By Julianne Russell
If you missed Coach Raechel’s favorite glutes movements you can check it out here.
Glutes are tied to performance. Look around the gym and both the stronger women and men all have big booties that challenge traditional jeans and pants. Yet, some with big, strong butts have trouble accessing that power.
Some of us are born with one, some of us have to build one, and some of us don’t even notice it’s getting all bubbly until our pants split at just that right/horribly wrong moment (#p360problems). We all know that having a nice rump is something society has become obsessed with, but what is the importance behind having a strong and a powerful set of glutes beyond the aesthetics? What can you do to build a butt if you weren’t blessed with one by genetics (see what I did there, like I’m rapping).
Further, why is it still so challenging for some that have a strong booty to access that strength in certain movements all the way through completion? (i.e. Overhead Kettle Bell Swings, or Deadlift lockouts).
“Glute Guy” Bret Contreras’ sums it up nicely with this:
“If I had to choose one muscle, I’d say that the glutes are the most important muscle for total athleticism”.
If you think about it, they play a major role in essentially everything the hip does. All movements that require extension, rotation, and abduction come from the strength of your glutes and that basically includes every athletic movement we perform at P360 from squatting and lunging to jumping, sprinting, and farmer’s walks, and every lift, swing, and movement in between. Not only are they powerful and strong when utilized, but also they store massive amounts of energy for speed and keep your spine safe due to their role in stabilizing the pelvis. Essentially, they exist for the purpose of both moving heavy loads, while also being fast and dynamic.
Regardless of whether or not you are a beginner looking to build a healthy, strong foundation or the highest Level 4 Barbell Club member looking to break past plateaus, glutes are likely to contribute in a big way.
Knowing this to be true, let’s look at the anatomy of the glute to find out why.
Anatomy of the Gluteal Region
This is an oversimplified view of the superficial muscles of the Gluteal Region.
The Gluteus Maximus: The largest muscle in this group, the G-Max is largely responsible for the shape of the buttocks (the bubble). It is connected to the sacrum and coccyx down to the femur bone. It is made up primarily of type 2 muscles fibers, having the ability to produce a ton of force (Type-II), and grow fairly big (Type-I). It is the main extensor of the thigh and also one of the strongest muscles in the entire body. It laterally rotates the hip, and extends the trunk (lockout of most movements) and provides stability for squats, deadlifts, box jumps, kettle bell swings (all bilateral movements). A more in depth look at this large muscle will show you that a bulk of it connects to the fascia lata (connective tissue), which wraps around the entire leg. Thus, the G-Max contraction compresses the whole thigh and influences the mechanics of the musculature of the entire leg.
Think…strong G-Max = better knee and ankle stability.
The Gluteus Medius: This is a smaller muscle that lies to the side and underneath the G-Max. Its fibers extend from the ilium to the femur. It is responsible largely for abduction (moving your leg away from your body) and medial rotation (think of turning your foot in like a pigeon toe). This smaller muscle is also responsible for stability of the pelvis during walking, running, climbing (basically all single-leg movements) to prevent a pelvic drop on the opposite limb.
Gluteus Minimus: An even smaller muscle that lies deeper, it essentially has the same attachments and functions as the G-Med.
Ever wonder why you get particularly sore from lunges but not from deadlifts? Both work the glutes, but they target different musculature within the Gluteal Region.
Signs of Glute Weakness
Have you ever watched someone perform a back squat, and on the ascent one hip raises faster than the other causing a hip sway in that direction? This is incredibly common, and a sign of uneven strength.
A quick and easy test you can do on your own to see if you have weakness in your gluteal region:
Stand up, feet hip width, and lift your right knee up in line with your hip. If your right hip drops, that is an indication of weakness. Test both sides to get an idea of which side you may favor, or is stronger to begin to find balance in that strength.
Whenever we do a lunge movement, weakness in our glutes is revealed to us. Even though we may feel as though the quadriceps are the prime movers in lunges, if performed correctly, the drive off of the heel through full range of motion, targets the Gluteal region and all the muscles of the hips. If you feel your weight drifting into the toes, the heel lifting off the ground, or a pull in the opposite leg, chances are, you need to spend some time targeting G-Max, G-Med, and G-Min for better form and stability through the movements.
