A Beginners Guide to the Importance of the Glutes and How To Improve Their Performance
The Core – I don’t think there is a person in the world of sport and fitness who has not heard about the ‘core’. Take a look around any gym at any time of the day and you will find people performing ab crunches, planks, side planks, kettle bell work outs and all kinds of awkward looking exercises to develop the so called ‘core’. Not only are many of these gym goers performing the exercises incorrectly, losing the battle in their quest for an infamous set of abs, but they are also neglecting one of the most important aspects of ‘the core’; the glutes.
The glutes or the gluteal muscles are a group of three large muscles which make up the buttocks; the gluteus maximus, the gluteus medius and the gluteus minimum (see diagram above). Without them, you simply wouldn’t be able to stand up, you wouldn’t be able to walk, run or jump and you certainly wouldn’t be able to sit.
The glutes are designed to be powerful and strong and in nearly all athletic skills, are essential. As the largest group of muscles in the body, they join the upper body to the lower body creating a postural chain and control everything from the hamstrings, hips, and back. Poor glute function results in poor athletic function – no power, strength or speed can be generated without the use of the glutes and injury of other muscles is often the result (as a lack of glute function forces the surrounding muscles i.e. hamstrings and erector spinae to over-work).
Some Common Causes of Inactive or Poorly Functioning Glutes
When we sit for long periods of time, the muscles in our lower bodies simply switch off and become inactive. At the same time, we also adopt terrible postural positions which pushes our spine and connective tissues out of shape. This results in a compromised body function, inactive muscles and overly strained ligaments and tendons – not great for athletes!
How many of us coach athletes who spend 6-8 hours a day sitting at school or college or 8-10 hours a day sitting at work? Add that to the hours of driving, watching TV and eating at the table and your looking at a lot of hours each day sat down with inactive glutes!
The result – loss of mobility, loss of functional muscles, loss of power, loss of performance, increase of injury.
The detrimental issues of sitting are a whole different topic and not one which can be fully address in this post – however, I would certainly recommend a fantastic book by Dr. Kelly Starlett called ‘Deskbound; Standing Up in a Sitting World’ which gives a life changing strategy of tackling this life destroying habit we all have.
Similar to sitting, due to the position of the body whilst cycling, the glutes switch off and the lower body relies on the quads to generate the power. Look at the legs of any elite cyclist and you will see two heavily muscled thighs!
Lower Body Injury
The glutes are very clever muscles, so clever in fact that they know how powerful they are (or can be). When you experience any type of lower body injury, whether its a broken leg, a sprained ankle or simply a stubbed toe, the glutes automatically switch off to try and slow you down to allow your lower body injury to heal.
The only problem with this is, they don’t automatically switch back on – so if you have an athlete with any type of lower body injury, no matter how minor, make sure you do a lot of glute activation work as part of their rehab.
How to identify inactive Glutes.
Do your athletes often get hamstring and lower leg injuries?
Do your athletes suffer from lower back problems?
Do your athletes struggle to generate power or speed?
These are just some of the questions you need to ask yourself as a coach. Whilst you may have some talented players and athletes in your group that week in week out perform to the best of their abilities, score winning goals and even produce PB’s – they may in fact being held back by inactive glutes.
Take a look at these simple exercises which can help you the coach, to identify if your athletes have weak or inactive glutes.
The Bum Tuck
i) Ask your athlete to stand shoulder width apart (feet and knees facing forwards) and hold a lightish weight out in front of them with straight arms (a plate of between 2.5kg – 5kg).
ii) Ask the athlete to squat down below parallel at a controlled speed keeping the plate out in front of them.
iii) Pause briefly at the bottom of the squat and stand back up. Repeat 3 – 5 times.
- Firstly, can your athlete squat properly? Do their heels remain on the floor? Does the angle at the hip and knee close and open at the same speed and can they squat below parallel? If any of these questions are answered with a ‘no’ – your athlete needs to work on the basic movement patterns of a squat (and improve general mobility)
- Keep an eye on the athletes glutes – do they tuck under at the bottom of the squat? If the answer is yes – BINGO! You have an athlete with inactive glutes.
Lunge leg pick up
i) Ask your athlete to perform a basic lunge movement – take one step forward, hands on hips and back straight.
ii) Now ask them to take a step back and put their feet back together. Repeat 3 – 5 times on each leg.
