March 24, 2013

SPECIAL 100th ARTICLE - Everything You Need To Know About Glute Activation And Development

What can’t the glutes do?

Aside from the improved cosmetic appeal and boost to ones self-esteem that comes with having fully developed glutes, other benefits of having strong, developed glutes include, improved performance by way of being able to lift more weight with movements that take the hips through various degrees of flexion and extension/hyperextension (think squats and deadlifts), being able to run faster and jump higher, as well as relieving the lower back and hamstrings of unnecessary stress that they take on during various strength training movements and everyday functional activities (standing, walking, running, etc).

Regardless of your goal, the strengthening and developing the glutes is of paramount importance as these muscles are the biggest, strongest, and primary, hip extensors/hyperextensors, and are also responsible for hip abduction (spreading the legs apart), and external rotation of the femur (rotating the thigh/foot away from the midline of the body). The stronger these muscles are, the greater your potential becomes at seemingly everything, and the greater room they have to grow. Literally.

What good are they if you can’t use them?

The glutes are the primary hip extensors/hyperextensors, meaning they should be the primary muscles recruited during movements that incorporate hip extension/hyperextension, but this doesn’t mean that they will be.

Ultimately it is the brain (nervous system) that decides what muscles are recruited, and when. If for whatever reason, and there can be many, the brain doesn’t subconsciously call upon the glutes when needed, and instead opts for other muscles like the hamstrings and erectors to perform hip extension/hyperextension, the glutes go underutilized (and also underdeveloped), and therefore performance, as far as how much force can be exerted, is compromised.

The good news is that, even though the brain may not automatically recruit the glutes, with a little practice, you can choose to consciously recruit them as needed. All you need to do is develop a ‘mind-muscle’ connection with them, AKA improve your inter-muscular coordination.

Take control over your muscles, don’t leave things up to chance

The primary purpose of ‘muscle activation’ is to help with the development of the mind-muscle connection, so that one can consciously call upon a specific muscle at will, to assist in strength or muscular development. Just because a muscle is supposed to work, doesn’t mean that it will. By having control over your muscles, you greatly improve your ability to strengthen and develop them to their capacity.

The secondary purpose of activating a muscle prior to training/sport is to increase intrinsic stability, resulting in improved ability to generate maximum force. If a muscle is not ‘active’, and therefore not fully capable of meeting the demands of the body to provide force or stability, performance will be compromised.

Principles of muscle activation

To activate any muscle, you need to first mechanically adjust the body in such a way that the targeted muscle is in an advantageous position to create tension or generate force either isometrically or dynamically, and all other muscles that work synergistically with that muscle are mechanically in a disadvantageous position so that there is no neural confusion when you perform the movement. You want to put yourself in a position so that only the targeted area is called upon, while others are left virtually inactive.

The problem with traditional glute activation routines/techniques

There’s a seemingly unlimited supply of glute activation techniques demonstrated by countless unqualified ‘fitness experts’ all over the internet, and for the most part, they all suck! Many of them are simply isolation exercises for the glutes, which seems logical, but what people fail to realize is that, if the glutes are inactive as is, or the individual performing the exercises lacks the ability to consciously recruit the glutes at will (which is why anyone would want to perform glute activation in the first place), then other muscles responsible for similar functions tend to take over, and in the end, nothing really gets accomplished. In fact, things may even get worse, as you are only reinforcing the dysfunctional motor pattern that has already developed.

For example, the bent-knee glute bridge, and many of its variations (single-leg bent-knee glute bridge, upper body elevated glute bridge AKA hip thrust, single-leg hip thrust, upper and lower body elevated hip thrust, upper and lower body elevated single-leg hip thrust, straight-leg glute bridge, straight-single-leg glute bridge, etc), are isolation movements intended for the glutes that many will attempt to use as an activation exercise, but if the glutes aren’t active in the first place, the hamstrings, erectors, and even quads, could take over the movement to create hip extension/hyperextension. So what good is that?

While you can attempt to mechanically disable the hamstrings and place them into active insufficiency by bending the knee, as is the case with the traditional glute bridge, you still have to deal with the fact that the erectors, and possibly the quads, have a tendency to get involved in most cases, solely because the nervous system has a much better ‘working relationship’ with those muscles by default of having relied on them for quite some time. The nervous system essentially develops relationships with certain muscles, similar to how humans do with other people (friends, acquaintances, etc.), and relies on those who it has a deeper connection with in times of need. Would you call upon a friend you haven’t spoken with in quite some time, or an acquaintance, if you needed help, or would you call up someone who you are close with and know you can rely on?

If you want to develop a deeper connection with the glutes, one must take what is known about the glutes, in terms of their function, and combine it with irradiation to effectively activate them, and begin to develop a closer relationship between them and the nervous system.

The role of irradiation

The term ‘irradiation’ means that when a muscle is recruited, the strength of the neighbouring muscles is amplified as a result of all the nerves along the chain firing (at an increasing rate), and if those neighbouring muscles are involved in the same action as the intended muscle group, there will be added benefit by way of increased force production, AKA activation!

