Glutes are the largest muscle in the body. They are constantly working, enabling us to walk, run, jump and even simply stand. As our lives become more and more sedentary, we’re spending more and more time sitting down, which can lead to weak, underactive glutes... and unfortunately, a weak butt can lead to injuries.
This week, we’ll explore why you should train these muscles regularly, share some great exercises and give you some key tips to keep in mind when working out your glutes.
What are the glutes?
The anatomy of the glutes deserves its own blog, but to sum it up very briefly, here’s what you need to know. There are three main muscles that make up your glutes:
- Gluteus maximus. This is our body’s largest muscle, originating from the posterior surface of the ilium, sacrum and coccyx and inserting on the iliotibial tract and the gluteal tuberosity of the femur. We use it in our everyday lives (for example when walking upstairs or rising from sitting) and sports that utilise this muscle heavily include running, jumping and weightlifting
- Gluteus medius. Deeper, and therefore mostly obscured by, the gluteus maximus, this smaller muscle originates on the ilium and inserts on the lateral surface of the great trochanter of the femur. Its main function is to abduct and medially rotate the hip joint. It also assists in flexion and lateral rotation of the hip joint. In our everyday lives, we use the glute med to step sideways
- Gluteus minimus. The smallest muscle of the glute group, gluteus minimus originates on the ilium and inserts onto the greater trochanter. Like the gluteus medius, its primary action is to help us step to the side, by assisting in abduction, medial rotation and flexion of the hip joint.
5 reasons you should include glutes in your training programme
- Improves posture.
- Makes sitting down, standing up, going up stairs and lifting heavy objects easier.
- Improves athletic performance: glutes are responsible for acceleration, deceleration, changing direction and creating explosive power in jumps.
- Reduces risk of injury, for example to knees, lower back, hamstrings and groin.
- All over body strength is needed for functional movements, avoidance of injury and a balanced body in terms of aesthetics, strength and safe movement
5 best exercises for glutes
The squat is one of the fundamental human movements that we all use everyday. Squatting improves fitness, power, muscle tone and sports performance, but also strength and mobility for daily life tasks.
Learning to squat well can be the deciding factor between getting injured or not - whether that be tomorrow, lifting a heavy box off the floor or years down the line, perhaps in our 70s as we age and are more prone to injury. Learning to squat well can reduce that risk of injury.
The squat is a movement that uses nearly every muscle in the body. To keep it simple, the main muscles worked are: quads, glutes, adductors and soleus (calf muscle). Secondary, stabilising muscles are: erector spinae, abs, obliques, hamstrings and gastrocnemius (calf muscle).
If you haven’t squatted before, start with bodyweight squats focusing on engaging the right muscles and improving mobility, specifically in the hips and ankles. Follow on with goblet squats and gradually, progressively increase the weight used. Remember that with any new exercise, you should start with a higher rep range (12 to 15) and light weights.
If you already squat regularly, squat variations to consider are front squat, back squat, jump squat, box jump, split squats and pistols.
With any compound movement, it’s really important to make sure that you are fully warmed up beforehand. Before squats, we recommend doing some glute activation exercises, such as banded side steps, quadruped kickbacks, glute bridges and clams.
Is squatting risky for my back and knees?
If performed correctly, absolutely not. If your squat form is not solid, do not load it. Get the technique nailed first, and only then can you start increasing the weights lifted. Some key points to keep in mind:
Squatting down too fast doubles the amount of shearing and compressive forces placed on your knees. Keep your reps at a controlled pace to avoid this. For example, 2 seconds down, 2 seconds up.
Squat depth matters, a lot. This will vary from person to person, body to body. What can be said is, aim for:
- Pain free. If something hurts, do not push through the pain.
- Improve your ankle mobility and strength.
- Aim for full depth: i.e. when the hip crease passes below parallel, and you can still keep a straight back. This does not compromise knee stability, and can enhance stability if performed correctly.
Furthermore, any risks of spinal injury can be avoided by simply minimizing the amount of shearing force placed on the spine. This means keeping a neutral spine (neither arched or rounded) and increasing intra abdominal pressure by holding your breath while squatting and gazing straight ahead instead of down.
The deadlift is another compound movement that uses muscles in the back, glutes, legs and abs. It is one of the few exercises that targets both the lower and upper body. When performed correctly, the deadlift can be used to reduce the risk of injury to lower back.
Learning to hip hinge or deadlift properly can help reduce your risk of injury to your lower back by strengthening your glutes, abs and back. It will also help when you next go to lift something heavy from the floor. The deadlift will teach you how to lift using your hips, core and not your spine!
