One of the biggest problems that I see in the clinic is weak gluteal muscles, especially in runners. If you’re not regularly including glute exercises in your strengthening routine, you’re asking for injury. Your performance is also suffering because we depend on the glutes to propel ourselves and stabilize the hips.
Before we dive right into glute exercises, let’s start by talking about where the glute muscles are located and what they do.
The gluteal muscles are actually made of 3 different muscles: gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus and gluteus medius. They all have an important purpose in propelling the body as well as stabilizing.
We’re all familiar with this one. This is the big one we sit on everyday. It is the largest of the 3 gluteal
muscles. In fact, it’s the largest muscle in the body. Its primary function is to extend (move it back) and laterally rotate the hip (rotate it out). Due to the amount of sitting we do now, we don’t use this muscle very well anymore. It’s true; if you don’t use it, you lose it. If you sit on your glutes all day, they’re going to stop functioning properly.
This gluteal muscle is often forgotten, especially in strength training programs. It is located on the side of the hip. This muscle is important for keeping the pelvis level and abducting the hip (moving it outward). It also helps with rotation of the hip depending on the position of the hip. Weakness in this muscle will tend to cause excessive rotation in the hip with weight bearing activities. As you can imagine, this eventually will put stress on other joints.
The smallest of the gluteal muscles. This one sits under the gluteus medius. It has a similar function to the gluteus medius. It abducts as well as rotates the hip. Although not as big as the gluteus medius, it still plays an important role for stabilizing the hip with weight bearing activities.
What Happens Without Them
Weakness in the gluteal muscles is going to contribute to a lot of problems, including knee, hip, ankle and back pain. Many types of athletes, particularly runners and cyclists, tend to work the same muscles and neglect others, especially the muscles on the outside of the hip.
Additionally, we compensate for lack of glute strength by using other muscles. Other muscles not designed to do what the glutes do. An example is seen in the hip flexors (hip muscles in the front of the hip). If you’re not using the muscles in the back of the hips, you compensate by using the muscles in the front of the hips. These muscles are not designed to take on the full load of propulsion. This results in the hip flexors becoming overly stressed, painful and tight.
One of my favorite techniques in the clinic is a hip adjustment that restores activation to the gluteus maximus muscle. The adjustment commonly releases the tension in the hip flexors because balance has returned to the hip.
There are a lot of options out there for glute exercises to do so I’ll just give you some of my favorites. Many have heard of or tried clamshells and bridges, which I think are fine for just strengthening. However, I like more functional exercises that strengthen as well as create the “muscle memory” that allows the muscle to contract during a functional task. For example, when we run and propel forward, we want the gluteus maximus to contract and drive us forward instead of recruiting other muscles not designed for that function.
This is one of my all-time favorite glute exercises due to the number of muscles it engages and how functional it is. If you have the proper form and go low enough, this exercise does a great job of engaging the gluteus maximus. To fully engage the glute max, you need to try to keep more of you weight on your heels. Otherwise, you start engaging too much of your quad muscles. You don’t necessarily need a squat rack and a bar for this one. I usually just use the dumbbells or a kettle bell. However, a hex bar is a great piece of equipment for runners because it allows for some heavier weight and helps with form.
Similar to the squat, it engages a lot of muscles. Incorporating the forward and side lunge is a good idea to hit all the gluteal muscles. Also similar to the squat, you need to keep more weight on your heels to fully engage the glutes.
This exercise is not difficult from a strengthening stand-point, but it creates that muscle memory between the muscle and the brain on how the gluteus maximus should fire while running. Stand with a staggered stance. Before you start rocking onto the front foot, tighten the glute max muscle on the back foot. Keeping it tight, push off from the back foot and rock forward onto the front foot.
Hip Flexion with theraband
You’ll need a theraband for this one. Loop the theraband just above the knee and march it up and down. As you do this one make sure the marching leg is not rotating inward. If you can’t keep it from rotating inward, then you probably have too much tension on the band. I like this one because it works both legs and can challenge your balance. You should feel the outside of the hip engaged on both hips. Don’t worry if you feel more muscle burn in the standing leg. Many people, including myself, will feel more muscle burn on the standing leg.
You’ll also need a theraband with this one. Slowly hinge towards the floor, letting the band pull you. And then slowly hinge back up, pulling the band towards your body. This one is designed to work the glute max so make sure you feel it tighten as you come back into the standing position. You may also feel this in your hamstrings, which is okay. This one also adds a balance component, which makes it even better.
You may discover with these exercises that your balance is not as good as you thought it was. If so, check out my post on the importance of balance and then head over to the Free Resources section to pick up a free ebook on balance exercises. Balance is more important than you may think so be sure not to neglect it either.
Now Do Them!
If you’ve been neglecting these muscles in your routine, you need to start adding them in now! Like I mentioned earlier, gluteal dysfunction and weakness is one of the more common things I see in the clinic. Many times a patient comes in for some other joint problem and I will commonly find that the source is from the hip.
If you want to keep running strong and staying healthy, keep the glute exercises in your routine!
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