The gluteus maximus is the strongest and biggest muscle of the body. The gluteus maximus is not only a hip extensor but also plays an important role in pelvic and spinal stabilisation and proper leg alignment (Snijders et al. 1993). The gluteus maximus allows us to maintain an upright position needed for bipedalism. Through evolution the gluteus maximus enlarged in humans as a means to stabilise the trunk while standing and counteract the high impact forces that tend to flex the trunk anteriorly during running and sprinting. Consequently the glute muscles gradually lose tone during our chair-laden lifestyle (Marzke et al. 1988). The terms ‘gluteal amnesia’ and ‘sleeping giant’ probably sound familiar. These terms refer to inhibition and delayed activation of the gluteal muscles, which in time leads to weakness of these muscles. Gluteal inhibition negatively affects performance and lower body strength and is a root cause for many injuries and chronic pain. Due to our lifestyle, low back pain or lower body injuries our glutes may be inhibited and do not fire when they are supposed to. What is the last time your glutes felt really sore after a workout? Many athletes and lifters don’t know how to turn on the glutes, because the compensation pattern to get around using the glutes are so engraved. This article focuses on exercises that address the major functions of the glutes and result in the greatest level of glute activation. These exercises will help to switch your glutes back on and re-establish correct muscle recruitment patterns. Re-activating your glutes will positively affect every compound lower body lift, improve your core stability, prevent lower-body injuries and enhance sport performance.
The gluteus maximus and lower back stability
Activating and strengthening the glutes needs to form an important part of your core routine. Co-contraction of the gluteus maximus with the psoas major (part of iliopsoas muscle) contributes to lumbo-sacral stabilization (Gibbons 2005). The gluteus maximus provides stability to the sacroiliac joint (SI joint) by bracing and compression (Snijders et al. 1993). Excess movement at the SI joint would compromise the L5-S1 intervertebral joints and disc and could lead to SI joint dysfunction and low back pain. The gluteus maximus also provides lower back stability through its connection with the erector spinae and toraco-lumbar fascia (Vleeming et al. 1995). Some of its fibres are continuous with the fibres of the erector spinae. A contraction of the gluteus maximus will generate tension in the erector spinae muscle on the same side, providing stiffness to the spinal column (Snijders et al. 1997). Gluteus maximus contraction also exerts a pull on the lower end of the thoraco-lumbar fascia, which is a thick layer of ligamentous connective tissue. Tightening of this fascia stabilises the vertebras. People with low back pain often have weak and deconditioned glutes (Kankaanpää et al. 1998). Lengthened gluteal muscles as a result of our sitting lifestyle leads to a decreased stabilising function in the gluteus maximus (Richardson et al. 1991). This can result in compensation by the lower back and more altered muscular firing patterns and function.
Inhibition of the gluteal muscles
Low back pain has been associated with inhibition of the gluteus maximus (Leinonen et al. 2000). The activation of the gluteus maximus during hip extension is delayed in people with a history of low back pain compared to people with no back pain. In people with low back pain hip extension is initiated by the hamstrings and erector spinae instead of the gluteus maximus (Nelson-Wong et al. 2012). Even after the episode of low back pain has resolved, the altered firing patterns in the gluteus maximus remain (Ferreira et al. 2004). People suffering from ankle sprain injuries also have been shown to have reduced activation levels of the gluteus maximus (Bullock-Saxton et al. 1994). In the case of low back pain, ankle and probably all lower body injuries, rehabilitation needs to focus on re-activating the gluteal muscles.
Weak or inhibited gluteal muscles contribute to injury
Weak or delayed activation of the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius is a root cause for many injuries and chronic pain:
- Hamstring strains: Due to delayed gluteus maximus activity, the hamstring muscles become dominant during hip extension, which can cause hamstring strains (Sahrmann 2002). A lot of athletes that pulled a hamstring keep suffering re-injuries despite their focus and efforts to strengthen the hamstrings. They are reinforcing a compensation pattern instead of reactivating their inhibited glutes. Shirley Sahrmann said, « Any time you see an injured muscle, look for a weak synergist.” A synergist is a muscle that performs the same joint motion.
- Low back pain: Gluteus maximus activation plays an important role in stabilising the pelvis during the task of lifting (Noe et al. 1992). Delayed gluteus maximus activation also causes excessive compensation of the back extensors (Nelson-Wong et al. 2012).
- Anterior knee pain: The excessive internal rotation of the femur as a result of glute weakness increases the pressure on the patellar cartilage (Tyler et al. 2006).
