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.