Our fitness editor reconnects with her backside and discovers that great glutes are about more than brute strength.
Confession: I’m a glute gal. A fanny fan. A firm-butt believer. Let me explain.
Among the hundreds of muscles in the human body, the glutes are arguably the most important for overall quality of life. Our gluteal muscles, and the hip joints to which they attach, are responsible for myriad movement patterns, including standing upright, walking, running, jumping, and squatting. When our butts are strong, we can move easily and efficiently in sports and everyday activities.
But when we lose strength and mobility in this musculature — which includes the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus — we set our bodies up for dysfunction and inactivity.
I’ve learned firsthand the benefits of a powerful posterior. When I was new to fitness, my main goal was getting skinny, and my main method was running. I trained for a half-marathon in early 2012, and in the following weeks also ran a second half and a 10-miler. The volume was new and proved to be too much when one knee swelled and hurt.
A doc recommended time off, and through my own research I found articles singing the praises of strength training for runners. I began squatting and deadlifting. When I returned to running, I hadn’t lost any speed or stamina. Rather, I had better posture and more power behind my stride.
I experienced the magic of booty power a second time, after a back injury that required relearning how to brace my behind for everything from heavy lifting to running. Although my glutes had gotten stronger, I wasn’t effectively using that strength.
It’s not enough to be strong if you can’t put that strength to work. It’s not enough to simply squeeze your butt cheeks to activate or fire your glutes.
I’ve spent the last three years reconnecting with my backside and trying to make sense of the difference between building strength (which is really great) and developing the skill to use that strength (which is even greater) when it’s needed (the greatest).
Glute bridges of all varieties have been particularly useful to me because of the way they focus on the area in question. I’ve done them with my feet planted on the floor and raised on boxes. I’ve done them with a yoga block squeezed between my knees, with only one leg at a time, and with knees dropped to either side. I’ve loaded up with barbells and sandbags, adding weight ranging from 5 to 305 pounds.
I’ve dug fingertips into my muscles to feel what’s happening and played with shifting my eye gaze — all with the intention of exploring different sensations and building connections.
Overkill? Perhaps. But as my friend and coach Mark Schneider tells me every time I shy away from my intense determination and curiosity, that’s how you learn.
Mark is also responsible for the exercise that most radically shifted my understanding of being strong versus using my strength: Set up as though you are going to perform a glute bridge — on your back, knees bent, feet planted near your hips, ribs tucked, and back pressed firmly into the floor. Then begin to squeeze your glutes. Squeeze them so hard that your muscles begin to twitch, and then slowly, laboriously lift off the floor. Keep squeezing, keep fighting, until your hips are fully extended — without putting pressure in your feet to help lift yourself up.
That unweighted lift was the single hardest (and most time-consuming) glute bridge I’ve ever done. I was sweating and breathless by the end. And I suddenly had a newfound appreciation for how easy it is to bypass my glutes altogether — how simple it can be to bypass any muscle, if you’re not paying attention. (To learn more about proper glute-bridge form and activating these muscles, see “Break It Down: The Glute Bridge.”)
In all this squeezing and poking and cajoling my glutes to fire, I found my way out of the pain I’d had. I was able to transfer some of my newfound lower-body awareness into other exercises. At the least, I now know when I’m squatting or deadlifting or running with “sleepy” glutes — and I have an arsenal of techniques to wake them up.
This originally appeared as “Strong Body, Strong Mind: Just Peachy” in the November 2018 print issue of Experience Life.