Welcome to the 2nd piece in our activation series – glute activation.
In the first of this series, we talked about what muscle activation is and what having under activated or underrecruited muscles means.
(if you haven’t read the first one, I recommend you click here to go back and come back once you’ve read it – there is some information I’m assuming you know in this post)
In this second piece, we’re talking about activation as it relates to the gluteal group, aka , gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, and gluteus medius aka ‘the glutes’. (if you’re scratching your head, I’ll just say it – it’s your butt muscle. The big muscle in your butt.)
We have a joke in the clinic, if anyone comes in with anything from the waist down – it’s the glutes. It’s not because we’re hilarious (well, we are that, but that’s not why) – it’s because it’s rare that a client comes in that doesn’t have underactive glutes and often we have to get them going again before we can make lasting improvement in their problem.
Function & Location
The glutes attach from the bottom of the V shape of your spine, called the sacrum and part of the top of the pelvis bone, and then attaches to the side of the hip and feeds into the ITB. (well, technically glute max attaches to the sacrum & ilium, glute med & min attach at different points in your pelvis, but I don’t want to get toooooo technical with you)
They are a very big muscle group and they are a very important muscle group.
The gluteal group mainly stabilises your leg and pelvis, and by extension your torso (with your other core muscles).
When you’re walking and you lift your leg up, the glute on your standing leg should kick in to help keep you stable.
When you put your foot down to finish the stretch, the glute in the leg that just came down should kick in to keep your knee in alignment with your hip and your foot.
If you’re thinking:
‘But I do squats and lunges, so my glutes must be working’ or
‘I’m a runner!’ or
‘I cycle all the time’,
I hate to break it to you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re using your glutes.
I’ve had clients who do all those things and aren’t using their glutes properly.
For example, I had one who got up to a 16-mile long run while marathon training and injured himself.
Yep, you guessed it – glute activation problem.
When he finally got to a place to try running again, he went back to the 16-miler and guess what he said?
‘This is the first time my glutes have ever been sore after I’ve run’.
Let that sink in for a minute.
If you’re a runner or do any type of physical sporting/athletic events, you know how much time and how much running it takes to before you get to a 16-mile long run in your training.
This person did all those runs without recruiting his glutes properly.
I’ve had people who’ve run for years and then the moment they start to increase their mileage they start to get problems that can be traced back to the glutes.
See why we have the ‘it’s the glutes’ joke?
How Do the Glutes Get ‘Switched Off’?
In the first piece, we talked a bit about why muscles stopped getting activated or recruited, but the truth is we don’t really know 100% why it happens.
Here are some possible theories for glutes (that I either heard through other professionals or *ahem* made up myself):
Theory #1: because we spend so much of our time sitting, and sitting puts our glutes in a lengthened position, perhaps muscles in a lengthened position over time make are less able to contract because of the distance between the contractile fibres.
Theory #2: because we spend so much of our time sitting and not using our muscles, our brain decides that it should conserve our energy and not use our glutes (the glutes, after all, would have been a super important muscle to conserve energy for in the days before the wheel). But, since we spend most of our time switching them off to save energy, the connection gets weak and the nerve pathway gets less functional.
Theory #3: an injury down a nerve line, like a sprain in the ankle, could shut off a nerve pathway to allow that tissue to heal, which could include a number of muscles along that nerve line. Then, if the injury isn’t properly rehabilitated, the activation along that line doesn’t get turned back on properly (and it’s not unusual for people to have worse glute activation on the same side as a historical ankle sprain).
Again, no idea if these are right. As far as I know there’s not a definitive answer.
What we do have is client after client who comes in with knee, hamstring, hip, calf, ankle problems and when we focus on glute activation alongside muscle release, they improve much more effectively than without the glute activation work.
How Do I Know (if my glutes aren’t active)?
How can you tell if your glutes aren’t active?
Here are some tests we do in the clinic.
You’re welcome to try them at home, or we can check them with you if you come in for an appointment.
Bending Knees Test
In test #1, stand with your feet hip-width apart with your feet preferably facing straight forward and just bend your knees. Don’t think about what you should do or good posture, just bend them.
