Get Your Rear in Gear

Training The Glutes for More Than an Aesthetic Pursuit

by Stacey Penney, MS

These days the fitness headlines seem to be all about building a bigger butt. Whether flipping through a magazine or scrolling social media feeds, you can’t escape this pursuit that seemed so unlikely just a few years ago. In a certain sense, this chasing of a bigger backside is a positive when it comes to the challenges weak gluteal muscles can bring. 

Backside Anatomy

Before we can understand the challenges of a weak backside, we need to understand what these muscles do. From the ilium to the femur, the three major muscles that make up the rear are the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus.1-3 The gluteus maximus, the biggest muscle in the body, is a powerful hip extensor and external rotator. The gluteus medius abducts the hip, and depending on which muscle fibers, also contributes to internal and external rotation, while the gluteus minimus is a hip abductor and internal rotator. All three help to stabilize the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex.2

The amount of time most of us spend sitting on our derriere can lead to tight hip flexors (e.g., psoas, iliacus, rectus femoris, tensor fasciae latae). These shortened muscles can cause the glutes to basically turn off. For example, a tight psoas will negatively impact the gluteus maximus, decreasing its neural drive, leaving the hamstrings to compensate.2-3 Weak glutes have been linked with altered muscle recruitment, contraction timing, misalignments, and other movement deficiencies not only across the hip joint but the entire body, potentially leading to or associated with: 1-4

• Ankle sprains and instability
• Plantar fasciitis
• Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears
• Patellofemoral pain
• Iliotibial band (IT Band) tendinitis
• Hamstring strains
• Piriformis syndrome
• Low-back pain

What Do Weak Glutes Look Like?

Do you dare look? You probably won’t be able to tell if glutes are weak just by looking at someone’s rear, but there are ways to identify it without such an obvious stare. Anterior pelvic tilt and increased lumbar lordosis, as observed with lower crossed syndrome, are associated with a weak gluteus maximus and gluteus medius.1-2 Another indicator is pronation distortion syndrome, characterized by foot pronation (flat foot) and knee valgus (“knock-knee”). These compensations can be seen in a static assessment.

How Do Weak Glutes Act?

Compensations can also be observed during movement assessments such as an overhead squat or single leg squat assessment. As the client performs a squat, watch the foot, knee and hip checkpoints for indications of possible glute weakness. Indicators include feet turning out or flattening, knees moving inward, low back arching or rounding, and hip shifting (e.g., one side dropping or rotating). You might also observe these compensations during class when participants are doing squats, doing step-up moves, or yoga poses requiring a leveling of the hips, especially in single leg stances. Try verbal cueing (e.g., keep hips level) and visual feedback (e.g., mirrors) to help clients wake up their glutes and maintain proper form.5

Glutes Gone Strong

Addressing weak glutes isn’t just about isolated strengthening. Dealing with muscles that are restricting them is also key. As mentioned earlier, tight hip flexors can turn off the glutes. Inhibiting and lengthening the hip flexor muscles with self-myofascial release (SMR) techniques (e.g., foam rolling) and static stretching is an initial starting point.1-2 Then move on to targeted glute strengthening and integrate into more dynamic movements.2 Also, glute strength isn’t necessarily even on both sides. One side may be weaker than the other, thus requiring more training and attention than the other.

The pursuit of stronger glutes can bring a positive impact to the body’s mechanics, fitness performance and of course, today’s aesthetic ideal, while also reducing the risk of injuries. Understanding what the glutes do, identifying weaknesses, and addressing what needs to be stretched and strengthened puts you and your clients on the path to better defined goals for the backside. AF

5 Moves for the Glutes  
Below is a sampling of exercises to help wake up the glutes and get them firing as part of the flip side team. These can be done with clients one-on-one or in a group setting, depending on a client’s needs.

SMR Quadriceps

SMR Quadriceps

Lie on stomach with a foam roller placed under the front of the thigh. Support the upper body by resting on forearms. Slowly roll the front of the thigh, applying pressure on tender spots for about 30 seconds. Switch sides.

kneeling hip flexor stretch

Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

Kneel on the back leg, bend the front leg 90°. Contract glutes and shift body forward. Raise the arm that is on the same side as the knee on the ground, stretching to the opposite side until a stretch is felt in the front of the pelvis. Rotate backward and hold for 30 seconds. Switch sides.

Floor Bridge Male Finish

Floor Bridge

Lie on back with knees bent and feet flat on the ground, shoulder-width apart. Draw in navel and contract glutes. Slowly push through the heels to lift hips off the floor until knees, hips and shoulders are in-line. Hold for a few seconds and then slowly lower hips back down to floor. Complete two sets of 12 reps.

Lateral Tube walking

Lateral Tube Walking

Stand with feet placed hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, tubing around the ankles. Keeping feet pointing straight ahead, take 10 to 12 small steps to one side, then return back to start with the opposite side leading. Repeat twice.

Ball Wall Squat

Ball Wall Squat

Stand with feet pointed straight ahead, shoulder-width apart, low back on a stability ball placed against a wall. Keep feet under or slightly in front of knees and slowly squat, bending the knees and keeping feet straight. When thighs near parallel to the ground, contract glutes and press through the heels to return to the starting position. Complete two sets of 12 reps.

References:

1. CLARK, M.A., SUTTON, B.G., AND LUCETT S.C. NASM ESSENTIAL OF PERSONAL FITNESS TRAINING, (4TH REV. ED). BURLINGTON: JONES & BARTLETT LEARNING, 2014.
2. CLARK, M.A. AND LUCETT, S.C. (2011). NASM ESSENTIALS OF CORRECTIVE EXERCISE TRAINING. BALTIMORE: LIPPINCOTT WILLIAMS & WILKINS, 2010.
3. NEUMANN, D.A. KINESIOLOGY OF THE MUSCULOSKELETAL SYSTEM, FOUNDATIONS FOR REHABILITATION (2ND ED). ST. LOUIS: MOSBY ELSEVIER, 2010. 
4. BAHR, R. THE IOC MANUAL OF SPORTS INJURIES. OXFORD, UK: WILEY-BLACKWELL, 2012.
5. WILLY, R.W., SCHOLZ J.P., AND DAVIS, I.S. “MIRROR GAIT RETRAINING FOR THE TREATMENT OF PATELLOFEMORAL PAIN IN FEMALE RUNNERS.” CLINICAL BIOMECHANICS, 27, NO.10 (DEC 2012): 1045-51.
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