Back pain, Core strengthening, Health, running

Glute activation, the missing link

July 15, 2013 • By

Glute activation, building a good squat pattern and reaching your Peak.

A strong, healthy back (not to mention your knees!) needs the areas above and below it to work optimally to avoid overload injuries and pain. Whether it is running, lifting up your child or building the perfect squat, good glut activation is essential to all body movement and is one of three aspects essential for a healthy low back and lower limb.

  1. A mobile thoracic spine to unload the low back.
  2. Good muscle length in Gluts, hip Flexors and Lats.
  3. Normal Glut muscle activation.

Today we are going to cover glut muscle activation and the best ways to optimize this as this is the hidden cause behind many injuries such as low back pain, sciatica, patellofemoral pain, meniscal injuries and groin pain.

Here is a quick Test to see how strong your glutes are.

You might ask why bother with increasing your glut activation – your gluts work right? well you could be wrong! The main reasons why glut activation may be missing are:

  • Past back pain or injury. The Lower crossed syndrome is very common in anyone with a history of low back pain of any kind: A syndrome developed by Dr Janda proposed that those with a history of low back pain and troubles all had a characteristic pattern of weak and tight muscles. Weak: Gluteals and abdominals. Tight: Hip flexors and Erector Spinae. It is very common to have people arrive at the clinic with history of low back pain or tightness showing this pattern.
  • Poor technique and lack of body conditioning.

What happens if you have poor gluteal activation:

  • With poor activation in a squat, you cannot protect your back as you use the hamstring and erector spinae (back muscles) to push your body into extension – This leads to Erector spinae increasing the load and compression on the Lumbar spine. So healthy glut function is needed to unload the spine and decrease low back pain.
  • Poor glute activation leading to you hanging on your hamstrings also leads to over extension of the spine – leading to much-increased risk of injuries such as spondylolisthesis (stress fractures) and muscle spasm.
  • Lack of gluteus medius activation causes internal rotation of the legs (knee dropping inwards) leading to increase force on the knee and higher chance of injury.

Now one thing to mention here is that it is impossible to rebuild proper Glute function without a good hip extensor pattern and certainly not with traditional squat exercises utilizing barbells and free-weights (don’t even get me started on leg press machines).

Below is your pathway to achieving optimal glute activation, reaching your goals and decreasing lower limb and back injuries:

Gluteal Muscles - building the best squat pattern.

 Before you get to the exercises, above are the three gluteal muscle and here their function:

  • Gluteus Maximus: External rotation and extension of the hip.
  • Gluteus Minimus and Medius: Abduction of the Hip (pulls your thigh out to the side and stops your hip dropping.)

Must-know exercises for glute function:

1. Clams: This exercise has been shown to be the best for isolating glut Med and Min and really gets the legs shaking if done right!

Clam exercise plus - gluteus medius strengthening, pelvic stability

Position: Side-lying with top elbow on the ground, knees bent, ankles together and importantly the top knee sticking out 1-2 inches further that the bottom knee.

Action: Making sure not to let your pelvis rotate backwards – lift your top knee up roughly 20cm and lower down in control. Reps: Build up to 30 reps on each side.

2. Single leg squats: Now don’t get daunted! these will really get your gluts firing functionally and are far superior to double legs squats.

Single leg Squat, Glut Med activation - hip stability and strengthSingle leg Squat, hip stability and strength

Position: standing on one leg with your arms straight out in front, chest up and looking straight ahead and the other leg directly out to the side.

Action (1st image above): Squat down, like you are going to sit down in a chair(stick your bum out). Only go down as far as your body allow (come back up before you fall over!) and don’t leg your free foot touch the ground. come back up and repeat, no hold needed.

Reps: build up to 2 sets of 12 reps on each leg.

Too hard? – try it with the leg out in front or bent as you can see in the second picture above.

Single leg bridges: The third and final Glut blasting exercise:

Single leg bridge - glut medius activation for hip stabilitysingle leg bridge for hip stability

Position: lying on your back, bend one knee so that your heel is close to your backside and straighten the other leg as above so that your thighs are horizontal. your arms can be crossed over your chest or down by your side to make it easier.

Action: Pushing through your grounded heel, lift your bum off the ground as above, hold for 5 seconds then lower and repeat.

Tip: make sure to keep your pelvis level.

Reps and sets: Build up to 2 sets of 12 reps on each leg with the 5-second holds.

Go hard at these exercises – Twice a day ideally and you will notice a huge difference in everything from running, squatting and weightlifting to low back and knee pain.

You might even like to give The Best Glute Stretch a try as with poor muscle activation, you also often end up with tight muscles!