Get Your Rear In Gear:
Glute Function, Inhibition, and Activation
By Stephen Brandis, CSCS
A topic that has garnered particular interest in the fitness industry amongst many leaders in the field today are the glutes; particularly strengthening them and getting them to function properly. Those of you who are unaware what the glutes are, it is simply the laymen’s term for the butt. Now the glutes are not comprised of just one muscle but several. There is the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, piriformus, quadratus femoris, and a few other smaller muscles that lay along the posterior side of the hip joint. So why all the attention for this muscle group? Why has it recently become an area of such great concern in the sport and fitness world? First, its basic function in human mechanics and second, how it is being under utilized due to inadequate training and/or the inability to train them properly because of inhibiting factors.
Before we learn how to unlock the full potential of our glutes, we need to learn how they function in everyday movements. Each of the muscles in your posterior mentioned before has a specific function in human mechanics that most of us are not even aware of as we go about our day. They are responsible for hip extension (pushing your hips forward/ thrusting your hips), external and internal rotation of the femur (turning your leg outward or inward), and abduction of the hip (raising your leg straight out to the side.) These are examples of how the glutes act concentrically or when the muscle is contracting to promote movement.
They also have an eccentric function as well, which slows or prevents movements. A perfect example of this would be when you are walking or running. When your foot strikes the ground it starts a chain reaction that travels all the way up the leg that will cause it to internally rotate very quickly, which can put severe stress on the knee and can cause injury. However, the glutes prevent this from happening by contracting and acting eccentrically which decelerates this internal rotation of the femur hence saving the knee from unwanted stress.
Now that we have some basic knowledge of the various functions of the glutes, we can begin to understand how they become weak or simply are not being used efficiently. Then how am I able to walk, run, and squat? Let me digress. Every muscle in the body has an opposing muscle that performs the opposite action. In the upper arm you have the biceps, which cause flexion, and the triceps, which cause extension. The same goes with the hips. You have two muscle groups that cause extension and flexion; the glutes cause extension and the hip flexors create flexion (which brings your upper leg up towards your chest).
Now here is where the issue comes in. Most of us spend our day sitting either at a desk, in the car, or at home on the couch. When we do this for hours on end it causes two things to happen. First, the glutes lengthen and second, the hip flexors become shortened and tight causing anterior pelvic tilt. This condition shifts the pelvis out of the desired neutral position to a forward tilted position. If you look at the diagram below, position “B” is the desired neutral position where as position “A” the hips are tilted forward.
Since the hip flexors are now stuck in a tight shortened state, the glutes remain lengthened and cannot contract making full hip extension difficult or impossible for some. This can cause many problems, one of them being fairly common; low back pain. Since the glutes have been inhibited and cannot extend when we move, the body looks elsewhere to complete hip extension, and for this it turns to the erector spinae or spinal erectors in the lower back. This causes the lower back to spasm and cramp up causing tightness, discomfort, and pain in some cases.
Not only can inactive or weak glutes cause low back pain but also knee pain. Remember how we discussed the glutes role in preventing internal rotation of the leg? Well, if the butt muscles are inhibited, then internal rotation will occur when we walk, which stresses the knee causing anterior knee pain (patello-femora pain) and even ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears.
Stretching and Activation Drills:
The good news is that with a little patience and being consistent you can lengthen your hip flexors, activate/strengthen your glutes, possibly ameliorate your back and knee pain, and tap into one of the largest most powerful muscle groups in the human body. Something you can do on your own is to simply stretch.
Half Keeling Hip Flexor Stretch
1) Step out like you would be doing a lunge.
2) Bring the knee of your back leg all the way to the floor and then hold.
3) You should feel an intense stretch in the front of your hip of your trail leg extending all the way down your quad.
4) Squeeze the glute of your back leg if you can as well.
5) Do not try to over do it your first few times or you could end up hurting yourself so listen to what your body is telling you. It should be mildly uncomfortable and not painful.
Side Lying Leg Lift
Next is the side lying leg lift. This is an abduction exercise that will help strengthen the glutes, more specifically the piriformus.
1) To do these find a wall and lay on your side with your back right up to it. You should have 4 points of contact with the wall; the back of your head, shoulders, butt, and heels.
2) Now that you have your starting position set simply raise your top leg as high as it can go and hold at the top for 2-3 seconds while keeping your heel in contact with the wall.
3) Keep your foot perpendicular to the wall as well because any external rotation (toe pointing towards the ceiling) will result in you working your quad/hip flexor more so than your glute.
Lastly, are hip bridges. These will help strengthen the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius and also stretch the quads and hip flexors if done properly.
1)Lay on your back with your knees bent. Your heels should be approximately 12 inches away from your rump.
2)Lift your toes up off the ground so only your heels are touching the floor.
3)Flex your abdomen and try to push your lower back into the floor. We are trying to promote hip extension not lumbar extension so maintain this position through out the movement at all times.
4)Push your heels into the floor raising your hips and low back off the ground so only your heels, upper back, and head are resting on the floor. You want to try to create a straight line from the tops over your knees all the way up your body to your chest.
5)Once you reach that top position concentrate on squeezing your butt cheeks together, hold for 2-3 seconds, and then return to the floor.
- The glutes major function is hip extension, internal/external rotation, and hip abduction.
- Tight hip flexors can create lengthened inactive or weak glutes which can cause low back and knee pain and can also impede athletic performance.
- Stretching and activation drills can help to correct this imbalance (anterior pelvic tilt) and help alleviate low back and knee pain.
- Correcting this imbalance can lead to better athletic performance, better every day movement, and lead to a better quality of life.
Sample stretching/activation routine:
Half Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch: 30 sec per leg x2
Side Lying Leg Lift: 10 reps per leg w/ 2-3 sec hold at the top
Hip Bridges: 10 reps w/ 2-3 sec hold at the top.
Perform 1-2 times a day in the morning and/or evening.
Get your rear in gear and get those glutes firing!