Another example would be that annoying hitch on a deadlift right above the knee through mid thigh. Having difficulty completing the last step of pulling the hips through to full extension and lockout is a major indication of weak glutes and/or poor stability. This also typically results in the lumbar region of the spine and surrounding muscles to be recruited far beyond their responsibilities, causing unnecessary soreness or pain, and sometimes even injury from a heavy pull. Ever strained a back muscle on deadlifts before? Good likelihood they were overcompensating for weak glutes.
Sitting for long periods of time can cause the muscles of this region to atrophy through constant pressure. This is directly related to pain in the lower back. If you’re someone that has a lifestyle that requires a lot of sitting, it’s even more important that you take the time to properly strengthen these muscles and keep active outside of the hours that require you to sit, to not only keep the glutes strong, but also to help stay free of lower back pain.
The Importance of Stability
Stability in the pelvis is incredibly important for overall functional movement of the body. Your pelvis is the foundation for your spine. With strong stability here, the lower spine is protected and the muscles that surround the lumbar vertebra are supported better through axial movements like deadlifts, and back squats where we load our spine with heavy weight. We are then more likely to have better form and cleaner reps through lockout without recruiting weaker back muscles to help us finish the job (i.e. less soreness or pain in the lumbar, and less rounding of the spine on a heavy pull).
Essentially, when the bones are properly aligned in a movement, the muscles required to perform that movement can work more efficiently and effectively, allowing us to build strength with good form. When the pelvis is unstable, the bones of the spine, and hip girdle struggle to stack and align properly forcing muscles to fire and direct their energy toward protecting the vertebral column. The muscles around the hips are also now working harder to keep the sacrum in place, rather than handle the load. This is important in bilateral movements because the sacrum should not shift or tilt, but rather be firmly in place so as to keep the lumbar spine aligned during a lift, landing, or lockout to support force and load.
During single leg movements we need a stable pelvis so when one leg lifts, or steps forward to lunge, the hips stay as close to the same height, and plane as possible.
What happens over time if we continue to let one side of the pelvis drop through a movement consistently is a shift and tilt of the base of the spine?
Over time this will pull on the vertebra and create pain or injury within the lower back. It’s not really feasible to keep the hips literally in the same line, but it’s the idea of putting some focus there, building strength to stabilize, so we don’t lazily perform movements and create injury or discomfort.
You may have lately heard your coaching staff to not hyperextend on movements like the KB Swing. With folks newer to training and still learning how to feel their body, we sometimes see an arch at the lower spine and complete disengagement in the glutes. This causes the pelvis to tilt instead of full extension in the hips bringing them forward through, creating a strong line in the kinetic chain from ankles all the way to the kettle bell up top. This is generally indicative of not only weak glutes, but rather a tendency to rely heavily on the upper body through the entirety of the swing, rather than the strong foundation of the hips/glutes and their forceful snap forward. When this occurs and the weight is up top with a pronounced arch in the lower back, we have essentially just loaded an unstable spine without the support of the glutes, and this my friends, will not feel good the next day, and keep you swinging that tiny kettle bell without progression for quite some time.
Where Dave has previously written about the Lats being responsible for stabilizing overhead movements almost entirely within the shoulders, the glutes are responsible for the stability of the pelvis in all of those same movements (along with your abdominal strength). In turn equally protecting your lower back.
The glutes are the lats of the lower body, if you will.
How to Boost the Caboose
I could list every single movement that utilizes the strength of your glutes, but that would include almost everything (outside of, say…bicep curls, but even then…squeeze!). Instead here is a handful that I have found really develop not only strength, but power and speed as well. Plain and simple, they will not develop or grow unless you put in the work and require them too.
If you have not already, be sure to check out Coach Raechel’s favorite glute developers. Piggybacking off of that, here are a few more you can do.
Squats for Reps – A crucial and fundamental movement of training. Get LOW! Be sure to break parallel, as the glutes are in highest demand around 45 degrees of flexion in the hip, so staying between 20-90 degrees for the bulk of the movement will put more focus there. Working at 60-70%, 8-10 reps, focusing on range of motion and a stable even raise out of bottom position all the way through hip extension with even weight in the heels and knees driven outward.
Deadlifts for Reps – Traditional, KB and Sumo. Provided you have a healthy lower back and pelvis, performing volume at 60-70% with a focus on keeping a neutral spine, and the final phase of the movement from above the knee to lockout develops all aspects of the hip muscles. G-Max, G-Med, and G-Min will all build power and learn to stabilize the pelvis more effectively.