Even a beginner should definitely deadlift, as it's a great tool for body awareness. Start simple with a bodyweight hip hinge. Nail that first, then move on to light dumbbell romanian deadlifts.
If you're already deadlifting, maybe look into single leg deadlifts and single leg romainian deadlifts.
Lunges are a great exercise for hip stability and glute strength. They are teach us pelvic stability, core strength and balance.
Here are some ideas for lunges:
Reverse lunge with cable row for posterior sling activation
Step up in a forward lean to reverse lunge for more posterior chain work
Split lunge cable high woodchop for core rotation strength.
Isolate the glute and make it stronger with this exercise. Hip thrusts, again, can be introduced progressively from bodyweight to heavier, step by step.
The key to hip thrusts is to drive from the hips. Remember to squeeze your glutes and engage your core at the top.
If you are interested in a specific sport, the best thing you can do is focus on glute exercises that are specific to your sport to get that transfer of exercises to function. See below for running and cycling examples. Contact Soho Fitness Lab for more examples.
Do you lift in the gym? Here’s how you should be using your glutes
If you’re regularly working out in the gym, there are a few things to be aware of when it comes to glutes and correct movement patterns.
- What to look for:
- Lateral hip shift during a squat. Use a mirror, a friend, a PT or film yourself to check for this. Hip shift can be due to many thing, for example a tight hip, a weaker glute compared to the other, too heavy a weight and incorrect movement patterns learnt. If you notice yourself shifting to one side in your squat, reduce the load and practice with more control / focus.
- Hip drop in a lunge. This is most commonly down to a weakness in glute medius. Prep your lunges beforehand with glute medius activation such as quadruped side kickbacks or clams. Then focus on keep hips parallel to one another during your lunges. To do this engage lower abs and squeeze glutes.
- Are you getting to full hip extension? A key point for all lifts from the hips (squat, deadlift, hip thrusts) is are you fully coming back to neutral or is there still a hinge or bend at your hips. Squeeze your glutes more at the top of the movements!
- What to do:
- Activate first: go through a glute activation warm up before you start lifting, such as banded side steps, quadruped kickbacks and glute bridges.
- Strengthen: using the 5 exercises listed above and variations of them.
- Lengthen, stretch ideas including but not limited to: pigeon pose, hip openers, knee hugs, foam rolling and lacrosse ball.
Do you cycle? Here’s why you need strong glutes
Since cycling is a lower-body dominated exercise, it’s natural to assume that this would be great for your glute muscles. To some extent, you would be right - the pedal stroke involves a lot of hip extension and flexion, which recruits your glutes. However, the highly repetitive motion doesn’t involve much abduction (moving away from the midline of the body), adduction (moving towards the midline of the body) or any rotation (turning the leg inwards or outwards).
When the muscles that rotate your hips are weak, you might find your knees collapsing towards your bike frame instead of maintaining a more vertical track. This can cause medial knee pain, which can be addressed by strengthening your stabilising glute muscles and working on activating your glutes properly before getting on the saddle.
If you work at a desk, your glutes will be snoozing for a large part of the day. Hopping on a bike and asking these powerful muscles to wake up enough to power your pedal stroke is quite the demand - if they’re not properly activated, then your hamstrings may overwork, your back can become tired and your knees may become sore - all because your powerhouse isn’t awake enough to support your joints. Strengthening your glutes and making sure that they’re able to fire up properly can help to prevent lumbar pain, knee pain and problems with hip mobility - all of which will help you to become a stronger cyclist.
What are the most common signs of having weak glutes?
- Lower back pain - the main job of your glutes is hip extension (get you up from a seated position) and if they are not doing their job efficiently, your back muscles have to work extra hard to help you get through the movement, leaving them overworked,tight and sore.
- Knee pain - one of the common indicators weak glutes is knee pain. You glutes play a key role in stabilising your hips and controlling the femur. The knee only does what the foot allows and the hip can control.
- Hip tightness pain and loss of mobility - the psoas is an antagonist to the glutes, so it flexes the hip whereas the glutes extend it. The psoas anterior tilts your pelvis and the glutes posterior tilt it. If the glutes are inhibited, the lower back becomes more unstable and the psoas kicks into overdrive to stabilize the lower back. This overworked muscle can therefore become tight and sore. So, if you have a tight psoas the glutes are always a culprit. This can end up in loss of hip mobility and back pain.
- Poor posture - are you aware of yourself slouching from time to time? This is a sign of inactive glutes and core muscles. Your glutes and core help to support your back and if they are not active, your spine will start to slouch.
