7 reasons you'll want to strengthen your glutes and how to do it.
Ok so you’ve been told you have weak glutes. What does this mean, why is it important and most importantly what can you do to fix it?
In this day and age, unless you exercise, your experience of the glutes is as a cushion for your backside and the closest thing to a glute exercise you’ll get is getting in and out of a chair or walking up the stairs. If you sit all day then you are crushing your glutes and locking them into a position that will be hard for them to get out of. This will be experienced as tight glutes. Sitting all day can also crush the sciatic nerve under the glutes and piriformis muscles that can also give rise to deep glute pain and nerve tension. This can be caused by adhesions that form between the nerve and the soft tissues. Weakness in the glutes is also one of the major causes of lower back pain and with the increasing prevalence of lower back injuries with our sedentary lifestyles there has never been a better time to get educated about the glutes and start focussing on strengthening them.
So what are the glutes?
Lets start at the start. The Glutes are actually a group of 3 muscles. The Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimis. They are not one single muscle meaning they have different attachments and actions. So when someone tells you that you have weak glutes you could be really annoying and ask which glutes are weak. Is it the gluteus maximus or the medius or all of them. It is an important distinction as the exercises to strengthen them and stabilise the hips can be different. Together these muscles are responsible for most actions of the hip including extension (taking your leg backwards), hip abduction (lifting your leg out to the side), tilting your pelvis, hip internal and external rotation (turning your hip in or out). In general though you will find that strengthening all of the glute muscles will be most beneficial at balancing the pelvis.
Gluteus Maximus - This is the largest of the glute muscles and attaches from the sacrum or lower spine and middle part of the pelvis to the femur (upper leg bone) and the Iliotibial band (ITB). Interestingly the Gluteus maximus links the lower spine to the upper leg and knee via the iliotibial band. It also has fascial connections to the latissimus dorsi muscle linking in the arms and shoulder. You can see how the Gluteus maximus can have a significant influence on all aspects of the body. If it is weak and tight then this tightness may influence the shoulder and knee, not to mention the lack of stability in the hips could lead to other more serious injuries of the lumbar spine, hips and pelvis such as disc injury, facet joint injury, Sacroiliac joint injury, hip labral tears to name a few.
What does it do? Gluteus maximus is responsible for extension of the hip/femur (taking the leg behind you), abduction of the hip (leg out to the side) and external rotation of the hip (rotating the hip outwards). You use this muscle when walking up stairs, especially as the leg comes backwards, standing up getting out of a chair, running, squatting, cycling, swimming.
Together with the latissimus dorsi it helps to rotate the body. It helps to keep the pelvis stable and prevents it from tipping forward too much (when your bum sticks out)
Exercises that strengthen the glute maximus include squats, lunges, deadlifts, donkey kicks, glute bridges, glute/ham raises, hip thrusters to name a few.
The gluteus medius and minimus can be seen as the side glutes or lateral glutes as they sit more to the side of the pelvis than the gluteus maximus. Their combined action is to stop the hip from "flicking" out to side when you walk or run. If you press your fingers into the side of the pelvis and then stand on one leg you will feel them contract (harden) on the side of the leg you are standing on.
Gluteus Medius (glute med) - attaches from the pelvis to the greater trochanter or side of the hip bone. I always think of glute med as one of those over achievers, raising their hand saying “pick me, pick me, I’ll do it” as it pretty much has a hand in most actions of the hip including extension, abduction as well as lateral and medial rotation. The only action it doesn't do is adduction or bringing the leg across the body.
Gluteus Minimis (glute min) - is like glute medius’ little sibling. Once again it is a hip stabiliser and depending on which anatomy book or app you look at it can also be seen as an external and internal rotator of the femur. It has “small muscle syndrome” which is a term I’ve coined meaning, like small man syndrome, it is always trying to prove itself to it’s bigger counterparts, namely Glute max and med. A condition of small muscle syndrome is that to stand out it will cause more problems. Gluteus minimus often has a trigger point that will refer down the side of your leg causing similar symptoms to a disc injury or sciatica. It can be more problematic than its larger counterparts.
