4 Reasons Why You Can’t Activate Your Glutes

Posted by Andrea Lawson in Training
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This post is a sequel to a blog post that I wrote last year entitled: 19 Exercises to Tone and Strengthen Your Glutes.

Your glutes are the largest, yet often most underused, muscle in your body. To quote Dan John, you are “sitting on a goldmine” and may not even know it.

The inability to contract or activate your glutes has been termed Glute Amnesia by Dr. Stu McGill, who is a professor of Spine Biomechanics and one of the most respected and well-versed back specialists known today. He is also Canadian. ????????

Another consideration, that you might not think about, is how little you may actually be using your glutes when performing glute-based exercises.  This lack of engagement is a deceiving symptom of Glute Amnesia, because you may not know that you’re not using your glutes until that day your lower back craps out on you, or you can’t figure out why your knees hurt.

There are several reasons why your glutes may not be firing sufficiently.

The first reason is a lack of muscle recruitment.

A common pattern of imbalances that we regularly see at BIM is tightness in the back extensor and the hip flexor musculature, coupled with deep abdominal and gluteal muscle group weaknesses. This postural issue is commonly referred to as Lower Cross Body Syndrome. A term coined by Dr. Vladimir Janda.

Lower Cross Body Syndrome

 

According to Dr. Janda, the reason we have a tendency to adopt this postural imbalance pattern is because functionality muscle can be classified into two different categories: phasic and tonic.

The tonic system consists of your “flexors”, and is phylogenetically older and more dominant. While your phasic system consists of the “extensors”, and emerges shortly after your birth.1

The posture associated with Lower Cross Body Syndrome has also been linked to injuries and daily postural habits. A big culprit that contributes to this postural dysfunction is thought to be sitting, or more specifically, the amount of time you spend in a seated position.

While the research is still inconclusive to whether prolonged sitting has a direct link to gluteal weakness or atrophy 2, we do know that when in a seated position your glutes are “stretched” (while your hamstrings and hip flexors are tightened or flexed) which is believed to cause your body to develop greater tension and muscle availability in your hamstrings and hip flexors, and less in your glutes.

Some problems linked to weak glutes include:

  • Dominant hamstrings
  • Chronic tight (and/or restrictive) hip flexors
  • Low back pain
  • Knee pathologies

 

 

Dominant Hamstrings

Dominant hamstrings can be caused by a number of things, in addition to regular prolonged periods of sitting. You can learn more about them HERE.

The problem with dominant hamstrings is that they can interfere with the use and/or recruitment of your glutes – as both your glutes and hamstrings are the primary drivers of any hip extension action, like squats, deadlifts, lunges, step ups, glute bridges, hip thrusts, etc. When you remove your glutes from the equation you end up over-working your hamstrings (due to the lack of adequate load sharing) – which is the reason a lot of people struggle to see results when working to tone, strengthen and build their glutes.

But that’s not the end of your problems…

If your hamstrings are over-innervated (aka “tight” or “short”) they will limit the mobility of your hip joint. One of the most common compensation patterns that we see as a result of this tightness is the toe touch pattern – which is when more movement is forced to come from your lower back (or lumbar flexion) instead of a hip extension, as it should.

How do you combat dominant hamstrings?

If you have dominant hamstrings when you come to us we will have you complete some hamstring-lengthening movements before we get you to do any glute activation exercises. This enables us to increase the range of motion in your hips. It also allows us to dampen your hamstrings (in the short-term) so that you can better focus on contracting your glutes when performing hip extension exercises.

In addition, we will sometimes have you static stretch of your hamstrings. However, we typically prefer to choose movements that create strength and/or stability in a greater range of motion than you use to or have access to as a result of muscle restrictions.

One such exercise is the Active Leg Lower, which is great for stimulating hamstring length while simultaneously causing you to engage your core to provide better pelvic stability.

Recommended Repetitions: Complete 10-20

Coaching Cues:

  • To set up for this exercise make sure that both of your legs can extend fully (e.g. zero, or as little knee bend as possible). This may require you to move back a bit if you have limitations in your hamstring length.
  • Keep your top heel at a constant distance, preferably 1-2 inches from the wall as you perform your leg raises with the opposite limb. The less movement you have in this leg the greater core dissociation you will develop.
  • Focus on quality of movement, take a rest as needed, and reset if you deviated from the proper set-up.

