One of the hottest topics of discussion in the fitness industry recently has been centered on how to optimize glute function. As we begin to recognize the massive role this muscle group plays in most movement, it is no wonder that it is one of the largest muscle groups in the human body. The glutes are heavily involved in movements like the golf swing, throwing and striking actions along with running, jumping and direction changes. This huge posterior power center is in many ways the key to producing smooth and powerful movement.
Before we look at how to optimize their function we must first understand how they act in normal movement if they are contributing properly. If we were to look into any anatomy text we would be sure to find the following:
Ilium (posterior crest) Sacrum (posterior) Lumbar Fascia
On the surface this chart seems to sum up the glutes as a group. It covers where they start and finish, what joint they cross and what they do. The reality is that this is only the beginning of the true picture and in many ways is somewhat misleading as to how the glutes actual function. While they certainly can perform all of the actions described above, a more important piece of information is what they actually do in day to day function.
How do they do it? From which position do they move from? Do they act in a primarily eccentric or concentric way? What actions do the glutes use to load in order to truly explode?
It is this final point that potentially has the most bearing on our approach to activate them so that they are truly firing at full capacity. One of the most important characteristics to understand about every muscle is that they have to load in all three planes of motion before they can unload maximally. The human body has evolved in such a way as to capitalize on the unwavering affect of gravity to assist it in this function. This is especially true for the glutes and we need only look as far as a simple step for proof.
While our anatomy chart provides us an excellent overview of how the glutes act concentrically and in an open kinetic chain, it fails to take into consideration that one of the primary functions of the group is to eccentrically decelerate the forces generated by gravity and ground reaction. The following is an example of how the body is designed to load the glutes in three planes of motion.
As the foot strikes the ground, the impact force causes the calcaneous to roll inward into eversion setting off a chain reaction that goes all the way up the leg.
The talus that sits on top of the calcaneous has no choice but to fall down and in.
This causes the tibia (that sits on top of it) to internally rotate.
This movement also drives the femur into internal rotation to an extent that even though the action of pelvis would create external rotation, the femur is rotating in the same direction faster which causes this internal rotation in the hip.
This chain reaction of shock absorption continues up into the pelvis and through the body but we will stop for now at the hip.
The strong and fast internal rotation of the femur must be decelerated eccentrically by the function of the glute. As this is happening, the hip is also going through adduction and flexion, both of which further load the glutes, demanding them to decelerate these actions as well. At this point in gait it is safe to say that the glutes have been stretched and loaded eccentrically in all three planes of motion and should be in a very excited state and ready to fire.
So what if they don't?
A common approach is to lie down and, using a focused and cognitive isolation method, work the glutes through all of their concentric actions. While this will certainly fire the glutes, it will not necessarily translate into normal function in a standing position as everything changes when your foot hits the ground. This means that while an exercise may be effective for increasing strength and causing a burn, it does not necessarily equate to the increased coordinative function and timing that the body uses in natural movement.
So how can we train this functionally?
Our strategy is seeded in our understanding of how the glutes load naturally and capitalizing on this natural reaction by emphasizing one or more of these elements. We know that in gait the glutes load eccentrically in three planes of motion.
Internal rotation of the hip in the transverse plane.
Flexion of the hip in the sagittal plane.
Adduction of the hip in the frontal plane.
It is important to note that all of these actions occur in a closed kinetic chain environment with the foot on the ground. So how can we accentuate these actions to increase the natural loading? By using other parts of our body to drive us further into these positions, accentuating the load and forcing the "proprioceptors to turn the muscle on".
Let's take the common lunge as an example. Traditionally this exercise is done with the torso in as upright a position as possible with hands either on hips, holding dumbbells at sides or holding a bar on shoulders. Regardless of the implement or the load, the torso has most always been coached to stay upright and positioned over the hips.
Our goals are simple.
Increase internal rotation of the hip.
Increase flexion of the hip.
Increase lateral flexion of the pelvis.
If we are trying to accentuate glute loading, we can achieve this by adapting the traditional lunge using a bilateral reach with the hands toward the ground as though we were lunging forward to pick something up that is in front of our lunging leg. This reach drives the pelvis to rotate forward and increases hip flexion. This action increases the stretch or loading of the glutes and causes them to forcefully and eccentrically decelerate the movement which also results in a more forceful explosion out of the lunge with reach position. We can increase loading further by adding resistance such as a medicine ball or light dumbbells.
Lunge with Forward Reach We can apply the same technique using a different arm driver to accentuate the frontal plane load in the lunge. In this case we are trying to increase adduction of the hip of the stepping leg by increasing the lateral flexion of the pelvis. Take a lunge step forward with the right leg. As the foot hits the ground, reach as far to the side with the left arm as possible at hip height. This reach will cause a displacement of the center of gravity which is countered by a lateral flexion of the pelvis. This increases the adduction of the lead leg, putting the glutes under stretch, increasing the demands on them to decelerate the movement and loading them more effectively.
Lunge with Side Reach We could achieve the same effect by using a leg driver in a crossing balance lunge.
Crossing Balance Lunge Increasing internal rotation of the hip using an arm driver can be achieved simply by rotating into the lead leg during the lunge.
Lunge with Rotational Reach Another strategy is to use an unstable surface during a normal lunge such as an Airex pad which will increase the amplitude and challenge of the initial pronation that is described earlier. This causes an even greater chain reaction up the chain to the internal rotation of the hip above.
We can use similar techniques from a squat stance to help increase the loading of the glutes from this position.
Squat with Rotational Reach and with Side Reach Below is a simple exercise plan that lists the exercises outlined above and puts them into a basic structure. Be sure to start with a single set and light load before progressing.
Lunge with Forward Reach
1 to 2
10 to 12
Lunge with Side Reach
1 to 2
10 to 12
Crossing Balance Lunge
1 to 2
10 to 12
Lunge with Rotational Reach
1 to 2
10 to 12
1 to 2
10 to 12
Squat with Rotational Reach
1 to 2
10 to 12
Squat with Side Reach
1 to 2
10 to 12
Now that we have got the glutes firing to full capacity, our end goal is to bring this neuromuscular learning back to regular function. We can do this by slowly approximating our drivers back until we are getting the same peak activation without the assistance of the drivers. Once we have discovered the amplitude required to fully activate our target muscle successfully, we need to gradually reduce this amplitude over time until we are able to perform the basic actions while still maintaining good glute involvement. We can look at this process of approximation using the Crossing Balance Lunge as an example. If driving the free leg as far to the other side of the ground leg in a deep lunge causing a much exaggerated lateral flexion of the pelvis is on one end of the continuum, driving the free leg straight back which results in very average pelvic lateral flexion is on the other. The key is to start at the one end of the continuum (in this case the lateral leg driver) and slowly work toward the other.
To begin, we might have to drive the foot far to the other side of the ground leg in a deep lunge to feel the kind of activation that we are looking for. As we progress, we should slowly use more oblique angles until we are able to get full activation even when driving the leg straight back. The effectiveness of this type of training is tremendous, not only in activating the target areas but also in increasing range of motion, strength and balance for you and your athletes.