The Myth of ‘Tight Glutes’
To start off with, you don’t have tight glutes. Sure, when a massage therapist digs around there or you lay on a trigger point ball it feels like Zeus himself is making his presence known – you still don’t have tight glutes.
So what do you have?
Now let’s back up for some foundational knowledge. In works popularized by Gray Cook and his discussions with strength coach Michael Boyle, we can begin to understand through the Joint-By-Joint approach, that there are joints that must be stable, and there are those which must remain mobile.
If an individual is sacrificing mobility for stability or vice-versa; an injury is likely to follow.
A prime example would be someone who is complaining of chronic low back pain (should be a stable region), yet through further evaluation and movement screens, we discover that this person has poor hip mobility that when corrected, resolves most of their lower back problems. This means that someone who had poor hip mobility began to develop compensating lower back pain.
So, remind me of how and why I have weak glutes again?
Through the anatomy, we understand that the gluteal muscle – specifically gluteus maximus (although we cannot ignore gluteal minimus and medius – but we will in this example), is the prime mover and is responsible for extension, abduction, and external rotation of the hip.
This becomes critical because weakened glutes cause functional compensation patterns that begin to develop in muscles such as the hamstrings, hip flexors, and quadriceps muscle groups.
Most commonly, when we are faced with the above-mentioned functional compensation, we call this phenomenon Lower Crossed Syndrome.
This involves groupings of muscles both front and back (anterior and posterior, respectively) that have a cause-and-effect response. That is, muscles that are tight in one region correspond with muscles that are weak and underactive in another region.
The diagram below shows the most common presentation of Lower Crossed Syndrome.
Here, we see an abdominal core that is underactive, as well as gluteal weakness (including glute max, medius and minimus); as well as thoracolumbar muscles (multifidi, lumbar paraspinals, etc) and hip flexors (psoas and quadriceps) that are overactive.
Okay, so now we have a better understanding of who is working too hard and who is not working hard enough.
Now, we come to a two-part conundrum: do I have weak glutes, weak abdominals, or both? Chances are you have both – and this is important. The focus of this article, however is solely on gluteal activation and I would be remiss if I did not give honorable mention to the abdominals.
Activating the Glutes through Exercise
To preface: there are many ways that you can safely activate your gluteals. Some can be done through the usage of barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, body weight or exercise bands. As with any exercise, have your trainer, chiropractor or physical therapist watch your form – whether you are building for strength, or recovering through the usage of corrective exercises – this is the difference from building with good form, or setting yourself up for an injury.
Below is a list of my 6 personal favorites. I love each of them for a variety of reasons – mainly because they are used well as part of their own routine, as well as using in combination during recovery days as well as ensuring you don’t get bored. They are as follows:
- The Squat (body weight only or with weights)
- Sumo / Monster Walks
- Hip Bridges / Thrusters (progress to using exercise band)
- Kettlebell Swings
- Lunges (Split-Squat and Bulgarian)
- Clamshells (with exercise band)
I always have a laugh when someone tells me they have ‘tight glutes’. You can a have rock-hard pair, yet test functionally weak because your body has hidden compensation patterns (such as those mentioned above). For many, our lives have only gotten more sedentary and we sit excessively.
Don’t be that guy or girl – strengthen your glutes. You’re backside will thank you in your golden years when you can stand up after using the toilet without having to reach for that walker.
1. Beck, M., Sledge, J.B., Gautier, E., Dora, C.F. & Ganz, R. 2000. The function and anatomy of the gluteus minimus. The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. 82(3): 358 – 363.
2. Cook G., Burton, L., Hoogenboom, B.J. & Voight, M. 2014. Functional movement screening: the use of fundamental movements as an assessment of function – part 1. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 9(3): 396 – 409.
3. Cook G., Burton, L., Hoogenboom, B.J. & Voight, M. 2014. Functional movement screening: the use of fundamental movements as an assessment of function – part 2. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 9(4): 549 – 563.