 

After your Active Leg Lowers, follow up (or pair them) with a set of basic Glute Bridges. Your focus should be on consciously activating your glutes while keeping hamstrings relaxed.

 

PRO TIP: Adding a wall push (refer to the picture below) can help engage your deep abdominal muscles, which will help to facilitate pelvic stability. We also find that this reduces hamstring compensations while promoting better recruitment of your glutes.

Glute Bridge Using Wall

Performing this combination of exercises, or a similar combo, will allow you to develop more muscle recruitment and strength in your gluteal region, while also helping to train these muscles to activate during a hip extension – which is what you want.

 

Tight Hip Flexors

The problem with tight hip flexors is that they rob you of your ability to fully extend your hips and capitalize on full gluteal activation.

The picture below should give you a better idea of what I am referring to here.

Hips Extension Patterns

The moment arm, or the amount of force potential of the gluteus maximus for hip extension, indicates two things:

  • It is a key hip extensor
  • It decreases with increased hip flexion angle

 

These two things ultimately tell us that the gluteus maximus is the most effective when your hip is near full extension.3

Studies have also shown that improving your hip extension range of motion is important because it dramatically improves gluteus maximus activation (measured in EMG amplitude) during resistance training.4

If a lack of glute activation doesn’t bother you, then you should know that normal walking requires you to move your hips 10 to 15 degrees beyond a neutral extension (which is normal upright standing) in order for you to drive/push forward with your leg and foot. This means that the muscles crossing the front of your hip joint (also known as your flexors) must be of adequate length to give you enough hip extension to walk regularly. If either of these muscle groups aren’t functioning properly there will be a muscle imbalance, and as a result, your gait pattern will be compromised.

But the problems don’t end there…

When hip extension is not available your tendency to substitute it with lumbar hyperextension (when your spine extends back beyond your pelvis) increases, which is when we typically see a lot of spinal complications. Low back pain also tends to emerge at this time.

Lumbar hyperextension is something that you need to keep in mind when performing exercises that finish with hip extension under load – which is pretty much every lower body exercise. Before executing these types of exercises it is imperative that you address your hyperextension. If you don’t, you run the high risk of putting regular stress on the lumbar region of your back at the top of your deadlifts, squats, lunges, hip thrusts and step ups. You also risk of hurting yourself when performing common movements like, standing up from a seated position, or even walking.

How do you combat tight hip flexors?

First you need to identify which hip flexor muscle is restricting your hip extension. We do this by administering the Thomas Test.

Here is a video that demonstrates how to assess hip flexor length using the Thomas Test.

 

If after undergoing this test you learn that your rectus femoris and/or TFL are to blame for your problems, I recommend regularly performing this Self-Contract-Relax Hip Flexor Stretch. We like this stretch at BIM because it effectively targets your rectus femoris and tensor facia latte, which is a glute muscle that plays a significant role in hip flexion.

 

 

If you are more restricted through the psoas group, we like the Band-Assisted ½ Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch demonstrated in the video below.

 

 

Following either one of these stretches I recommend that you perform a Glute Bridge (with your feet slightly elevated) to give your rectus femoris muscle some slack so that it won’t become a limiting factor.

 

 

Recommended Repetitions: Higher reps of 12-15 are ideal

Coaching Cues:

  • The height elevation of your feet will be based on your rectus femoris length
  • Make sure that your knee angle is a maximum 90 degrees to avoid hamstring activation
  • Engage core and maintain pelvic stability throughout the movement
  • Consciously press into your heels and “squeeze” your glutes as you lift your hips
  • Hold each rep at the top for 2-5 seconds (depending on the strength endurance of your glutes)

 

Low Back Pain

Your back and butt are connected (a fact I’m sure that you already). But I want to shed some light on something that might be a little less obvious to you.

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So far I have talked about how/why you are at risk of over-utilizing lumbar flexion during movements that require greater amounts of hip flexion (like touching your toes) if you have limited hamstring flexibility.

I have also touched on how limitations in your hip extension (due to a restriction in your hip flexor musculature) can lead to lumbar extension and/or hyperextension.

By now you should also understand that your glutes are a primary hip extensor.

But what you may not know, that is also worth mentioning, is that your gluteus maximus and hamstrings work together to extend your trunk from a flexed position by pulling your pelvis backwards.

