affect every compound lower body lift and enhance sport performance.
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