Paused Squats – Performing squats at a lower load, with a 1-3 second pause at the bottom, will take the “bounce” out of the equation. This will target the glutes even more and force raw strength out of the hole, with greater stability. Consider performing them 6-12 reps at a time, work without fully rising to lockout until the end of the set to keep more tension and metabolic stress on the glutes.
Same Leg Reverse Lunges – Body weight or otherwise, repeating on the same leg keeps constant tension and stress on the glutes to maximize development and strength.
Bulgarian Split Squats – Typically these need some practice at body weight first to gain balance, but once that is achieved adding weight is ideal. Holding dumbbells or kettle bells, the lifted back leg’s sole purpose is to provide stability. The targeted leg needs to be positioned properly so the hell is grounded and the knee stays behind the toes. The drive up through the heel will challenge the glutes to adapt and the smaller muscles to fire rapidly to create stability within the pelvis.
Thrusters – When performed properly, thrusters have the ability to develop not only strength, but also speed and power within the glutes. The element of the squat action brings on the strength, but the aggressive drive up through hip extension requires speed to “thrust” the weight into the overhead position. It should feel as though your legs are what gets the weight up rather than your shoulders.
Sprints – If you’ve ever watched a single sprint in your life, you’ve seen glutes at their best. We have all probably felt the hamstrings primarily after a sprint workout, because they are vital and incredibly important through phases of running and gaining speed. The glutes, however, are what powers us from the position of the foot on the ground. Note only is the G-Max the most important hip extensor, but it is also the muscles that absorbs force and creates a propulsion forward. Especially as you gain speed.
Pistol Squats – A challenging and unmatched exercise for the gluteal and leg muscles. Not only can you build strength starting at body weight and working your way up, but they don’t require a high volume of reps or sets. There are modifications (like using a band) to help work toward a good depth with balance. The benefits move far beyond pure strengthening of the glutes and leg muscles. Performing pistols builds stability, balance, focus, and a lot of core strength as well. An added bonus is that they also help strengthen the lumbar region of the spine.
Yoga – (You had to see that one coming.) Yoga utilizes the entire hip and Gluteal region isometrically through almost every single standing posture, even if you’re standing on your hands. This is definitely beneficial to your strength and stability training, building muscular endurance and awareness into the region. More importantly, yoga, particularly how we practice at P360, includes release and lengthening of the entire hip region. In order to be able to perform our lifts and movements, we most definitely need strength, but we also require mobility. Yoga is the potentially the best way to maintain the crucial strength we build, and remain mobile and healthy within the joints. Tightness through the hips and glutes will only inhibit your ability to be pain free in your back, and stronger under the barbell.
Keep Your Glutes Loose
Lay on your back and cross one ankle just above the opposite knee. Be sure to flex your toes toward your shin to protect your knee joint. You can pull everything in toward your chest to intensify the stretch, but make sure the cross leg stays parallel to your chest. This will stretch your glutes and piriformis (another muscle in the region around the hip). Spend about 1-2 minutes (make sure your breathing easily) on each side.
Come into a lunge position with the front foot wide and forward from the knee. Both hands can prop you up inside the foot (you can prop your hands up on something it that’s too intense). This has multiple benefits. The hip flexor of the back leg gets an effective release that is hard to find in any other position. The adductors AND abductors of the front leg are getting a good stretch too. Play with coming to the edge of the foot or keeping it flat to move sensation around the hips.
Lay on your back and cross your right leg over the other (preferably at the thigh). Take your knees to the left and turn your head to the right. Not only is rotation like this great for overall spinal health, it’s a great stretch for your lower back and hips. Switch sides after 5-10 slow breaths. Or do a more restorative version with something propped under your knees and your head turned in the same direction of your knees and remain for up to 5 minutes.
Often times, the obvious muscles are the ones that need work. We may know how to utilize them in some movements, but lack the awareness to access them in others, or the understanding of importance in their involvement. Performing these movements, learning to be explosive and develop more torque from the hips, and creating greater stability, will translate into progress through major lifts. You will create a more supported, and powerful foundation for almost every movement, in and out of the gym.
Julianne Russell is coach and yoga instructor at Performance360.