The glutes are a major culprit of back pain and are often the weakest link when it comes to structural balance and development. This is due to the fact that the glutes are not activated much during our daily lives, which leads to atrophy causing the muscle to shut down. The glutes are not just for sitting on and are supposed to be the “lifting muscle.” Too many of us depend on our backs for lifting, which leads to common back pain and disc issues. I will discuss how we can activate and strengthen our glutes, so that we can take the pressure off of our backs and stabilize the spine.
If you want to have strong, explosive and attractive glutes that not even Sir-Mix-A-Lot can deny, then follow these basic steps and you will be well on your way.
- Understand the roles of the glutes
The glutes are one of the largest muscle groups in the body. Their functions include: hip extension, hip abduction, hip external rotation and pelvic posterior tilt. Hitting the glutes in each function, including both horizontal based and vertical based hip extension movements, will lead to the best development. The glutes also contain a mixture of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers. One study found the gluteus maximus to be 68% slow twitch and 32% fast twitch . This was confirmed by a completely separate study that found 52% slow twitch and 48% fast twitch. This means that the glutes will make great progress with both light and heavy work.
- Stretch those hip flexors!
Activating the glutes to their full potential requires achieving full range of motion. The hip flexors are the biggest contributor to underperforming glutes when flexibility is compromised. If the hip flexors are too tight, then the glutes will not be able to achieve a full range of motion. Knowing this, the first step to improving our glutes is to stretch and release the hip flexors. This can be done with movements such as the split squat, one knee stretches and Bulgarian split squats.
- Become a ‘butthead’
You should always have your glutes in mind at the gym. The power of the mind is huge when it comes to activating the glutes. The mind to muscle connection must be achieved. Studies, such as the one conducted by Lewis-Sahrmann, show that when the glutes are mentally focused on during the prone hip extension, glute activation is 22% compared to 10% activation without mental prompting5. Bret Contreras CSCS, known as the “glute guy” for his research on glute activity and his success in training, also found that without mentally focusing on the glutes during the back extension, glute activation is only 6% compared to 38% when glutes are mentally prompted. Isometric contractions work best in achieving the mind to muscle connection. Literally, just flex your glutes as hard as you can for 10-20 seconds. This can be done anytime in any position. You can also try prone hip extensions, unilateral bridges and hip thrusts with long pauses and squeezes at the top.
- Rep it out
We must learn to activate the glutes with bodyweight movements before we move into weighted movements. Moving into weighted movements too quickly, without learning to properly activate the glutes first, will worsen any dysfunction or issues we already have. So, at this point, we focus on unweighted exercises such as bodyweight bridges, hip thrusts, bentknee lunges, Bulgarian split squats, back extensions and side lying leg abductions. You should aim for 2-3 sets of 20-30 reps and focus on maintaining full glute activation during the movements. You should also be able to feel a burn in movements such as the back extension and hip thrust to really enhance glute development Bulgarian Split Squat Unilateral Bridges (Starting Position) Unilateral Bridges (Ending Position)
- Lock and load
Once your mind to muscle connection is fully established it is time to add weight. Progressive overload is vital for developing the glutes, but it cannot be at the expense of technical form3. So, do your squats and deadlifts, but back off on the weight if you notice a lack of glute activation. It might be easier to start with band weights or cables to load movements up before grabbing weight plates. Then you can progress to weighted movements, such as hip thrusts, bridges, back extensions, seated band or cable abductions and banded or monster walks.
- Apply it
Glute movements should be added to your normal weekly workouts before, during or after, as remedial work or activation. The glutes are on average the largest muscle group and they can handle both high volume and frequency. They should be hit in some way 3-4 times a week, mixing it up between movements and rep ranges. Activation work should be done daily.