The most effective and practical glute activation technique that there is, period

Knowing that the glutes, along with the hamstrings, adductors and external rotators of the thigh all play a role in hip extension is the first part in connecting the dots when it comes to creating an effective, and practical, glute activation technique.

The most practical and effective way to activate the glutes is to have an individual lie on their back as if they were about to perform a traditional glute bridge, and manually apply external pressure to the outside of the knees by trying to push them together, forcing the external rotators and abductors of the thigh to contract isometrically, before performing the bridge.

These muscles, which also play a role in hip extension, will naturally pre-contract against the external pressure, and since they are so closely related to the glutes, the glutes will contract to a greater degree when you perform the bridge as a result of irradiation. This also gives the individual their first real chance to ‘feel’ the area that they want to be activating.

Have the individual perform 5-10 reps (or however many as it takes to get the desired result) of glute bridges in this manner, without allowing the muscles to relax. By keeping the muscles under constant tension, you deprive them of oxygen (putting them into a hypoxic state), which does a few good things.

1)    It increases the recruitment of the fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are capable of generating force in the absence of oxygen, which is what you want to train your body to do if building stronger, and more developed glutes is the goal.
2)    It doesn’t allow anything in, or out, which means the longer the muscles are under tension for, the more metabolic waste that will accumulate, and will create a burning sensation (as lactic acid builds up) in the targeted area. Feeling a muscle ‘burn’ is probably the most effective way for an individual to learn how to use a muscle that they otherwise had little control over. As they feel the muscle burning, they are deepening the connection between the brain (nervous system) and that muscle.

Performing the glute bridge while applying external pressure to the outside of the knees, by trying to push them together, is just one way to activate the glutes, but our goal of glute activation is incomplete, if we stop there. While trying to push the knees together works wonders, in terms of activation for the external rotators and abductors, it does little to nothing for the adductors (which also have a role in hip extension). Therefore, manually applying external pressure to the inside of the knees and trying to push them apart before performing the bridge is essential in completely activating the glutes, as well as all the other muscles that assist in hip extension, and provide intrinsic stability.

The same principles apply as above, in not letting the muscles relax during the set. 5-10 reps (or however many it takes to get the desired result) should suffice. Aim for a 1-1 ratio though, as in, however many reps you do while pushing out, you should do while pushing in.

Talk about efficiency

Not only is the glute activation technique above the most practical, and effective, but it’s also the most efficient as well. When you think about the fact that many so-called professionals’ glute activation routines consist of several exercises with the goal of simply activating the glutes, and combine it with the fact that they may not even get the job done (as a result of other muscles taking over because the individual has a difficult time activating the glutes anyway), it’s a no-brainer as to which is the most efficient use of your time.

A typical glute activation routine will consist of separate exercises to incorporate hip extension, hip abduction, hip adduction, and external rotation of the thigh. The glute activation technique above combines all those motions in one. So instead of performing as many sets and reps as needed of any of the glute bridge/hip thrust variations listed earlier, or quadruped hip extensions (on all fours, kicking one leg back), or lying thigh abductions, or clams, or fire hydrants, you can simply perform the technique above.

Because the glute activation technique described above is as effective as it is, only one set is needed for most people to reap the benefits of having their glutes active. If you were to perform only one set of a hip extension movement (glute bridge/hip thrust variation or quadruped hip extension), hip abduction movement (lying thigh abduction variation or fire hydrant), hip adduction movement, and external rotation of the thigh movement (clam), you would have quadrupled the amount of time it takes just to activate the glutes. Considering that many of those movements are performed uni-laterally (one leg at a time), and you are now spending eight times as much time to accomplish the same goal. This is assuming that those movements will ultimately provide the same level of activation, which is unlikely at best for reasons already mentioned.

Sky’s the limit

Once the glutes are active, they can be trained effectively, through a full range of motion, with an assortment of exercises and loading parameters, to get the best results in terms of strength/performance, aesthetic/cosmetic, or relief of back pain. The key point there is ‘an assortment of exercises and loading parameters’, as there is no single exercise that effectively stimulates the glutes throughout the range of motion that they are capable of going through. Various exercises for the glutes, only stimulate them through a limited range of motion. Also worth noting is that the glutes have a mix between slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers, but generally have a higer percentage of slow compared to fast, as they as endurance oriented muscles first, and powerful force generators second. This means that they will respond from both heavy weights, and high reps.

Exercises used to strengthen and develop the glutes can be broken down into three categories: Those that subject the glutes to the greatest stretch and stimulate them most in a lengthened position, those that stimulate them the most in the mid-range (between fully lengthened and shortened), and those that stimulate them the most in their shortest position in which they can generate the strongest contraction.

Those three classifications can be further broken down into two types of movements based on how the body is ‘loaded’: Axial loaded, and anterior/posterior loaded. Movements are not limited to one or the other either, as some may be both axial and anterior/posterior loaded.

Axial loaded movements are ones in which the spine is subjected to compressive forces. Anterior/posterior movements are ones in which the spine is not subjected to compressive forces, but rather shearing forces. Also, axial movements that are combined with anterior/posterior movements are ones in which the spine is subjected to both compressive forces, and shearing forces at different parts of the same movement.

