Glute Exercises – The Why and How

Katie Breeze, one of our great sports injury therapists writes this great article about glute exercises:

More and more frequently I see people (from both active and more sedentary lifestyles) who are suffering from a combination of low-back pain and occasional knee discomfort.  On assessment, it’s common to find that these individuals have developed poor movement patterns.  They also have weaknesses as a result of inactivity or an over reliance on certain muscle groups during their day to day activities or their training regime.

For every day functional movement, we rely on a sequential firing pattern of muscles to move and stabilize us.  This is combined with structural integrity of the joints supported by their ligaments, tendons and connective tissue.  When we think of the variables that are involved in all of these structures working together it is no wonder that we all display our own unique walking style, or Gait Cycle.  Next time you have the opportunity to sit in a pavement café, take a minute to people watch, and you will be amazed at the varying styles of gait that people display.

The Gait Cycle

In broad terms, the gait cycle is made up of two phases: the stance phase during which the foot is in contact with the ground and the swing phase, during which the foot is not in contact with the ground and the leg is swinging past the other leg.

A functionally efficient Gait Cycle requires mobility, strength and activation of:

  • the hip stabilizers; predominantly, the gluteal group, the tensor fascia latae (TFL), iliopsoas (hip flexors), adductors, abductors and the iliotibial band (ITB)
  • core stabilizers such as transverse abdominus, multifidus, internal obliques, pelvic floor muscles and the diaphragm. *

These are only some of the core stabilizers but are largely responsible for the bracing of the lower spine and it’s rigidity during movement.  And, the “core” specifically refers to all the muscles surrounding the spine like a corset that aim to keep us upright for optimum function and power.  Your core should initiate activity prior to the movement of the lower limbs.

When correctly recruited, and all of these muscles contract together, the spine is said to be in its most stable position.  By initiating the contraction of the core muscles prior to any movement of any other limb, the body is kept centred and the core rigid during movement. So, regardless of the type of activity, if the core muscles fail to contract prior to movement, the spine is vulnerable to injury.

How Can We Assess the Effectiveness of these Muscles?

There are a number or fairly simple techniques that can be used to assess dynamic posture which will indicate areas of muscle imbalance (weakness or tightness) as well as joint range mobility and flexibility.  In examining the hip stabilizers, the single leg squat is excellent for identifying areas of imbalance.

Single Leg Squat

Perform a single leg squat movement pattern in front of the mirror, look at your leg alignment and check the following:

  1. Is your knee tracking over your toes? Or does it appear to travel inwards?
  2. Does your hip remain stable? Or is it falling outwards?
  3. Are you able to keep your upper body upright with your chest facing forwards?

If any of these problems are happening, then your glutes maybe inactive, and you will benefit from targeting them in a rehabilitation exercise programme.

Gluteal Stretches and Activating or Strengthening Exercises

Inactive glutes can cause a multitude of additional problems.  These include: medial (inside) knee instability, lower back pain, Sacroiliac joint dysfunction and pain, piriformis syndrome, ankle instability problems and Achilles tendinopathy.

There is a rule in rehabilitation and that is lengthen before you strengthen.  Gluteal activation is naturally enhanced if the hip flexors are stretched because the elongated hip flexors permit a greater range of extension of the hip and encourage the gluteals to fire throughout their full range.  In this case, you’ll need to lengthen or stretch your hip flexors (iliopsoas) before you target your glutes in an isolated exercise.  I will show you how this is best achieved later in this post.

These glute exercises should be an important component of any core programme.  They are required to stabilize the hip, off-loading the work that the ITB, hamstrings and lumbar muscles are otherwise forced into doing.  To maintain optimum function of your gluteal muscles and ITB, and prevent secondary injury, maintenance stretching should be incorporated into your daily routines, where the stretch is held for 30-40 secs, each time aiming to take the stretched fascia a little further without causing pain.

When strengthening your gluteus maximus, you also need to be aware that hamstrings tend to dominate in hip extension (taking your leg backwards).  So, to activate the gluteus over the hamstrings, you need to choose hip extension exercises that are performed with your knees bent in order to minimize hamstring involvement.  Again, I shall show you these in a later blog post.