Some common exercises for Glute med and min include crab walking, clam shells, single leg deadlifts, single leg toe touch, pistol squats, Bulgarian split squats, anything single leg (as they are stabilisers) side plank, side leg raises (Jane Fonda’s :) )
Here are 7 reasons that you need to strengthen your glutes
1 - let’s get this one out of the way. Everyone loves a tight booty, both males and females, so by strengthening your glutes you are doing humanity a service, from an aesthetic perspective. The side effects of having a shapely derrière is that you may just avoid back pain or serious hip/pelvis issues.
Ok, now lets get serious…
2 - Without strong glutes, especially maximus, your hamstrings may become overactive and tighten up leading to chronic hamstrings issues like tendinopathies or tears. When a muscle isn’t working effectively your body relegates the task to the next muscle in line. In this case it is the hamstrings and adductor magnus as they also extend the femur and stabilise the pelvis. Tight hammys and adductors, sound familiar anyone? This is one of the top 5 reasons people come into our clinic for treatment. (S. McGill 2009) http://www.backfitpro.com/pdf/selecting_back_exercises.pdf
3 - like in number 2 without strong glutes your lower back muscles such as the erector spinae and quadratus lumborum (QL’s) will become overactive. This can lead to lower back pain.
4 - the glutes can be considered part of the core and a stabiliser of the pelvis and hips. If the pelvis is unstable then it will place a lot of stress on the hip joints, sacroiliac joints, lumbar facet joints and the discs. This could lead to serious lower back injuries such as a disc bulge or early onset hip osteoarthritis, tendinopathies of the glutes or damage to the cartilage of the hip known as the labrum.
5 - Stability in the hips, especially the gluteus medius muscles, will also affect the knee. If you have ever squatted in front of a mirror you may have noticed that your knees drift inwards. Strength in the glute medius will help to stop the knees drifting inwards as it will keep the femur stable.
6 - The opposing muscles to the glutes are the hip flexors and adductors. When a the glutes are weak, this can create an imbalance in the pelvis known as lower crossed syndrome. This is where the glutes and abdominals are weak and the hip flexors and lower back muscles are tight. The opposing muscles will end up winning the tug of war pulling the hips into anterior tilt. An anteriorly tilted pelvis looks like you are sticking your bum out at the back. This can be called a hyper lordosis in the lumbar spine and can lead to back pain by jamming up the facet joints of the lumbar spine. Over time this posture can lead to more serious back problems such as osteoarthritis of the lumbar spine and hips, disc degeneration and spondylolysthesis.
7 - As a rule of thumb weak glutes = tight glutes. When a muscle is weak the nervous system will try to find stability by tightening up or slamming the brakes on so to speak. If you have tight glutes then a simple rule of thumb is that they are possibly also weak.
So what can you do to strengthen your glutes?
So there you have it. Everyone will now be hitting the gym strengthening up their glutes. So what exercises can you do to get some strength in the derrière? Well, it really depends on what access to equipment you have. If you are at home then you wont have the same equipment as you would if you are at the gym.
Simple at home exercises:
These exercises are a simple and effective glute activation and stabilisation exercise. Lying on your back, feet hip width apart and arms by your sides. Press down with the heels and lift your butt off the floor. Squeeze the glutes at the top and hold for 2 seconds. Then with control slowly lower down. Repeat 10 times total for 3 sets. An option to make this stronger on the glute med muscles is to tie an exercise band around your knees and keep the legs squeezing out at around hip width.
When you can easily do the 2 leg version progress onto the single leg version. Keep one leg off the ground the whole time. Engage the core by sucking the belly button in slightly, feeling the deep abdominals engage. Hold this on while pressing down with the heel and lifting off with the single leg. Hold for 2 seconds at the top whiles squeezing the glute. Repeat 10 times for 3 sets.
Lunges and variations
The good old lunge is one of those easy to access exercises that is great for hip stability and also all over glute strength, as well as targeting the hamstrings and quads.
