In recent years, the use of strength band and rehab-style exercises have become popular in both gym and athletic settings.
Proponents suggest that these low-level exercises are used to "switch-on" underactive muscles, thereby improving body position and posture, reducing the likelihood of injury, and retraining the muscle to fire correctly.
On paper it sounds like a great idea, and it looks the part, too. But solely relying on glute activation drills isn't going to restore your glutes back to optimal function. Here's why.
Are Your Glutes Asleep?
Termed "glute amnesia" by some, decreased or delayed Gluteus Maximus (GMX) and Gluteus Medius (GMD) activation can be a common occurrence among individuals. Modern lifestyle factors are thought to contribute to these deficiencies, while previous injury has also demonstrated to play a role in their dysfunction. For example, GMX activation problems may stem from chronic sitting patterns and sleeping in the hip and knee flexed position. These positions are likely to cause adaptive shortening of the hip flexors and hamstrings.
According to Sherrington's law of reciprocal inhibition, hip flexor overactivity could cause a reflexive relaxation of the gluteal muscles. Professor Stuart McGill has also suggested that chronic low-back pain tends to inhibit the glutes as hip extensors. These problems may be further attenuated when the hamstrings show signs of overactivity, leading to a synergistic dominance of the hamstrings over the glutes as the primary hip extensors.
Adaptive lengthening of the GMD can also be caused by chronic sleeping positions, such as resembling the recovery position that many side-sleepers revert to. The habit of standing with body weight predominantly on one leg can also be an issue, as the pelvis is swayed sideways with the hip joint further adducted.
Interestingly, glute dysfunction has been shown to have a cause-and-effect relationship to an injury of the joints and tissues entailing and surrounding the lumbopelvic-hip complex, as well as those occurring at more distal (situated farther away from the center of the body) joints. When palpating the glutes after lower extremity injury, it's not uncommon to find faulty activation patterns or weakness, although whether this was a contributing cause or an aftereffect of injury is often unclear.
Glutes in the Gym
Targeted glute workouts are becoming increasingly popular in mainstream gyms. There are more people than ever Bridging, Thrusting and throwing mini band routines into their workouts. Correctly executed or not, a nation of stronger glute muscles can only be a good thing.
The gluteal muscles are the primary hip extensors, external rotators and abductors. Dysfunction can result in decreased motor unit activation, changes in muscle firing patterns, and reduced strength and stability around the lumbopelvic-hip complex. Because of their important role, any dysfunction will likely result in a significant decrease in both athletic and day-to-day activities.
The association between glute strength and preventing low-back pain is another consideration, although a whole article could be devoted to that subject entirely.
Despite a more glute-aware gym population, it's still quite common to see movement errors associated with weak glutes. Even with proper exercise instruction, these can include developing a valgus (collapsed) knee position during Squat movements. In Split-Squat variations, you may see the hip-hiked position we mentioned earlier, coupled with a slight knee valgus in the front leg. This may be evident more in women than men, and it puts unnecessary stress on the knees.
In explosive-type exercises, we also see these movement faults. For example, the catch position in Olympic lifts, Jump Squats, Box Jumps or even simple landing drills. Of course, we can't say that every person has a case of glute amnesia, but we do know glute strengthening and positional awareness drills can resolve a lot of these problems.
Glutes and Sports Speed
Maximizing the available force of the hip extensors is important to a number of sport-related tasks, including sprinting, jumping and throwing. For example, during sprinting, peak vertical forces remain unchanged once a person exceeds 70% of maximal running velocity. The continued increase in speed from there on is only due to the continued rise of horizontal forces (Brughelli et al 2011). It may be suggested that as the primary hip extensors, the glutes play a large role in developing hip extension velocity during the stance phase, thus determining propulsion.
Along with several other factors, maximal activation and correct sequencing of the gluteal muscles would ensure optimal sprinting performance. Furthermore, at higher running speeds, GMX activation can exceed 100% maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) (Kryolainen et al 2005), therefore highlighting the importance of the GMX within sprinting performance.
The sequencing and timing of GMX activation during first-step acceleration may pay close resemblance to that of jumping, particularly jumping in a horizontal direction. Most studies have found a proximal to distal sequencing of muscles at the initiation of jumping tasks, beginning with the GMX and ending with the ankle plantar flexors.
