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How To Strengthen Your Glutes To Prevent Injury & Improve Performance

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 09 April 2014
Hits: 42801

For almost every lower limb injury and lower back problem I work with in my studio there is close relationship with this person having weak gluteal muscles! For such massive muscles, they are also very lazy and dysfunctional creating a multitude of problems if their weakness is left unaddressed. The good news is many people are aware of this and try to find ways to improve the strength of their glutes. Unfortunately, many people cause more problems by isolating our glutes with all types of weird exercises that create more problems than they solve. Even though at times we might train individual muscles in the gym, in reality, for any kind of daily life movement it is the way the muscles work together, rather than in isolation, that makes the difference. And if there are broken or weak links, as a result of unbalanced training, injury or poor technique, the rest of the muscles will be affected and will work poorly. In this article, I will explain the correct way to restore strength to this muscle group to not only restore dysfunctional movement and eliminate compensation causing pain, but improve sporting performance and overall power.

INJURY FREE AND STRONG IS ALL ABOUT THE RIGHT MUSCLES WORKING TOGETHER:

The posterior chain (PC) muscles provide the major torque-producing capacity of the body during the activity of walking and running. From hip extension in walking, to powerful hip extension in sprinting, the Posterior Chain are the key muscles in use. The quote by Dr Vladimr Janda really sums up the importance of these muscles. Single leg stance is where we need our glutes the most, and we do this all day whenever we walk. It makes sense to have a strong butt for this reason and the picture above can only be done with a strong PC.

A strong PC will help any athlete to produce the explosive movement that is so necessary in competition: have a look at the lower back, gluteal and hamstring musculature of elite level sprinters. The PC, along with the abdominal muscles, also provides core stability for the low back.  An emphasis on Posterior Chain exercises in strength programs will help to address some of the typical muscle imbalances that people tend to have.

Many of the clients we see are “quadriceps dominant’, because of poor posture from sitting too much and bad training techniques. In the gym this can be caused by an excessive reliance on squat-type exercises, which build up the front of thigh muscles too much in relation to the glute and hamstrings. Step-ups and leg press work will have the same effect. (By the way the Leg Press, Leg Extension and Leg Curl are possibly the worst type of exercises you can ever do for your legs and your stabilizer muscles, as they teach the brain to no longer use stabilizers as the machines do it for you!

I don't know anyone who wants an exercise to give them a weak core or weak abs! Anyway as a consequence, the person who becomes quadriceps dominant over hamstrings is likely to develop many injuries in other areas of the body. Ranging from simple problems as strained hamstrings to as complex as chronic (herniated disc) back pain, or ACL Tear or rupture. Possibly the most common injury I see these days from weak glutes is the Lateral Pelvic Tilt that can be extremely difficult to correct once it is established. Now you can see why we place such high importance on glute and hamstring exercises.

Always remember this equation: Weak Glutes = Tight Hips = Poor Movement = Injury!

A great book to read on many of the things discussed in this article is called "The Vital Glutes" by John Gibbons. A very easy book to read and he simplifies what can be a very confusing and complex topic with great illustrations and pictures to help show you exactly what I am talking about in this article. I wish more people were given information and books to read like this as it would greatly help spread the word about the correct way to train.

As this article includes a stack of information I have provided you with a FREE checklist you can download that has links to all the relevant information. Click the image below to download your free PDF checklist.

What Do The Glutes Actually Do?

The Gluteus Medius is a hip extensor, abductor, and external rotator while it also stabilizes the pelvis in the frontal plane. There is three distinct heads of the gluteus medius muscle that perform a unique role as the body moves:

  1. The posterior fibres - These fibres contract at early stance phase to lock the ball into the hip socket. The posterior fibres therefore essentially perform a stabilising or compressing function for the hip joint.
  2. The middle/anterior fibres - These run in a vertical direction, help to initiate hip abduction, this is where the clam comes in which is then completed by a hip flexor muscle known as the TFL. The glutes work in tandem with TFL in stabilising the pelvis on the femur, to prevent the other side dropping down.
  3. The anterior fibres - These allow the femur to internally rotate in relation to the hip joint at mid-to-end stance phase. This is essential for pelvic rotation, so that the opposite side leg can swing forward during gait. The anterior fibres perform this role with TFL.