- Anterior hip pain: Decreased force production from the gluteus maximus during hip extension is associated with increased anterior translation of the femur in the acetabulum. The increased femoral anterior glide could lead to increased force and wear and tear on the anterior hip joint structures (Cara et al. 2007)
- Lower-body malalignment: Weak glutes results in increased internal rotation of the femur, knee valgus and foot pronation (Lephart et al. 2002).
- Gluteal weakness also has been associated with anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) sprains (Hewett et al. 2006), chronic ankle instability (Friel et al. 2006), and iliotibial friction syndrome (Fredericson et al. 2000).
Exercises to re-activate the gluteal muscles
The gluteus maximus is especially active during stair climbing, running and activities that involve stabilising the trunk against flexion (McLay et al. 1990, Stern et al. 1980). An exercise that combines these movements would trigger a strong contraction of the gluteus maximus and addresses both the stabilising and movement role. Single-leg exercises require frontal plane pelvic stability (resisting gravity’s hip adduction torque), together with a control of the stance leg in the frontal (preventing adduction of the thigh) and transverse plane (preventing internal rotation of the thigh), which results in a high neural drive to the gluteus maximus, medius and other muscles of the lateral system.
- the cable creates a hip flexion force against which the gluteus maximus has to stabilise
- The movement mimics the hip action of running and stair climbing. Like in running, the body has to be pulled over the foot by a powerful hip extension.
- Single-leg stance
- Advanced progression: Combining this exercise with a shoulder press emphasizes the stabilising role of the gluteus maximus even more.
- These single-leg exercises require concentric or eccentric hip extension throughout a large range of motion.
- In these exercises the hand opposite to the stance leg is loaded. The added rotary force stimulates the external rotator capability of the gluteus maximus and medius and gives these exercises a multi-planar character. The glutes need to stabilise the hip in the frontal (resisting gravity’s hip adduction torque) and transverse plane (preventing internal rotation of the thigh) and generate movement in the sagittal plane (concentric/eccentric hip extension).
- These exercises train the cross-body connection (posterior oblique system
), that transmits forces from the ground through the leg and hip, across the SI-joint via the thoracodorsal fascia, into the opposite lattisimus dorsi.
- This exercise combines hip extension and hip abduction and requires stabilization of the trunk against flexion, which are all major functions of the gluteus maximus.
- This exercises also trains the cross-body connection.
- High activation levels of the gluteus medius, upper part of the gluteus maximus and lateral system muscles have been observed during the side bridge and the side bridge with abduction exercises (Selkowitz et al. 2012).
- This exercise combines a powerful hip extension and abduction and really activates the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. Skating develops and shapes the hips and glutes best.
The full article with references you can read on http://functionalresistancetraining.com/articles/re-activating-and-strengthening-the-gluteal-muscles
Edit: Thanks guys for the positive comments and I see some good discussions on which I want to comment here.
Some interpret this post as OR squats OR some of the exercises listed here. But it’s an AND, AND story. To quote indiecore: “I found that squats helped my running and running helped my squat.” Knee-dominant squats will help single-leg strength (better glute activation) and vice versa. From my own training experience and the athletes I work with I see that these exercises boost squat performance and that increased squat strength transfers to increased performance. Squats are, like the bench press is for the upper body, a great exercise to create an overload of the lower body musculature.
Squats are knee-dominant and when you combine them with a hip-dominant exercise you maintain an optimal balance between glute, hamstring and quad strength. The exercises above will help you correct possible compensation patterns. Research shows that a muscle focus results in higher EMG activity of the muscles involved in the movement, but in a lower total force output. This is clearly contra-productive for performance and strength gains. From my experience I believe goal-oriented movement has a lot better results to improve strength and performance.
I’ll give a few examples of squats combined with the exercises listed above.
Bulgarian split squat:
- 1 x 6 reps@ (bodyweight) (@ means each leg).
- 1 x 6 reps@ (60% 1RM)
- 2 x 5 reps@ (70% 1RM)
- 2 x 3 reps@ (80% 1RM)
Front or back squat (full ROM):
- 4 x 4 reps (80% 1RM)
Single-leg Romanian deadlift & row:
- 1 x 8 reps@ (60% 1RM)
- 3 x 6 reps@ (70% 1RM)
Side bridge with abduction: great for neural activation of the glutes at the start of the workout.
- 3 x 6-8 reps@
Front or back squat (full ROM):
- 1 x 6 reps (60% 1RM)
- 3 x 6 reps (70% 1RM)
Slide-board resisted back lunge: You don’t need a slide-board, you can use small towel or Val-slide or just perform a resisted back lunge.
- 4 x 8RM @