These activation patterns point to the existence of the speed principle, considered by some to have the likeness to a whipping action. Essentially, a segment initiates its movement when the adjacent proximal segment reaches its maximum angular velocity (e.g., the hip reaches its maximum angular velocity just before the knee reaching its maximum angular velocity). If the timing of a joint segment is out, potentially due to an energy 'leak' at a certain segment due to a weakness, then performance will be compromised. Your glutes are a large link in that chain, so if they have a problem, then you have a big one!
From what we've already covered, we know that the glutes are important, and we know they can often show weakness or under-activity. However, are glute activation exercises a viable solution?
Are Your Glute Activation Drills Really Working?
Glute activation drills are a common component in the warm-ups of athletes and are often prescribed by personal trainers and rehab specialists to their clients. Some of the most common drills include forward and sideways walks with bands around the knees or ankles, side-lying clams, and low-load glute bridge variations.
The idea that performing 5-10 minutes of these drills at the start of a workout will magically switch on your glutes is a novel one. In theory, it makes sense that if certain muscles have shut off a little, you spend a few minutes at the start of your workout waking them up and teaching them how to fire correctly. But unfortunately, muscle physiology is a little more complex than this.
What is essentially going on is more of a pre-fatigue effect, which might help someone become more aware of that muscle working when integrated into larger controlled movements such as squatting. In an uncontrollable environment, however, such as on a sports field, it's highly doubtful an athlete will have time to focus on their glute awareness. Although if the sports coach would like to continually shout cues to their athletes to contract their glutes, that's their choice!
From a muscle activation standpoint, it's been shown that pre-fatiguing a muscle will often result in higher muscle activation in synergist muscle groups, rather than the muscle you're specifically targeting. Feeling your glutes on fire and getting a localized muscle pump might make you feel that muscle a little more, but that does not result in increased muscle activation or performance.
Looking to research on Postactivation Potentiation (PAP), we know that for muscle performance to be increased from a pre-contraction of sorts, a specific environment needs to be created. Potentiation is considered the opposite of fatigue, with the more fatiguing the protocol, the higher the chance muscle performance will be impaired rather than increased. Potentiation and fatigue coexist, and it's the balance of the two that determines a performance increase or decrease. The goal of a so-called activation drill should be to maximize potentiation whilst minimizing fatigue.
PAP research clearly shows that in order to achieve this, a near maximal load must be used, such as 85% 1RM or above and 6 repetitions or fewer. Strict rest times must also be adhered to, as well as several other factors considered. Using these types of protocols, muscle performance can often be increased by 5% or more. Common glute activation routines cannot be further from these protocols, as they're really more fatiguing in nature and utilize loads that aren't nearly heavy enough to potentiate a muscle.
As poetic the idea is of using glute activation drills to instantly 'switch on' underactive muscles, unfortunately there's no magic going on. Despite what you feel is going on your glutes will not instantly wake up, and muscle performance will likely not be increased. This isn't to say they're useless.
There's nothing wrong with a glute activation routine at the start of a workout, especially if it's used to teach muscle awareness and help re-wire neural pathways over time (termed myelination). There are many excellent coaches and trainers who recommend them. Just don't expect any magical results in terms of activation from them.
What's the Solution?
To increase the efficacy of these drills, volume and fatigue should be minimized in place of the extra load. For example, use fewer repetitions, more rest and thicker bands. Don't chase the burn, chase the potentiation. Here are some of my favorite options:
The best solution, however, is a boring one. Glute weakness should be dealt with by getting stronger glutes, ensuring good hip mobility and core stability. Feel free to isolate the glutes as part of a structured routine, but the focus should always be on exercises such as heavy Glute Bridges, Hip Thrusts, deep Squats and high Step-Ups.
For athletic performance these key strength movements have an excellent transfer, but you could help that transition by integrating the glutes into things such as heavy Sled Pushes and resisted skipping drills to realize that transfer even further.
The glutes are very important for several reasons, including performance and injury prevention. There does seem to be a problem associated with glute weakness, although so-called glute activation drills are likely not the instant cure they're made out to be. You can include some low-level activation work to help "re-wire" the neural pathways over time, but there is no substitute for getting the glute's strong and powerful!
Photo Credit: kali9/iStock
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