Now look down at your knees. (or, you could use a mirror)
Have your knees dropped toward your midline, or stayed in alignment with the middle of your foot?
If your knees stay straight, that is good. It’s an indicator that your glutes may be kicking in. It’s also not definitive – your knees may line up but then in other day to day stuff they don’t.
On the other hand, if your knees go towards your midline that’s a sign you likely have some activity issues.
Knee Lift Test
The second test (and my favourite as it’s so easy to do), is the knee lift test.
Stand again with your feet hip-width apart and lift one of your knees.
Make sure you lift your knee up to hip height (and not your ankle to knee height).
How wobbly are you?
Is it hard for you to stay upright on just that one leg?
That is a sign of weak/underrecruited glutes.
If you’re thinking ‘yes, I’m wobbly, but that’s just my weak ankle’…
Sorry, but that’s kind of unlikely.
Usually, your ankle is wobbling because your pelvis is wobbling, and your ankle is desperately trying to acclimate to the wobbly mass of bone, muscle, and organs that is looming over its small bony structure (comparatively speaking).
When people’s glutes get stronger and activate appropriately, those same ‘I just have weak ankles’ people magically have stronger, more stable ankles, even though they’ve not done ANY ankle strengthening work.
Standing on One Leg Easy?
If it’s easy, and you’re super stable, repeat on the same side 2-3 times. It’s not uncommon for glutes to kick in once but once is all they have in them.
Or, you may have unconsciously ‘cheated’.
(now, please don’t be offended if I say you’re cheating.
Our bodies are truly talented at finding easier ways to do a thing – I mean, that is their job, to conserve our energy as much as possible – if doing it correctly is hard.
So good, in fact, our body could be cheating and you wouldn’t even know it. Our body cheats when it comes to strength moves for underused or underrecruited muscles, and it cheats when it comes to avoiding stretching the tightest muscles. It’s an unconscious survival/coping mechanism.
Don’t be mad at your body for cheating.
Just be aware of it so you can check for it)
Ways that bodies cheat in the knee lift test:
Your hip shifts way over (the hip on the leg you’re standing on) so your foot is under your midline.
Your torso goes way over (on the side of the leg you’re standing on) so you’re almost at a 30′ angle from your leg to shoulder.
If you’re not sure if you’re ‘cheating’, ask us to check in your next session and we’ll make usre you’re lined up properly.
The Touch Test
If you’re still not sure after these two, the easiest one to do (and yes, I saved the easiest one for last), is the ‘touch test’ (which, you might have guessed, is just a made-up name. I don’t actually have a name for it, but since I had a name for the other two I thought I’d name this one too, that isn’t ‘squeeze your own butt like a weirdo’).
Put your hand on your butt – flat is better so you can feel more of the muscle.
Try to contract your glutes and feel under your hand how much they activate (i.e. how hard they get).
If they get very hard, you have a strong contraction.
If you feel nothing, you have no contraction.
If you feel nothing, you have a lot of work to do.
Just a note on this test – remember how we talked about activation vs recruitment back in part 1 (if not, click here to see the first in this series)?
If you can contract your glutes, that means you can activate them, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are recruiting them, i.e. calling on them, in the right movements.
The knee lift test and the knee bend test are both good checks if your brain recruits your glutes in movement.
The touch test just tells you if you can turn them on.
How to Switch Them Back On
Now that you know what glute under-activity or under-recruitment is, and you know how to test for it, how can you switch them back on?
Most people think that running and cycling and doing squats and doing lunges will work your glutes.
But, if your brain doesn’t know to/doesn’t switch them on when you’re doing those movements, you can, in fact, do all those movements without using your glutes. In those cases, that’s when you’re setting yourself up for knee problems, hamstrings problems, calf problems, and hip problems.
The first thing you need to do is stop doing a ton of weighted lunges and squats, and first go back to just turning your glutes on.
I’ve put in a video below that’s a great starter exercise for you, especially if when you did the touch test you felt next to nothing (I also like this video because in it, this guy explains how squats and lunges before you have your glutes working can cause problems including lower back pain).
While he suggests going to the chiropractor for some of the issues he describes, osteopaths, physios, and massage therapists can also help with these issues depending on the individual situation.