- Instability when standing on one leg - the gluteus medius helps to stabilize the pelvis when we are standing on one leg. This explains why people with weak glutes can’t stand on one leg for more than 60 seconds.To test your glute strength, stand upright and lift one leg off the floor. Raise both hands straight overhead and then stand for 60 seconds. If you can’t, it’s a sign your glutes need to be strengthened.
How to help back pain: glutes!
It’s an unfortunate fact that our lives are becoming increasingly sedentary, with many of us spending the vast majority of our day sitting in front of a computer screen. This inactivity causes our glutes to stop working properly, which in turn forces other muscles to take over and do the work. When we consider the fact that our glutes are naturally the strongest muscles of the body, we can begin to understand why this can cause problems. Other, smaller muscles are recruited to pick up the slack and do the work that the glutes should be doing.
As the largest muscle in the body, the glute maximus can be thought of as our powerhouse, while the smaller glute medius and minimus have more of a stabilisation role. If these muscles aren’t firing correctly, then the pelvis will lack stability, causing excessive movement in the sacrum, the base of your spine, in turn causing lower back pain. Well-developed glutes stabilise the pelvis and bear the brunt of your daily movement, taking the pressure off your back and alleviating lower back pain.
Hypermobile hips? Here’s why you need strong glutes.
Having super flexible hips due to hypermobility (read our blog on hypermobility here) can be a blessing, but it can also prove problematic if you don’t know how to control your range of movement. Establishing strength throughout your range of movement and learning how to isolate your muscles at one joint, while keeping the rest of your body still, has to be a priority in your training if you want to build strong and stable hips.
In order to build strong and stable hips, your gluteus maximus, medius and minimus need to work alongside other with smaller supporting muscles, to allow hip rotation, flexion and extension and to stabilise your femur in your hip socket. The condition of your glutes can have a big impact on your posture, as well as help to prevent or alleviate back, hip and pelvic pain.
Do you run? You need strong glutes - here's why
To explain why strong glutes are so important for runners, here’s a view ways in which, biomechanically, walking is very different to running:
- When the foot lands on the floor during the running (gait) cycle (following the aerial phase) the ground reaction forces are usually twice as high as when walking. These forces can reach 4 times body weight during endurance running.
- The hip is usually more flexed during running (although this is less true during sprinting). This hip flexion (along with flexion of the knees and ankles) works to store up elastic energy in the tendons of the legs, which is then released as kinetic energy, helping to propel the body forward.
- The trunk is subjected to higher forces that tend to flex the trunk side to side which need to be counterbalanced.
- The swing leg is accelerated and decelerated at much higher velocities while running than while walking.
What this means for your glutes:
The higher impact forces exerted on your body through ground reaction forces, swing leg acceleration/deceleration, hip extension and trunk stabilisation require the glutes to be functioning optimally. Primarily, we need the glutes to stabilise the pelvis, keeping the hip, knee and ankle in alignment. We also need them to drive the running gait cycle, rather than follow. If the glutes are weak, the body will rely on weaker muscles groups such as the hamstrings to extend the hip or the ITB (fascia connecting hip flexor to knee cap) to control the knee. This could lead to a painfully tight ITB or hamstring tendinopathy.
Glute activation - why you should do this before a workout or run
When our glutes have no reason to fire, such as when we sit at our desks for hours at a time, the glutes can go into hibernation mode. Spending some time on a few basic ‘activation’ exercises before your workout can help to kick them into gear ready for your run or workout.
- Standing Hip Airplanes x 10 per leg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzCsYY6QsnI
- Lateral Lunges x 10 per leg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwWv7aPcD88
- Single Leg Glute Bridges x 10 per leg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NXv0Nany-Q
- Side Plank with Hip Extension x 10 per leg https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CwjykVFXxiQ
The glutes are potentially the most important muscle in our body. Use them correctly for better posture, increased intensity during exercise and greater strength gains!
Contact Soho Fitness Lab for 1-to-1 personal training for tailored, specific help to achieve YOUR goals. Thanks so much for reading!
The Soho Fitness Lab Team
- The advantages of strong glutes: https://www.livestrong.com/article/515885-the-advantages-of-strong-glutes/
- Recruit your glutes: how to make the most of the biggest muscle in your body: https://www.cyclingweekly.com/fitness/training/recruit-glutes-make-biggest-muscle-body-389060#17K18ewc1JMub9FO.99
- The human gluteus maximus and its role in running: https://jeb.biologists.org/content/209/11/2143
- Check your form: Glutes: https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/health/injury/a773632/check-your-form-glutes/
- Squatting and Your Knees and Back: Injury Risk or Safe?: https://legionathletics.com/squatting-and-your-knees-and-back/