Hip Flexor Stretch

To maintain optimum function of the gluteal muscles and ITB, and prevent secondary injury, maintenance stretching should be incorporated into daily routines, where the stretch is held for 30-40 secs, each time aiming to take the stretched fascia a little further without causing pain.

Use this slow, static hip flexor stretch before attempting the glute activation exercises, to help inhibit the hip flexors, particularly the powerful psoas muscle, while you get your glutes firing.

 Hip flexor stretch

 Begin in a forward lunge position and drop your back knee to the floor.

  • Raise your arms and hands up over your head and look up.
  • Press your hips forward and down toward the floor.  Feel a stretch through your torso, hip, groin and thigh.
  • Hold the stretch for about 20 to 30 seconds, release and repeat on the other leg.
  • You can modify this stretch based upon your own flexibility and limitations, but be sure to keep your forward knee over or behind your ankle – not in front of it.

Gluteal Activation – The Bridge

The bridge exercise is generally easiest way to get your glutes firing as well as activating your core.  The movement is small and targeted, so go slowly and you will feel your glutes “waking up.”

The bridge - glute activation exercise

  • Lie on your back with your hands by your sides, your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Make sure your feet are under your knees.
  • Tighten your abdominal and buttock muscles.
  • Raise your hips up to create a straight line from your knees to your shoulders.
  • Squeeze your core and try to pull your belly button back toward your spine. The goal is to maintain a straight line from your shoulders to your knees and hold for 20 to 30 seconds.

If your hips sag or drop, lower yourself back on the floor.  Be sure to contract the glutes hard and keep the hamstrings relaxed.  You may need to place your hand on your hamstrings to make sure they stay soft.  You may need to begin by holding the bridge position for a few seconds as you build your strength.  It’s better to hold the correct position for a shorter time than to go longer in the incorrect position.

Single Leg Shoulder Bridge

This single leg shoulder bridge exercise is a great example of how to progress the activation of your gluteus maximus in isolation.

Sligle leg shoulder bridge for glute activation

  • The knee needs to be bent over 90 degrees, with the foot planted on the floor.
  • You may lift your toes so all the weight is taken on the heel as this will minimise quadriceps activation.
  • Squeeze your core whilst performing this exercise and try and pull your belly button back to your spine.
  • Aim to have a straight line between the shoulders and hips .  Hold this for 3-5 seconds, before lowering towards, but not all the way to the ground and repeating again.
  • Repeat for as many times in 30 seconds as possible, then change legs. As you get stronger, you can hold the position longer or do more reps of lifting and lowering on each side before you switch.

If you find this exercise too challenging, return to the basic bridge exercise to build strength and then progress to the single-leg bridge.

The single leg shoulder bridge exercise helps us to activate the gluteus maximus.  In a single leg squat movement pattern this keeps our upper body upright and chest facing forwards.  What prevents our femur (thigh bone) from coming inwards is gluteus medius during the same movement pattern.  Therefore weakness through glute max, can easily result in inactivity of glute medius and instability to the pelvis, resulting in lower back pain.

Side Lying Hip Abduction – The Clam Exercise

While these previous exercises for glute activation specifically target the gluteus maximus, the prime mover during hip extension, this next exercise targets the gluteus medius, which fires during hip abduction and rotation.

Side lying hip abduction

  • Lying on your side, keep both knees bent and flex the hips to 30 degrees.
  • While keeping your heels touching and pelvis still, open your knees by contracting your glute medius. This is a very slow, small and targeted movement.
  • Place your hand on your gluteus medius (just below and behind your hip) to ensure that it is firing during the movement.
  • Repeat the movement slowly 10 to 15 times and switch sides.

ALL EXERCISES AND STRETCHES OUTLINED ABOVE SHOULD ONLY BE ATTEMPTED AFTER CONSULTATION WITH YOU SPORTS/PHYSICAL THERAPIST

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