What this means is that to truly strengthen the glutes you will need an exercise that performs ALL of these three key functions in order to restore optimal movement and strengthen correctly. Many of the isolated exercises will not address these different roles, so while you think have gained strength the muscle is still dysfunctional.

Where To Start?

A good thing to do is perform some simple tests. Possibly the easiest test to do is in the video below and we use this often for clients with severe hip or back pain in our initial assessment. It is so easy and very simple that there is no risk of pain or injury. Watch the video to see how to do it and what to look for.

If you found that test to easy which many people do you can move to more progressive tests. Possibly the best starting point is to use ‘The Bridge’ or "Hip Extension" exercise. It is common for the gluteal muscles to become lengthened (chronically stretched), reducing the tension in the range around hip extension. The bridge or hip extension targets your butt muscles very well in this position.

The video shown below on the left I explain exactly how to use this as a test and what to look for with compensation. The video to the right shows two other simple assessment tests I might use to identify weakness that can be hard to find.

 

It is important to perform this exercise as a holding position because this mimics the stabilizing role of the gluteal muscles more closely. Building up the length of time you can position will improve strength-endurance of the gluteals in the inner range position. Be sure to keep breathing throughout. Check where you feel the contraction. If you feel it strongly in the hamstrings or lower back, the gluteals are not doing their share of the work. Focus on squeezing your butt harder to ensure most of the support is coming from them.

If you start to feel the exercise moving out of the gluteals into the hamstrings, and maybe even cramping the hamstrings, it’s time to rest, as this is a sign that your butt is fatigued. Do not push the hips up too far as this arches the lower back too much, so always make sure you keep your bellybutton drawn towards the spine to prevent this from happening. Lastly ensure that your knees and feet remain steady in alignment, hip width apart! 

How to do it

  1. Lie on your back with knees bent, feet and knees hip-width apart
  2. Squeeze the gluteal muscles and lift hips until you have a straight line running through knees and hips to the mid-back. Leave the shoulder blades on the floor
  3. Hold the position, focusing on using the gluteal muscles, for 10 seconds in total.
  4. Place the hips back down, maintaining neutral spine build up the length of hold gradually to 30 secs, and three repeats (sets)

What About The Clamshell Exercise?

I treat this exercise with great caution as it can exacerbate problems if not used wisely. The key is all to do with your assessment. Clamshells are a favourite exercise of most physical therapists and featured in nearly every group class as the best way to strengthen your gluteus medius muscle. While the clamshell is intended to have good activation of the gluteal muscles there are several problems this exercise that can create problems in the hip and pelvic region, and in some cases can even make the glutes weaker!

EMG studies have found good activation of both the gluteus medius and gluteus maximus muscles during the clamshell so this is usually enough for most people to feel confident using this as a “go-to” exercise for the glutes. This low skill requirement, combined with the fact it targets the glute area quite well, makes it a safe option for a trainer or therapist to feel confident in prescribing it to someone as a corrective exercise for weak glutes.

Click the image below to see a You Tube video explanation of the clamshell potential problems and things to be wary of.

If you fail to assess the hip correctly you can run into some big problems with using this exercise. The hip flexor muscle tensor fascia latae (TFL) is often found to be dominant and hypertonic that will inhibit the glutes from firing. This means that many people who present with weak glutes and hip stability problems preferentially engage the TFL instead of stabilizing the hip using the Glut Medius. Since the TFL continues onto the Iliotibial Band (ITB), symptoms often present along the lateral leg when the TFL is hypertonic.

In addition to this you will often find the quadratus lumborum (QL) on the opposite side to be tight and strong as a compensatory reaction to the pelvis dropping on the weakened side. Both the TFL and QL over time will become stronger and tighter as they seek to provide a new form of stability to the pelvis. This over-activity must be addressed first before attempting to strengthen as they effectively inhibit the glutes from firing. They basically “steal” their work and this is when the clamshell exercise exacerbates this compensation by assisting the TFL in becoming even stronger.