- Can the athlete perform a lunge correctly – keep the front foot flat on the floor, steady their balance and keep their back straight? If not, work is needed!
- When stepping back, does the athlete pick up their front foot or drag their foot along the floor with a wobble? If they drag their foot – BINGO, you have an athlete with weak glutes!
There are of course lots of other exercises and tests which can be performed, but I have found these two are the most effective and simple exercises to perform and observe.
How to activate the glutes?
Once you have identified your athlete has inactive or weak glutes – now comes the fun part. There are many ways to strengthen the glutes; help from a therapist, general mobility work and sport specific mobility work.
The most effective and important first task in activating the glutes is to consult a therapist. In a future post I will talk more about the idea of ‘performance therapy’ , but for now just a quick mention. Performance therapy is the idea that a coach works closely with a physiotherapist or sports therapist to support their athletes. By working closely together and the therapist understanding the demands and needs of the sport specific skills, they can be the catalyst to the athletes skill acquisition and performance increase. The sports therapist will be able to perform a number of myo-fascial techniques which free up the glute muscles, encourage muscle activation and increase mobility.
Glute specific exercises
1. Self-Myofacial release – this technique is incredibly important for athletes to do regular. Please visit my article: ‘Understanding Foam Rolling; a beginners guide to myo-facial self-release.’
2. Examples of Strengthening Exercises
i) Single leg stand and glute squeeze – can also be done on a boss board to increase difficulty – aim is to squeeze the glute on the standing leg to encourage stability
ii) Squat – practicing the basic movement pattern of a squat with little or no weight focussing on squeezing the glutes at the bottom to push the hips up
iii) Bridge – performing the bridge with little or no weight, focussing on the glute squeeze to push the hip up and parallel with the quads
3. Hip, lower back and glute mobility exercises
i) QL lying twist – lie on back, bend knees (bringing heels towards buttocks), keeping back and shoulders in contact with the floor, tip knees over the right, then left and repeat.
ii) Kneeling hip circles – on all fours (hands and knees making a box shape), lift one knee and draw as big a circle as possible 6 times one way and 6 times the other way. Repeat on both legs.
iii) Kneeling knee lateral lifts – on all fours (hands and knees making a box shape), lift on knee laterally aiming to get thigh in line with back, repeat 10 times on each leg
iv) Jefferson Curl – Start by standing on a stable, elevated surface such as a box, bench, or thick set of mats. With a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or other weight in your hands, stand up tall with your legs straight and perfectly together. Begin the movement by tucking your chin into your chest, then slowly flexing your spine (rounding your back) one vertebrae at a time as you feel the weight “pull” you lower towards the floor. Continue lowering, being sure to keep the weight balanced on the ball of your foot so that you do not lean back. Leaning back with your hips actually decreases the stretch, as it counter-balances the weight so that your body does not have to work as hard. Towards the bottom of the movement, your entire spine should have one uniform curve to it.
These are just a small example of exercises and techniques used to improve glute function. For more information or support, please contact me at email@example.com
Other glute related issues:
Iliac Crest Pain
Take a look at this diagram of the rear of the pelvis (buttocks), which highlights the insertion of one of the glute muscles to the top of the pelvis (the Illiac Crest)
This insertion point is often a neglected area and can commonly be the cause of lower back pain and dysfunctional glute muscles, particularly in athletes.
Dysfunctional glute muscles (as mentioned early), can cause pain and discomfort in this Illiac Crest area reducing mobility and flexibility of the hip joint.
Treatment – visit a sports therapist for some iliac crest release. Granted, this is very painful the first couple of time you go through this treatment, but the results are astounding. Mobility instantly increases, muscle activation increases and the foundation has been set to strengthen your glute muscles. Myo-facial self release using a softball or foam roller daily is also important to keep on to of the treatment.
Lower Back Pain
Granted, lower back pain can be the result of an endless number of issues, but the most common cause in athletes (and the public) is poor functioning glute muscles. By loosening up the glutes and strengthening their function, there is less pull on the lower back muscles and less demand on the lower back muscles as well.
Treatment: once again, visit your sport therapist for glute release, the first few visits can be very painful, but I promise it is worth the pain!
For more information on any of the above, email the FCN Academy Speed Coach at firstname.lastname@example.org