We’ve all seen it. Sitting is killing us. Or so says countless memes, health websites, and even news articles. I think that is a little extreme, but sitting for prolonged time is, well, not great (the irony here is I’ve been sitting for at least an hour reflecting on this blog, it’s goals and this post). Even in an ideal posture, the seated position lengthens our glutes and tightens our hip flexors. This posture (even a good posture) can lead to it’s own set of issues. Stiff hip flexors can pull at their attachment on the lumbar spine (aka low back), and lead to back pain. Stiffness in the front of your hip can lead to a reduced ability to extend your leg behind you, which can have deleterious effects on walking form, running form. Lengthened glutes can lead to poor glut activation and subsequently, low back pain, hip pain, knee pain, injury risk, etc etc. Seriously though, to get into all that can happen from sitting all day would take forever.
Inactive glutes? What is this nonsense? Many of us work out, so like, my glutes MUST be strong, right? Not so fast.
Our pelvic position can really affect how well our glutes are engaging when they contract. Neutral pelvis is going to give us the ideal posture for max glute engagement. How do you gauge if you are in neutral pelvis? Well, good body awareness is needed, but you take yourself through an anterior pelvic tilt (exaggerate the curve in your low back) and then go through a posterior pelvic tilt (try to flatten out your low back curve)… and then find the posture that is somewhere in the middle. That, my friends, was the simplest instruction ever to find neutral pelvis, so if you can’t quite figure it out, EMAIL ME! If you find you mostly stand in anterior pelvic tilt (increased low back curve), this is arguably the worst standing posture for glut engagement, so I would definitely encourage you to start working towards that neutral pelvis.
Muscle imbalance can lead to a strong muscle group out powering the glutes. Very strong quads can overshadow the glutes and lead to poor glute use during strength training exercises. So just because you squat does not mean you are maximally engaging your glutes. Many people are anterior chain (quad) dominant, and poorly engage their posterior chain (glute complex). When someone squats or lunges that is quad dominant, they will put increased stress across the front of their leg (and subsequently knee, ahem, knee pain) because they are predominantly using their quads. If you squat and lunge correctly, you will notice the majority of your weight is in your HEELS and NOT your forefoot. IF you squat and lunge and you feel like you are about to lift your heel from the ground, you are quad dominant.
Even exercise junkies can have inactive glutes (speaking from experience, friends)! A lot of the exercise we do is in the sagittal (forward & backward) plane. We walk/run straight ahead, bike straight ahead. There are very few things that we do sideways. All of this sagittal plane work can really put a hit on our backside. Especially the glute med & glute min that are responsible for stabilizing our hips and pelvis. So what can we SIMPLY do to keep our glutes activating the right way? Just regular mat exercise! This allows us to work these muscles as best we can in isolation. This will help keep our backside healthy and help reduce injury risk.
My Top 5 for Glute Strengthening exercise (based on actual research & ease of performance)
- Clamshell Exercise: lay on your side with your legs stacked. Bend your knees and keep your feet together. Your feet should stay in contact the whole time. Rotate at the hip and lift the top knee away from the bottom knee. That’s one rep! Make sure your hips do not rotate behind you. See top photo
- Bridging: This can be performed either single leg or double leg. FORM is the most important so if you aren’t quite strong enough for single leg with correct posture, stick with double leg. Lay on your back with your knees bent. Your feet should be hip width apart and knees in line with hips. Keep your core tight and do not let your back arch. Lift your hips off of the floor, squeezing the glutes at the top. IF you perform it single legged, make sure your hips remain level with the lift. See second photo
- Side Plank: Yo, these are HARD. So many of my athletic patients struggle with this one. It is easy to cheat so make sure you are in proper alignment. Your elbow (or hand) should be aligned directly under your shoulder. Your ankles should be in line with your shoulder (body in a straight line). Use core and hip to lift body off of ground coming into a straight line, not a saggy line. Also be sure to “push” your elbow into the ground to engage your shoulder muscles so you aren’t “hanging out” on your shoulder joint. Goal should be to hold one of these on each side for 30 seconds WITH GOOD FORM.
- Sidelying Hip Abduction: cue Jane Fonda. Lay on your side with your hips and legs stacked, knees straight. Engage the core and lift the top leg toward the ceiling. Your leg should stay in LINE with your body and not come in front of you (otherwise you are cheating).
- Quadruped Hip Extension: come into tabletop (on hands and knees). Wrists directly under shoulders, knees directly under hips. Core engaged (make sure you are not allowing your low back to sag). Lift from the GLUT and try to “kick” the ceiling with your heel. Your pelvis should not rotate and do not allow your back to arch to get the leg up.
Okay, that’s the top 5 glut activation exercises. But don’t forget to stretch afterwards!