Can’t activate your glutes ? here’s what you need to know and do

Gluteal amnesia, lazy glutes, my glutes don’t fire or I cant activate my glutes. Does this sound familiar ?

These are common phrases we come across daily but is there any truth in this phenomenon and do activation exercises actually help ?

In recent years these phrases has been thrown around to describe muscles that aren’t “firing” properly when people exercise or are in pain . This “observation” seems to be made despite the  absence of any real scientific assessment of the individuals muscle activity. As renowned coach and and movement specialist Vern Gambetta points out ” if they ain’t firing you ain’t moving”. 

What can cause the glutes “not to fire”?

The following potential causes of this gluteal strength dysfunction were identified by Alison Grimaldi in her blog

  • Nerve supply to the glutes being disrupted.  Very Rare cause

The gluteal muscles are supplied by the L4 / L5  and S1 nerve roots. If there is a compressive lesion around these nerve roots then this could affect the ability of the muscles to fire. However it would most likely affect all muscles supplied by that level. This may be a presentation we would see in more serious spinal related conditions that are maybe compressive in nature e.g large disc protrusion.

  • Rupture of the gluteal tendons. Uncommon cause 

If there is a large tear in the gluteal tendons then there is diminished ability of those muscles to exert any force on the hip joint. This may give the appearance of underactive or non firing muscles. In actual fact its mechanical unable to perform its function. This may require a surgical opinion.

  • Pain or swelling  in the hip joint. Common cause 

Gambetta makes the analogy that when a person is injured then the body looks to its “reserve players” to help play the game .  Part of  injury management is about bringing the main players back into the team. This means redressing the strength and endurance deficits as well as the  coordination of the muscles that help perform an activity.

  •  Lack of stimulus ,lack of use:  Most likely cause 

The prime villain and most likely culprit in your gluteal woes is losing it by not using it. If the muscle isn’t asked to work hard then it won’t . As a consequence it will get weaker and atrophy. The glutes need to work in a weightbearing situation  to get the most out of them.

When it comes to glute activation / glute strength It’s not only what you do but how you do it that counts.

So if lack of stimulus is the most likely candidate then how do we change this ?

  • optimize the hip range of movement. 

If the hip can’t extend due to stiffness in the joint or tight/overactive hip extensors then the glutes don’t need to be as active So we need to address this lack of range first. Simple hip flexor mobility and stretching exercises are the obvious solution.

  •  Its how you do your exercises that may count.

Chances are if you are doing leg strengthening exercises then how you execute the movement is almost more                  important than the movement you choose. More often than not we see people that have picked the right exercise but are unaware of how to execute it. These 2 cues can often work a treat:

  •  Think about ” pushing the world away” with your feet as you extend your hips and knees.
  •  A slight lean forward at your trunk will increase the demand placed on the gluteal muscles forcing them to get      in on the act. Especially useful in single leg squat and step ups.

Here are the top 4 exercises for gluteal recruitment  or glute activation.

 

What about Glute activation exercises in warm ups, do they work ?

The purpose of a warm-up before exercise or sport is to prepare the body for the upcoming activity and maximise performance. The warm-up is often includes a ‘activation’ exercises which are thought to promote and improve the recruitment of specific muscle groups.

It has been thought that by performing these low intensity body weight exercises may be beneficial in “waking up ” or “priming” the nervous system for more demanding activities such as running , weightlifting or beginning training for sports.

As such there has been increasing interest and inclusion of activation exercises into individuals warm ups in the gym and sports field in recent years.

Is there any evidence to support using glute activation exercises in your warm up?

Most of the research appears to have been done looking at targeting the power generating hip muscles or glutes. This is because they are integral in effective movement and maximum power development for activities such as running , jumping ,changing direction. Also they play a role in the prevention of hip, knee and ankle injuries.

 Activation exercises and injury reduction.

One study demonstrated that there was a trend towards reducing the classic “valgus” knee position that is often implicated in many ankle knee and hip injuries. Despite the results being non -significant in a research sense these small changes may help with preventing unnecessary non -contact injuries.

ACL & Knee ligament injuries | Arana Hills Physiotherapy

Could activation exercises have helped here ?

The exercises they used were :

  • single leg squat.
  • Hip extension in a plank position.
  • side plank with hip extension.

 

Activation exercises and performance improvement .

In another study looked at a specific activation warm using 7 exercises in 30 Aussie rules football players and how it affected their jumping ability.

The study found that there was a 4% improvement in their jumping ability when using this type of warm up. However this was not as good as when the players used higher load type exercises in their warm up.

Also the more highly trained the individual the less benefit they seemed to get from them.

Contrary to that study are others that have shown little to no benefit from including these exercises into the warm up for competitive sports.

Should you include glute activation exercises in your warm up ?

The million dollar question and the answer is … it depends.

My takeaways are as follows:

  • Optimize hip movement and movement patterns first to get maximum glute involvement.
  • It would appear that activation type exercises have a small  benefit.
  •  standard heavy load exercises in getting muscles firing. think squats , single leg squats , step ups and deadlifts.
  • Personally i am a proponent of making sure any warm up exercises are specific and closely related to the main activity to be performed.
  • The further away exercises are from a movement or activity then the smaller the impact they will have on the main event so to speak.

However if you feel they are working then where is the harm and maybe that’s the most important factor.

If you feel your glutes aren’t firing or have other hip related issues then you book in to see one of the team here .

Dave

1)Parr MPrice PDCleather DJ: Effect of a gluteal activation warm-up on explosive exercise performance

2)Crow, Justin F; Buttifant, David; Kearny, Simon G; Hrysomallis, :Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 2012 – Volume 26 – Issue 2 – p 438-442

3)Cochrane DJ, Harnett MC, Pinfold SC. Does short-term gluteal activation enhance muscle performance? Res Sports Med. 2017 Apr-Jun;25(2):156-165.

4)Gambetta V: Muscles firing , where is the switch ?

5) Grimaldi A: gluteal-underactivity-the-quest-for-goldilocks-glutes-part-1

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