Standing up tall, back straight, step the right leg forward so that when you drop the hips and lunge the knee comes into alignment with the ankle. Try not to let the knee travel too far over the foot as you may damage the knee ligaments. Drop the hips down and bend the back knee so that the back upper leg is almost in alignment with the spine. Repeat 10 times for 3 sets. Repeat on other leg. A variation is walking lunges where you walk forward alternating between legs.
The next 2 lunges are often overlooked as people tend to only work their body in the sagittal plane, meaning forwards and backwards. The side lunge works on the lateral line of the body or the glute medius and minimus mostly.
With these lunges you need to be careful of your knees as this lateral movement performed with improper form could damage the meniscus or ligaments of the knee.
In the side lunge begin by standing up tall. step one leg out as far as comfortable, drop the pelvis down and bend the knee of the leg that didn't move. Try to keep the back as upright as you can. Step the leg back in and repeat 10 times for 3 sets.
Curtsy lunges - This time the foot comes across the body to the opposite side and you lunge down, like you were doing a curtsy for the queen. Try to keep the hips as level as you can, this is what the glutes do to stabilise the pelvis so that is why this exercise is so good. Keep the hips facing forwards. The back foot will pivot. Try to make sure that the knees stay in alignment so as not to damage the knee. This exercise is great for targeting all of the glutes especially the glute med and min.
This is one of the key glute exercises. The real secret with squats is to press down with your heels to engage your glutes as you press up to come out of the squat. Then when coming to standing slightly tuck the pelvis under and squeeze the glutes together, getting a further contraction of them. This works all 3 glutes.
On all fours, lift one leg back engaging the glute at the end. Bring the leg back to the ground each time. Repeat 10 times for 3 sets. You can increase the load here by holding for as long as you can with the leg back. You can also introduce a resistance band between your leg and your hand to increase the tension.
These are also a great exercise to really target all of the glutes as they also incorporate some external rotation of the hip. They are similar to the Donkey kicks except now you rotate the hip outwards as though you were a dog and you were going to relieve yourself on a fire hydrant (I didn’t make this up and apologise if it’s a bit crude), ensure that you don't actually relieve yourself, so tuck in that pelvic floor :) Repeat each side 10 times for 3 sets.
This can be performed with or without an exercise band. Heels together and knees together. Make sure your hips are stacked on top of each other so that one isn't more forward. Raise one knee up, feeling the squeeze in the gluteus medius, also pressing the heels together. slowly release down. Make sure this exercise is controlled and slow. Repeat 10 times for 3 sets.
This is also a great gluteus medius/minimus exercise. The band is just above the knees (some like it around the ankles), bend slightly forward from the hips, sticking the butt out. Step one leg out to the side about 20-30cm slowly. Bring the foot to the floor and then slowly bring the other foot towards the stationary leg, also slowly. You then continue up to 10 times, gradually walking across the floor. Then repeat in the other direction. Repeat for 3 sets total. It is important in this exercise to always keep the band under tension, it shouldn't go slack as this exercise is a stability exercise.
More involved exercises you can do at the gym:
Barbell back squats
The key here is proper form. If you have never performed barbell squats of any kind then it is highly advisable you have an experienced, trusted personal trainer take you through this so as to prevent you from hurting yourself. Along with deadlifts, barbell squats are among the most common exercises people come into our clinic for with injuries.
Begin light to get your form. Practice the squats without any weight first and then with just a bar, so you feel comfortable before adding weights.
Place the bar across the top of your trapezius muscle, the fleshy part, so that it doesn't irritate C7/T1 part of your spine that sticks out more that other vertebrae. Keeping the spine neutral and head looking forward, suck in the breath and core, hinge slightly from the hips and bend the knees. Come down as far as is comfortable, then press down with the heels and drive yourself into standing tucking the pelvis under at the end to squeeze the glutes. Repeat 10 times for 3 sets.
A big tip here is to gradually increase the weight over time as you get stronger and more competent. If you suddenly try to lift a weight you haven't trained for or haven't warmed up for you WILL hurt yourself.