An example of an axial loaded movement would be a squat, because the bar is placed on the back, or a deadlift in which the bar is being held by the hands, while the individual is in an upright position, and therefore the spine is being compressed as the weight pushes/pulls down towards the floor.

Some examples of anterior/posterior loaded movements would be glute bridges, back extensions, reverse hyperextensions, or basically any movement where the load is being placed on the front, or back, or the body.

Thinking of the differences between a bench press and overhead press should help anyone understand the difference between axial and anterior/posterior loaded movements. The overhead press loads the body from top to bottom (axial), where as the bench press loads the body from front to back (anterior/posterior).

Axial loaded movements that stimulate the glutes most in their most lengthened position:

Squats and all their variations

Step-ups and all their variations

Split squats and all their variations

*These movements produce the greatest levels of muscle soreness in the glutes due to the deceleration needed at the completion of the eccentric repetition, and provide the least ‘pump’ in the glutes due to tension being taken off of them at the top of the movement.

Axial and anterior/posterior loaded movement that stimulate the glutes most in the mid-range position:

Deadlifts and all their variations

Good morning variations

*These movements provide less tension on the glutes in the fully stretched position, but increasingly transfer tension onto the glutes as the movement progresses. In the beginning, or bottom, of these lifts, it is the hamstrings that take on a greater percentage of the load, and the glutes come into play more and more to complete the lock-out.

Anterior/posterior loaded movements that stimulate the glutes most in their strongest position:

Glute bridges/hip thrusts and all their variations

Back extensions (45 degree or 90 degree, bent-knee or straight-leg)

Reverse hyperextensions (45 degree or 90 degree, bent-knee or straight-leg)

Quadruped hip extensions (bent-knee or straight-leg)

Glute-ham raise

*These movements provide the glutes with little, to no stretch, but do enable you to keep the glutes under constant tension and also enable you to extend your hips to a greater degree, in a much safer manner, than you can with axial loaded movements. By keeping constant tension on the muscles you prevent oxygen from getting into the muscle (as stated earlier), forcing the fast twitch fibers (which don’t rely on oxygen for energy) to do most of the work (which is ideal for those looking to increase strength/performance and muscular development), and also pump the muscles up more which could open the door to greater development as a result of the effect it has on stretching the surrounding fascia.

**Worth noting is that the hips are capable of hyperextending, although this is not recommended for axial loaded movements as the risk of injury far outweighs the possible benefits of hyperextending the hips while the spine is being compressed. With anterior/posterior loaded movements, the spine is not under compressive forces, so hyperextending the hips increases the amount of tension on the glutes through a greater range of motion without increasing the risk of injury. Hyperextending the hips under tension is one of the only ways to fully stimulate the glutes all the way up to the top where they originate, at the bottom of the lower back. The other notable ways to stimulate the ‘top’ of the glutes are through hip adduction, transverse hip adduction, and external rotation of the thigh. If you want to maximize the development of your glutes to your genetic potential than anterior/posterior loaded movements are of paramount importance and ought to be a part of your routine.

***Also worth noting is that the position of the knee (bent-knee or straight-leg) will dramatically alter the recruitment pattern of the movement. When the knees are bent, the hamstrings are shortened at the knee, and therefore can’t contribute as a hip extensor, but when the legs are straight, the hamstrings are lengthened at the knee, and therefore can contribute powerfully as a hip extensor. With straight legs the hips can hyperextend further than with bent-knee.

Save your ‘ass’ the hassle of paying for therapy treatments to reduce your back pain by strengthening it

The glutes and lats work together through the thoracolumbar fascia to stabilize the spine, and sacroiliac joint. When these muscles are weak, or inactive/inhibited, the lower back is left with the burden of taking on additional stress that it otherwise wouldn’t have to deal with, along with other muscles responsible for similar functions, most notably, the piriformis. By simply strengthening the glutes, and activating them on a regular basis (daily), you are essentially teaching your body to distribute more stress onto them, which alleviates other areas like the lower back, and piriformis, from overworking. If you are experiencing back pain, in the form of sacroiliac joint dysfunction, or piriformis syndrome, amongst other things, blowing money of various forms of therapy will only temporarily relieve the pain. If you fail to address the real reason, which in most cases is a result of weak, inactive/inhibited glutes, your pain will inevitably always come back because of the motor patterns that you have spent your life developing which caused the problem in the first place.

Get to work

By now you know that a set of strong, developed glutes is more than just a ‘nice ass’, and that they are very often limiting factors in physical performance, and also a common cause for many different types of pain that the majority of people experience. You also know that activating these often dormant muscles is of primary importance, because these muscles won’t work just because they’re ‘supposed to’, and once they’re active an assortment of exercises are needed to strengthen and develop these extremely powerful muscles to their capacity, from top to bottom. The only thing left to do at this point is to get into the gym and start practically applying all this information.

If you have any questions about glute activation, or anything regarding the glutes and how to strengthen and develop them, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).


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