The gluteus maximus is such a popular muscle these days, especially on Instagram! Pretty much every one’s fitness Instagram profile has 100’s of photos of them showing off their defined gluteals and their squat techqniue!
Despite the glute max being so popular, I sometimes wonder how many people really understand this muscle that they devote so much time to. Most muscles have a variety of functions and this is definitely the case for the glute max. It’s mostly known as an extensor of the hip but in reality (similar to the deltoid) it provides many more functions. If a muscle has a variety of functions, it would be intelligent to train that muscle in a variety of ways, stimulating and working all the muscle fibres. One of the interesting things about the glute max is how the upper fibres continue into the thick fascia of the lower back. The glute max also helps with sacroiliac stability (the joint between the sacrum and ilia). The mechanics of the sacrum will directly influence the lumbar vertebra (lower back) above.
There has even been research into the relationship of lower back pain and glute max inhibition. A study had shown that glute max activation during hip extension was delayed in people with a history of lower back pain.
It has been shown that hip – spine interaction is disturbed in patients with lower back pain during saggital trunk flexion and extension.
(Leinonen V, Kankaapää M, Airaksinen O and Hanninen O (2000): Back and hip extensor activities during trunk flexion/extension: effects of low back pain and rehabilitation. Archives of Physical Medical Rehabilitation 81, 32-37).
So potentially there may be a link to glute max activation and lower back pain in some people as the glute max helps with the stability of the scaroiliac joint (SIJ) and lower back. Of course there are many other factors that can contribute to lower back pain other than the gluteal muscles.
Knowing this connection to the lower back fascia and SIJ stability, you’d assume that people who exercise their gluteal muscles must have great lower backs – in stability terms anyway. In my experience this is not the case. When I perform the Gilliets test on clients (which is to assess independent movement of the SIJ on one side of the pelvis), it’s very often that people don’t pass the test first time round, even the ones with great bums!… Sorry I mean defined gluteals.
So what’s going on here? How can a person exercise a muscle but not improve the function of the surrounding areas?
Weak Glutes Or Strong Glutes?
There have been countless blogs/articles debunking the myth that a person’s glutes are ‘weak’ and therefore need to be ‘strengthened’. We know now that this is rarely the case and that glutes that test ‘weak’ are normally just inhibited and once their function has been improved (through a theraputic intervention or through certain exercises), when re-tested the muscle scored as ‘strong’ or pass.
So does strength work make a muscle strong if the muscle is inhibited (poor neuromuscular feedback), in spasm (dehydrated) or fibrotic (muscle tissue becomes more ligaments – tight) when being exercised? MAYBE not (big emphasis on maybe).
If a muscle is not activating at the right time then we need to improve the neuromuscular feedback to the muscle (brain to muscle connection). Performing strength exercises for the glute max won’t necessarily improve the neuromuscular feedback.
So maybe we need to prepare a muscle (or group of muscles) first before we exercise them. Giving the muscle full capacity to contract (both concentrically and eccentrically) and function optimally. Exercising with good biomechanics as a baseline will most likely make the experience of physical movement more enjoyable and fruitful.
Exercising the glute max in a manner that reinforces ‘ideal’ biomechanics can improve the function of the SIJ and there fore create a more stable foundation for the lower back.
Re-activating The Glute Max
So one technique we can try first is a Muscle Energy Technique (MET) for the hip extensors. This MET is called Leg Press. If we assume the glute max is in a state we call ‘sub clinical spasm’ then an MET can improve the glute max’s capacity to contract properly again.
Leg Press – Muscle Energy Technique:
Resist hip extension (isometric contraction – muscle contraction without movement).
Press leg into hands for 20% of your maximum effort (make sure knee is relaxed).
Hold for 20 seconds.
Repeat 4 times, then swap legs.
For more info on muscle energy techniques go to www.biomechanicseducation.com
Intelligent Conditioning For The Glute Max
Now that we’ve upgraded the neuromuscular connection to the hip extensors, we are now in a better mode to strengthen and condition the glute max. Now to define what is intelligent training is a little subjective. How a person should train is down to their goals, what sports they play, their lifestyle ect…
If you’re someone who doesn’t have a bias to a particular sport and you just want to have a great exercise routine for your glute max then in my opinion the most ideal way to train your glutes (and any part of your body) is in a varied fashion. This means changing your body positions, lines of pull and movements at the hip. The following are just a few ways to train the glute max.
Glute Max Exercise Suggestions
Oysters – Pilates
Leg Lifts (lying on side / standing with a band around ankle or cable) – Pilates
Leg extension and external rotation with cable / band
Single Leg Bridges – Pilates
It’s Not All About The Glutes
Remember, one part of the body can effect other parts of the body. The glute max continues into the fascia of the back (thoracolumbar fascia), which continues the into latissimus dorsi, the latissimus dorsi inserts into the humerus. So the mechanics of the arm/shoulder can influence the gluteals (and vice versa). An issue with the shoulder can be what causes the glute max to appear ‘weak’ when assessed.
There is even a connection into the hamstrings from the glute max. For more info on the hamstrings read my blog Stop Stretching Your Hamstrings
This is why it’s SO important to exercise your WHOLE body. Include isolated movements and integrated movements into your exercise routines. When you exercise your shoulders you are directly exercising and influencing your glutes. It makes no sense to exclude training certain parts of the body, especially if you’re exercising to be generally healthy and fit.