Romanian deadlifts or straight leg dead lifts.
Same thing applies here. Deadlifts are great glute and posterior chain exercises, but they are also one of the most common exercises that will cause you an injury. If you were going to invent an exercise to damage the discs in your back then this would be it. If you don't keep your spine neutral and flex your lumbar spine then you will compress the discs with more weight than usual, possibly causing permanent damage. On the other hand when performed with correct form, ie a neutral spine, it is one of the essential exercises that most people with healthy back should be incorporating into their workouts.
Begin with a light weight. Start with the bar at straight arms. Breathe in to engage the core and internal pressure. Hinge forward from the hips and slowly lower down as far as you can go until your legs begin to bend. Press down with your heels and imagine you are pulling the bar back into your body like you are trying trying to snap the bar over your body. Press down with your heels to engage the glutes. Tuck pelvis under at the end of the movement to really engage the glutes.
Mobility is also a key here. If you are really tight in your hamstrings then your range of motion will be seriously limited.
Single leg dead lifts
Single leg deadlift are a great hip stability exercise. Try to get the form before you add a dumbbell or kettle bell. Standing straight with feet together. Imagine hinging from the hips as though stretching hamstrings but in this case one leg will stay planted to the ground and one will stay in alignment with the spine and extend back. If holding a weight hold it in the hand of the side the leg is coming off the ground. Take a deep breath in and engage the core by tucking in the belly button deeply Keep the back leg and spine in alignment, it can be useful to have a mirror to check your form. Come down as far as you can keeping good form, you can bend the straight leg slightly. Then press down with the heel and hinge yourself back up keeping the core strong and the back straight. Repeat 10 times fro 3 sets.
If you have never performed this exercise before then start off with just the bar so you get comfortable. Also a tip for guys, be careful where you place the bar as you don't want 60kg squashing your manhood.
Lying on the ground in the same position as the glute bridge. Straighten your legs and roll the bar up your legs so it sits just above your pelvic bones, you can use a rolled up mat to soften the pressure on the pelvis. Use your arms to keep the bar in place. Press down with the heels and thrust the pelvis upwards, squeezing the glutes at the top. Slowly with control lower this down. Repeat 10 times for 3 sets.
Bulgarian split squats
This exercise can strike fear into the heart of the glutes. It hurts while you're doing it, but the amount of glute activation you will feel will be worth it. Plus you will barely be able to walk the next day. This exercise is one that should definitely be in your glute strengthening regime.
Place the back foot up on a bench, ideally around knee height. Bring the front leg forward far enough that when you squat down your knee will be over the toes. Begin with light dumbbells at first to get the form right. Squat down keeping the back straight and the spine neutral. Make sure the knee doesn't come too far over the toes so as not to put unnecessary strain on the knee ligaments. Press down with the heel to engage the glutes and then press up slightly tucking the pelvis under at the end of the rep, squeezing the glutes. Repeat another 10 times for 3 sets.
Note that if you are going to attempt more complicated weighted exercises then it is important to have a professional assess your technique. We advise that you seek out an experienced personal trainer to guide you on proper form to ensure you are lifting correctly. If you already have a personal trainer then ask for a more targeted glute program if you feel you have imbalanced or weak glutes. That is if you are not already of course. We have access to an extensive personal trainer network, so if you need a great trainer then please get in touch and we can put you in touch with the right person.
This is also not an exhaustive list of glute exercises. There are many more including jump squats, box jumps, step ups, stair running, the list goes on.
The other factor here to counter tightness in the glutes is having soft tissue work to release the tight structures. Increasing mobility will help to allow you to stabilise and strengthen safely and more effectively without creating injuries for yourself. Active release techniques, myofascial release, dry needling, fascial manipulation, trigger point therapy and deep tissue release can be very effective at releasing those pesky tight glutes.
As always if you have any questions or comments then please feel free to get in touch.
Brukner and Khan - clinical sports medicine
Stuart McGill - Low Back Disorders, Evidence base prevention and rehabilitation