Jayne Snyder, PT, DPT, sees a steady stream of patients suffering from pain in their hips, backs and knees at her Snyder Physical Therapy clinic in Lincoln, Neb. She says the majority of these problems stem from one source: weak gluteal muscles. “Even when you think you’re working your glutes, you may be overcompensating with other muscles and setting yourself up for injury,” she explains.
Three muscles — the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus — make up the buttocks. The biggest of the three (and, in fact, the largest muscle of the 639 in the human body) is the gluteus maximus, which works to extend and rotate the hips and legs. The gluteus medius is a broad muscle that sheathes and stabilizes the pelvis and core; while the underlying, fan-shaped minimus helps support the hip area. When you run, the maximus propels you forward; while the smaller medius and minimus muscles provide balance and control for your femurs, which help keep your hips, knees and ankles aligned.
That’s the way the glutes should work, anyway. But while they are some of the most important muscles in the body, they’re also some of the most troublesome. Sitting for long periods of time often makes the hip flexors tight and overactive, which deactivates the glutes. (For more on this effect, see “Office Imbalance” in the March 2007 archives.) And even when we’re on our feet, many of the activities we choose don’t get our glutes going. For instance, the short, repetitive movements of a stair climber don’t fully activate the gluteus maximus.
When the glutes are inhibited, a domino effect occurs in the body. “Without the glutes, the psoas muscle, which links the lumbar spine to the legs, jumps in to act as the stabilizer of the body’s core,” says Laura Keller, MPT, a physical therapist at the Stone Clinic in San Francisco. “Unfortunately, an overactive psoas can cause a multitude of dysfunctions, especially by compressing the lower lumbar vertebrae in the spine — one of the more common causes of back pain.”
Weak glutes also cause the hamstring and quadriceps muscles to overcompensate, which can lead to strains, says Jim Thornton, MS, ATC, PES, head athletic trainer at Clarion University in Clarion, Pa. And without a strong, working medius to align the femur, knee and ankle, you’re also more likely to overpronate your feet, which can cause plantar fasciitis (heel pain), Achilles’ tendinitis and shin splints. Inhibited gluteal muscles also lead to tight iliotibial bands, also known as ITB syndrome, and patello-femoral pain, or runner’s knee.
The good news? By learning how to activate your glutes, you can not only prevent such chronic pain and injuries, you can also boost your fitness performance.
A Superior Posterior
“Choosing the right exercises will help you rewire your glutes,” says Diane Vives, MS, CSCS, founder of Vives Training Systems in Austin, Texas. (For exercise ideas, see “Seat Boosters,” below.) Significant strength gains will come from incorporating eight to 12 weeks of such exercises into your regular routine, she adds.
Learning to activate and properly fire your glutes during movement gives you a fresh start in just about any activity, says Keller. Because the glutes play an essential role in many athletic activities, you’ll also find you’re able to run faster, jump higher and lift more. “Once the glutes help stabilize the core, you naturally do all exercises more safely and efficiently,” she says. “Especially those involving precise movements, such as skiing and biking.”
In short, once you get your gluteal muscles in line, your whole body feels and performs better — from top to bottom.
Sarah Tuff, the coauthor of 101 Best Outdoor Towns: Unspoiled Places to Visit, Live and Play (Countryman Press, 2007), writes on fitness, health and travel from Burlington, Vt.