You MUST Evolve To A Standing Position

Once you can maintain the bridge position with perfect alignment and using only the gluteals for three sets of 30 seconds, it is critical for you to evolve to a standing position.

Again this is where many rehab programs fail and why we see so many dysfunctional movement patterns with people who do too many Pilates classes or the abs and butts class at the local gym. To know how to strengthen your glutes correctly it must be learned in the standing position as this is where most injuries will occur. I have rarely met a person injured in a lying or seated position, but I have met hundreds injured in a standing up position. It is important to understand just how many muscles are involved in a standing position and how you can be great on the floor but absolutely terrible standing up. The position of the pelvis which is affected by abdominal muscles and gravity trying to compress it and pull it in each and every direction cannot be ignored.

Secondly the importance of foot stability working in conjunction with the hips is critical. Often it is the weak feet that create the problems at the glutes so you have to have exercises that train these together to ensure you can achieve stability and strength to your potential. Foot stability is a very complex topic in it's own right so make sure you read our article - Exercise Solutions For Weak Feet to see more about this.

Lastly coordination and motor control that require multiple joints moving in perfect sequence sometimes at high speed movements as seen in sports will demand that your glutes fire exactly as they should. Any faulty movement patterns with lunges, squats and bending where your glutes are not working as intended will cause trouble. And just to top it all off, the glutes are classified as a Phasic muscle, meaning they have a tendency to become long and weak!

The best exercise to strengthen the glutes is undoubtedly the Romanian Deadlift, and in particular the single leg version. Watch the video below to see how to complete the Romanian Deadlift correctly.

Instructions:

  1. Position the kettlebell on the floor between your legs so that you cannot see your shins in a mirror from the side.
  2. Standing with feet a comfortable width apart. Reach down keeping the natural arch in your low back, and neck tucked and grab the kettlebell maintaining good posture.
  3. Inhale and engage your core before you begin to stand to the top position, exhaling when at the top and gently rolling your shoulder down and scapula apart.
  4. At the top repeat the inhaling process before lowering to the ground.

Now that you know the technique of the RDL, you are ready for the single leg version.

The Single Leg Deadlift Is The KING Of Glute Exercises

Remember the three important roles of the glutes we discussed earlier? 

Basically we need an exercise that performs these three key functions in order to restore optimal movement and strengthen correctly. The exercise needs to stabilize the hip, act as a hip rotator, and lock the head of the femur into the socket, creating a very tight and stable hip joint during gait. This prevents the ball and socket joint from rattling around during walking and running. What exercise do you think uses all three functions of the glutes? The single leg deadlift.

This is also effective at improving foot stability, and core stability at the same time. While the Romanian Deadlift with two legs on the floor is great for hip movement and is a fantastic exercise, it does not address the weaknesses that are exposed with single leg stance movements. These exercises are absolutely critical for problems like Lateral Pelvic Tilt where there is significant weakness on one side of the body only. Watch the video below to see how to complete this correctly. The single leg squat is closely related to the deadlift and is also a great assessment tool.

 

Strong Glutes Equals Sporting Dominance

Almost every sport requires explosive speed, power, agility and change of direction with many movements performed standing or jumping off one leg! Even sports like distance running and cycling that don't require jumping or change of direction still require immense glute control and strength! Read our article on running injuries here to see how important glutes are to a runner. Great hill climbers in cycling rely on the glutes for the power to get up the climbs and create distance between their rivals.

But most notably the ball sports of football, basketball, netball, soccer and even tennis need a strength and conditioning program to continually improve the strength endurance and power of the butt muscles to firstly prevent injury but secondly improve performance. All athletes who spend time in the gym and are great at what they do will have programs that include stability, strength and power work standing on single leg. Why? Because in a single leg stance the hip must be stabilized by the abdominal muscles and the glutes in order to maintain optimal alignment of the leg. If this is not done correctly the chance of ACL injuries is extremely high!

