This article will outline some of the best ways to strengthen your glutes, avoid injury and improve your athletic performance. Glutes are seriously in fashion at the moment. Not from an aesthetic point of view, but a functional one. Functional is also in fashion.
Physiotherapists and Exercise Physiologists have been aware of how important gluteal strength is for many years. It isn’t any revelation in the rehab sector but lately for some reason every personal trainer, Instagram exerciser and amateur runner is talking about gluteal strength. And so are we!
Now that’s not a bad thing. Strong glutes can potentially solve knee issues, calf issues, hip pain or back problems.
But what is the best way to strengthen the glutes? There is no 100% right or wrong way but there a few key concepts that should be followed.
What are gluteal muscles?
The gluteal muscles are basically the ones where your back pocket sits on your pants. There are 3 – gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus and gluteus medius. Other muscles such as piriformis, superior and inferior gemellus play a role in the hip but are not our primary movers.
Gluteus maximus’s main job is to extend the hip. In other words pull the leg through from in front of you to behind you. It’s the powerhouse of the buttock musculature.
Gluteus medius and minimus have more of a stabilising role. If you lift your leg out to the side then you are using these 2 muscle, but more importantly they hold your pelvis, knee and spine steady when you stand on one leg.
These are the 2 muscles that the world has mysteriously become obsessed with recently. Mostly you’ll hear about gluteus medius as it is more famous, however gluteus minimus is arguably just as important as it’s celebrity larger brother. And don’t panic, the same exercises will target them both.
Why should you strengthen your glutes?
Without the glute med and min working correctly there are several movement patterns that can potentially occur. You may notice:
- A knee or both knees drifting inwards when you run or squat
- More pronation (rolling in) in a foot or both feet
- Calf pain or tightness from having to compensate
- ITB tightness (read Jamie’s article on how to fix this)
- The pelvis not staying level when you put weight on one foot
- Shifting the upper body towards the weak side when walking or running to avoid using the gluteal muscle
These biomechanical patterns can cause knee pain, foot and calf pain, hip pain or back pain.
Runners in particular are at a higher likelihood of developing some of these injuries due to the repetitive nature of running as well as the higher impact forces with the ground. Consequently glute strength is paramount. The faster or further you run the more you will need.
1. To strengthen your glutes, look at your posture
Most people think of necks and shoulder blades when they think posture. Hips have a correct and incorrect posture as well. If you are one of those people that stands with their hips/pelvis forward and shoulders back then you are going to have difficulty getting your hips in a position where you can adequately utilize your gluteal muscles.
It may feel normal for you, but generating any real force through your legs from this position is quite challenging for the body. Ideally we would like to be able to draw a straight line from your shoulders to hips to ankles.
Good is on the left, not so good on the right.
If you pronate (roll in) through your feet then this also puts the gluteal muscles in a position of disadvantage. Sometimes changing to more supportive shoes or adding corrective orthotics to shoes is enough to get someone to start using their glute med and min when they walk or run.
If you are in the market for new shoes Nick has you covered here with this article.
Lastly, if you have one side that always feels weaker or different to the other then it is worthwhile checking if you have a leg length discrepancy. It sounds strange but people routinely have different length legs. We are talking a few millimetres more often than centimetres.
The hip on the longer leg side will have a more difficult angle at the pelvis to overcome which puts more strain on the glute min and med. I have had occasions in the clinic where different peoples’ long leg hip can be weaker or stronger depending on how their body is compensating.
2. Strengthen your glutes with clams!
Everybody loves clams, almost…
That may not be true. But most people attempting to strengthen their glutes have done them at some point. There are many variations on clams but the most common version is to:
- Lie on your side
- Bend both knees to 90 degrees
- Keep your pelvis still (ie don’t let the top hip roll backwards)
- Whilst keeping your feet together pull your knees apart – like a giant clam opening and closing, hence the name.
You can put a TheraBand around the knees or weight on the top knee if you want to make it harder.
There is a modified version of clams which arguably works even better. If you keep the lower leg straight it slightly rolls your pelvis forwards. Assuming that you keep your pelvis still it is much harder because you can’t cheat by recruiting your hip flexors. The movement for the top leg remains the same.
Clams are great at finding your glutes and getting to know them, but for running they are way too easy. Even if you add a heavy weight to make it harder they still have their limitations.
All muscles in the body respond to training in the position that you train them in. That means if you never progress off clams you’ll have nice strong glutes when you lie on your side, but that may not translate to standing upright on one leg. That’s where the second fashionable word “functional” comes in.
To be functional you need to strengthen your glutes in the same way that they operate in real life. For runners it essentially looks like a running motion, but adding some key resistance.
3. Strengthen your glutes with step ups and a band
- Start with one foot on a step and the other foot on the ground behind.
- Tie a TheraBand attached to a desk around your knee on the step and put your other knee in front of it. You will need to bend the back knee a bit to accommodate the band.
- You will then bring the back leg up and through like a running motion and simultaneously straighten the knee on the step.
- Make sure you keep your knee over your toes . You need to resist the band trying to pull your knee inwards.
- Try to make a running motion with your upper body as you change from each position. Remember it’s opposites – when your left knee is up your right hand is forwards and vice versa.
You should feel a burn in the buttocks on the side that is on the step. If you want to make it harder you can use a higher step or tighter band. Remember quality over quantity. Form is more important than achieving a higher number.
4. Strengthen your glutes with single leg squats and a swiss ball
- Stand side on to the wall with a swiss ball between your hip and the wall. You need to have your feet uncomfortably close to the wall, almost like the ball is going to push you over.
- Raise your inside knee so that your inside foot is off the ground.
- Proceed to do a 1 legged squat but really focus on sticking your bottom out. Don’t allow your lower back to bend, or your knee to go forward past your toes. Most of the movement comes from the hip bending.
- As with the step ups watch that you keep your knee in line with your toes.
- You will need to fight the swiss ball trying to push you over and are looking for that burn in the buttock muscles.
To progress you can add a hand weight for extra resistance.
5. Strengthen your glutes with hopping
The final part often missed when getting glutes ready for running is speed of contraction. Hopping forwards along a straight line is a great way to get your buttock muscles to work in the same motion that you run in but at speed.
By using a line on the ground forces you to really stabilize and keep the knee and hip in good alignment. It also shows up any weaknesses. To make it harder you can hop landing on your heel and taking off your toes. Always do this in running shoes to avoid hurting your foot.
How frequently should you be doing these exercises?
Like with any strength program we look at 3 sets to fatigue, 3 times per week. If you are in full running training I tend to say do the strengthening after you run.
You won’t get as much benefit out of the exercises because you are already tired, however it is better than the potential risk of injury by going for a run with glutes that are already completely fatigued.
If you are having trouble with these it is worth checking it with a physio. Or if you are doing your own glute rehab it is worth having a proper assessment at some stage to make sure that you aren’t missing another issue.
Otherwise happy buttock strengthening. Enjoy the burn!