Essentially what happens when you return to an upright position (after bending forward) is your hip extensors (aka your glute maximus and hamstrings) rotate your pelvis posteriorly, after which your back extensors extend your spine – beginning at the lumbar region and working their way upward.

Trunk extension and hip extension are one in the same (in a sense) – as they both assist to bring your body into an upright position. However, you can improve your movement mechanics to help take the strain off your back extensors (which are typically in a state of chronic tension from overuse) when getting into an upright position with some attention to detail and practice.

With this concept in mind, the biggest game changer for you will be actively engaging your glutes at the “lock” or moment when your hips and torso are anatomically in full extension. Actively engaging your glutes will ensure that you avoid hyperextension, and increase the neutral drive to your glutes during this movement.

How do you actively engage your glutes?

Think about coming into an upright position via hip extension (straightening your legs) and squeezing your glutes rather than just lifting your torso up. At BIM we have found this to be helpful for those recovering from low back pain. However, it will also improve your lockout strength during a deadlift, squat, hip thrust, or any Glute Bridge variation.

Here is a video to help you better understand what I am talking about.

 

Here are a couple exercises that will also help improve your hip extension patterns with a glute emphasis:

 

 

Knee Pain

Most knee pain is a result of poorly functioning hip mechanics and/or stabilization. However, it is worth mentioning that ankle issues can also contribute to knee dysfunction.

In general, when you have poor glute/hip strength (gluteus minimus, glute medius, gluteus maximus, hip external rotators) it prevents proper stabilization of your pelvis and femur. 5+6

During lower body movements, your hips often have a tendency to move into adduction and internal rotation. When your adductors are overactive (in comparison to your glute and hip external rotators) your knees are pulled inward, which is often referred to as a valgus collapse.

The picture below provides a visual of what I am referring to here.

A valgus collapse

 

From a practical stand point, if you consider all of the issues I have talked about, and think about how your body may start to compensate when your hip movement is restricted and your crucial muscles are weakened (e.g. your glutes), it should come as no surprise that your knees will also be affected.

In other words, if you have cranky knees, I highly recommend that you find someone to assess your hip stability and function. If you would like to book in and have one of our Kinesiologists perform that test, CLICK HERE to send me a message. I will happily get you booked in.

 

Closing Thoughts

My goal with this post was to educate (and hopefully not overwhelm) you on the importance of proper gluteal function. I appreciate that everyone wants a better butt. However glute dysfunction is something that I see over and over again, so I believe that it is imperative that you understand the role your glutes play, and how to recognize if you have any restrictions that could be keeping you from achieving your ideal butt.

Implementing the corrective strategies that I have outlined in this post will not only help you build and tone your body’s biggest asset, but will also have a huge impact on the recovery of low back pain and knee injuries.

If you have any questions about anything that I have talked about, please don’t hesitate to email me. I’d be happy to answer them for you. ????

Happy toning,

Andrea Lawson

References
  • Umphred DA.: Neurological Rehabilitation. Mosby: St. Louis, 2001, pp 56–134
  • Sonenblum, S. E., Sprigle, S. H., Cathcart, J. M., & Winder, R. J. (2015). 3D anatomy and deformation of the seated buttocks. Journal of tissue viability.[PubMed]
  • Worrell, T. W., Karst, G., Adamczyk, D., Moore, R., Stanley, C., Steimel, B., & Steimel, S. (2001). Influence of joint position on electromyographic and torque generation during maximal voluntary isometric contractions of the hamstrings and gluteus maximus muscles. The Journal of orthopaedic and sports physical therapy, 31(12), 730.[PubMed]
  • Mills, M., Frank, B., Goto, S., Blackburn, T., Cates, S., Clark, M., & Padua, D. (2015).Effect of restricted hip flexor muscle length on hip extensor muscle activity and lower extremity biomechanics in college‐aged female soccer players. International journal of sports physical therapy, 10(7), 946.[PubMed]
  • Ireland, M.L., et al., Hip strength in females with and without patellofemoral pain. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther, 2003. 33(11): p. 671-6.
  • Prins, M.R. and P. van der Wurff, Females with patellofemoral pain syndrome have weak hip muscles: a systematic review. Aust J Physiother, 2009. 55(1): p. 9-15.