The gluteal muscles are an incredible group of three with impressive street cred. The largest and outermost — the gluteus maximus (GMax) — is (1) the largest muscle in the human body and (2) has been flaunted as the “hallmark of bipedalism”1,2. The main actions of the glutes are hip extension, abduction, and internal and external rotation (see image below). These anatomical terms of movement, however, do little justice to describe the broader function of this group.. The glutes allow us to transfer load from our upper body to our lower body (i.e., from low back to legs)3. Further, they play a pivotal role in stabilizing the spine3. Thus, the glutes are involved in almost all our everyday movements like walking, running, lifting, and sitting!
Given its responsibility in so many actions, problems arise when the glutes are not working appropriately. Indeed, insufficient glute activity is shown to accompany back and knee problems 3–5. The renown spinal researcher Stuart McGill coined the term “glute amnesia” to describe misfiring glutes6. When the glutes fail to fulfill their intended share of carrying load, the low back and hamstrings have to compensate by working harder. (It is a common theme in the body that up- and downstream parts compensate for a root problem area leading to injury.)
The fitness industry and the rehabilitation community recognize the reality of lazy glutes and have embraced glute activation exercises. Glute activation exercises help establish a mind-muscle connection by facilitating communication between brain and butt7,8. The muscles are then more effectively recruited for use during subsequent movements8. Regardless of the amnesic status of your glutes, we could all benefit from activation exercises prior to performing poses that involve the glutes.
I have not had a professional diagnosis of glute amnesia but I have noticed my butt slacking off in many poses. The warrior poses, low and high lunge, and chair pose, for example, are optimized with glute participation. In fact, most standing poses involve the glutes and thus most yoga practices would benefit from glute activation exercises. Try sequencing any of the following four exercises near the beginning of your sequence. They are derived from a recent systematic review that describes exercises that effectively recruit the glutes9.
Perform these exercises dynamically — that is, repetitively or with continual movement. More movement gives the brain more feedback to calibrate and optimize the exercises. This will aid in our aim of building a mind-muscle connection with the glutes.
Lie on your back and bend your knees. Tilt your pelvis backward by pressing your low back into the mat and tucking your tailbone. Squeeze your butt as your lift you hips. Keep your upper back firmly planted. You can keep your knees in line with your hips (top row of image) or allow your legs to externally rotate for more activity in GMax (bottom row of image). Maintain the backward pelvic tilt as you lower your hips back down. Repeat 8-12X.
Stand at hip or shoulder width and keep a neutral spine (i.e., do not allow the pelvis to tuck and flatten the lumbar curve). Squat down until your thighs are at least parallel with the ground. You may squat lower if you can maintain a neutral spine. Pay special attention to your glutes on the way up — electromyography (EMG) studies show that GMax maximally (ha!) contracts during the first two thirds of the ascent10. Repeat 8-12X.
From a quadruped position (on hands and knees) stack your shoulders over your wrists and your knees over your hips. Keep a neutral spine (i.e., don’t tuck your tailbone OR stick your butt up). Raise (flex) one arm out in front and lift (extend) the opposite leg out back. Squeeze the glute of the extended leg. Lower back to table. Repeat 8-12X on each side.
Lie on your side and plant your forearm under your shoulder. If this position doesn’t feel comfortable you can do this lying down on your side. You can also plant your top arm out front for balance. Keep both legs straight as you abduct (leg moves away from centre) then adduct (leg moves closer to centre) one leg/hip. Repeat 8-12X on both sides.
- Bartlett JL, Sumner B, Ellis RG, Kram R. Activity and functions of the human gluteal muscles in walking, running, sprinting, and climbing. Am J Phys Anthropol. 2014;153(1):124-131. doi:10.1002/ajpa.22419.
- Marzke MW, Longhill JM, Rasmussen SA. Gluteus maximus muscle function and the origin of hominid bipedality. Am J Phys Anthropol. 1988;77(4):519-528. doi:10.1002/ajpa.1330770412.
- Ville L. Back and hip extensor activities during trunk flexion/extension: Effects of low back pain and rehabilitation.
- Kankaanpää M, Taimela S, Laaksonen D, Hänninen O, Airaksinen O. Back and hip extensor fatigability in chronic low back pain patients and controls. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1998;79(4):412-417. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9552107. Accessed March 23, 2018.
- Powers CM. The Influence of Abnormal Hip Mechanics on Knee Injury: A Biomechanical Perspective. J Orthop Sport Phys Ther. 2010;40(2):42-51. doi:10.2519/jospt.2010.3337.
- McGill S. Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation 3rd Edition. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL; 2007.
- Fisher BE, Southam AC, Kuo Y-L, Lee Y-Y, Powers CM. Evidence of altered corticomotor excitability following targeted activation of gluteus maximus training in healthy individuals. Neuroreport. 2016;27(6):415-421. doi:10.1097/WNR.0000000000000556.
- Parr M, Price PD, Cleather DJ. Effect of a gluteal activation warm-up on explosive exercise performance. BMJ open Sport Exerc Med. 2017;3(1):e000245. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2017-000245.
- Reiman MP, Bolgla LA, Loudon JK. A literature review of studies evaluating gluteus maximus and gluteus medius activation during rehabilitation exercises. Physiother Theory Pract. 2012;28(4):257-268. doi:10.3109/09593985.2011.604981.
- Robertson DGE, Wilson J-MJ, St Pierre TA. Lower extremity muscle functions during full squats. J Appl Biomech. 2008;24(4):333-339. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19075302. Accessed November 22, 2017.