Once you’ve got your glutes going, the next step is to start getting your glutes involved in your day to day activities.
A couple months ago I did a piece about how to activate your glutes in ‘no extra time’ (click here to read it). The knee lift exercise is great to do in the morning to get your glutes going. Then, using them as you go about your day starts to make your brain used to the idea that your glutes are part of the system all the time, not just when you exercise.
Once you’ve been doing the no extra time exercises and can really get a strong contraction in your glutes, then you can move up to some resistant training/strength exercises.
There’s also a specific 2-lunge, 2-3 one-legged-ish squat, 2-lunge activation to use as part of your warm up that’s great for runners and cyclists.
I’m not going to go into it now, not least because I made it up and there’s no video on it, (and a video with my resources right now would be seriously poor quality and I just won’t put that out there), and writing out the steps would just be really confusing.
Plus, it’s better to do this one with us in a session so we can double check your movements and form and make sure you’re doing it right.
Other Signs that Your Glutes Aren’t Working (or, the effects of glute underactivity)
As mentioned, there are a TON of muscles that compensate for underactive glutes.
While it’s not 100% for all issues, here’s a pretty comprehensive list of what underused glutes cause in the body.
If you have one of these (and no obvious structural traumas or injuries, especially if they’ve built up slowly from a niggle to something more consistent), there’s probably a very good to fair chance that you have glute activation issues:
Knee pain (if your quads are overworking to compensate for glutes not working, that can lead to knee compression from tight quads and/or ITB)
Hamstrings pain/tension/injuries (hamstrings will kick in to try and stabilise the hip and knee when it’s not getting help from the glutes – especially the medial hamstring – aka the hamstring closer to your midline. Hamstrings also do the bulk of hip extension when the glutes don’t kick in – like when doing a ‘glute bridge’).
Piriformis – if you’re getting a sharp pain in the back of the middle of the hip (aka deep in the butt cheek), or an ache when sitting for long periods of time, or sciatic-type symptoms down the leg, you may have a tight piriformis. One of the jobs of piriformis is to prevent internal rotation of the hip (read: the knee falling in) and if the glutes aren’t doing it, the piriformis will volunteer to help.
Lower back – if our glutes aren’t involved in our movements, often our lower back pulls us up vs our glutes pushing up. Also, a tight piriformis pulls on our back AND our hamstrings, aggravating both. As shown in the video above, if you have lower back pain and weak glutes (and weak core) there’s a chance that you need some glute activation.
There you go.
You probably now know more about your butt muscles than you ever thought you needed to (unless, of course, you’ve been coming to us for glute activation issues then this is probably mostly a review for you).
Because repetition is the mother of learning, let’s summarise here:
- Lack of glute activation or recruitment is when your glutes don’t switch on when they’re supposed to.
- You can test if you have glute activation issues with the knee bend test, the knee lift test, and the grab-your-own-butt-like-a-weirdo test (oops, I mean – the ‘touch test’).
- Problems that can be associated with glute activation issues include knee pain, hamstring problems, lower back problems, and piriformis/sciatic-type symptoms, to name a few.
- To improve your glute activation, first you need to make an effort to switch them on, then re-introduce activities that can strengthen them.
- If you’re glutes aren’t working properly, doing squats and lunges and other ‘glute-exercise activities’ often don’t help until you’ve fixed the recruitment problem.
If you’d like us to help you assess the state of your glute recruitment/activation, and take you through our glute activation protocol, you have two options:
One: come to us for a session in which we can include this.
Two: get on the waitlist for our upcoming glute activation workshops, which we plan to launch later this year. Send an email to info[at]leytonsportsmassage.com expressing your interest and we’ll put you on the list.
Next in the series:
We’re working our way up the body, so next in line is all about core & lower abdominal activation.
Lumbo-pelvic stability is really important, which covers glute activation/strength and core/pelvic floor activation/strength.
They go together like peanut butter and jelly.
Now, let me know in the comments or in your next session – do you have any questions about glute activation?
Or, if you’ve already seen us for glute activation and it’s helped you, please share in the comments what the difference was in your training or life before and after you started glute activation – it will help other people see that this is a real thing and how much of a difference it can make if you work on it.