Apart from injury our ability to produce speed and power is driven not by the quads, but the posterior chain! By designing and implementing programs to improve this you can see your sporting performance improve significantly and have that confidence to try more advanced skills and techniques to get the edge over your competitors. 

Below are 2 examples of using glutes for sporting performance.

 

Progressing To More Complex Skills That Demand High Glute Control

Once you have mastered the art of single leg stability and strength you MUST evolve to learning how to do this at speed. This is non negotiable if you play sports.

Single leg hopping and cutting or change of direction drills really test your glute function to it's absolute limit. Any weakness or problems seen at the stability and strength stage will be exacerbated here and it is easy to see how serious injuries can quickly evolve due to a weakness in your butt. Below is some video examples of how we test glute function on single leg hopping and also a cutting drill. These are both tests used to clear athletes in our return to sport program following ACL knee injures.

 

What If You Are Not Injured And Just Want A Toned Athletic Butt?

Well the same exercises we use for rehab are also the same ones that will give you that sexy butt. You cannot skip steps or cut corners or you will develop an injury! The key is to keep progressing your training with harder methods, exercises, volume, intensity and time under tension. All of these factors force change. Just doing the same exercises as 3 sets of 10 will be great at the start but will lead to a plateau later on. For more ideas get our 101 Training Programs PDF Book by clicking here. You will find endless ways to create a butt to die for.

Just remember that you will also need to work heavily on your nutrition to get the sexy appearance. Exercise on it's own is not enough.

If You Have A Knee Problem Or Low Back Problem You Also Have A Gluteal Dysfunction

While that heading sounds a bit generalized, in my 15 years of working as a Trainer in Melbourne specializing in rehabilitation and working with hundreds of different injuries, I have found in 98% of cases this to be true! The reason is due to posture, the way the muscles are designed, and the fact that most people do not understand how to train correctly to prevent the weakness from forming. Recently we have been working closely with several severely disabled clients who cannot walk and the atrophy (muscle waste) to their butt is immense. Walking we take for granted but trust me if you lose your strength in your butt to this extent it is very hard to get it back. 

I myself had several knee and ankle problems before I became a trainer. I even developed osteitis pubis when I first started as a Personal Trainer because I did not understand what I know now. It took me over 18 months and a stack of learning to finally come find a solution to my problem. And after that day is when I fully realized my potential as an athlete, setting all of my personal best times across many different disciplines and distances for running, cycling and triathlon. I was a much better athlete at the age of 35 than I ever was in my 20's. And I was never injured.

I think I tore my hamstrings about 15 times in 5 years in my 20's! I have not torn a hamstring once since adopting the training methods and programs that I am going to share with you in this article. This is the same process I have used successfully now for a long time with many of the people we see for ACL tears, bulging discs and back pain, piriformis syndrome and knee pain which is why we created several instant video and special report downloads that you can get by clicking here or on the images below.

In these packs I show you over 15 different ways to strengthen your glutes and posterior chain and provide many of the programs that I have developed successfully over the past 15 years.

  

Conclusion

I hope you have enjoyed reading this article and can take away some things to add into your training straight away. The importance of working on your butt cannot be underestimated. With almost every lower limb injury associated with a glute weakness or dysfunction you can see why it is so important. And to achieve your sporting goals or simply just look good you need to devote a lot of time to working on this area. Remember to always progress to standing integrated exercises and cease using isolated body building exercises that will only serve to create more harm than good.

For more ideas and information on specific topics I may not have covered in detail be sure to check out our INDEX PAGE on the website that has over 300 of our best articles. These are all sorted into categories for quick reference so you can find what you are after more easily.

And if you live in the Melbourne area and would like to arrange a FREE Postural and Movement assessment fill in the consult form below I will get back to you within 24 hours to arrange a time.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Functional Anatomy of the Pelvis and the Sacroiliac Joint - By John Gibbons
  • Muscle testing & function - By Kendall, McCreary, Provance, Rogers, Romani
  • The Vital Glutes - By John Gibbons
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Back Pain Mechanic - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Low Back Disorders - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance - by Dr Stuart McGill
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
  • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist