How to optimize glute strength & function

Yesterday, I came across this quote and it resonated with me.


I think about this a lot in fitness. We know SO much, but we often lack the understanding to apply it to functional movement.

This often comes into play in how we train for glute strength. We know that weak hips and glutes contribute to low back pain, but we don’t understand what it is about our mechanics that have created this weakness or why it is causing pain in a nearby joint.

We want to protect our backs and build our backend, so we squeeze our butts. Sounds logical, right? Our glutes are now on, so our backs should feel better.

Not quite. The problem is we have more than one glute muscle and each muscle has multiple functions and actions in regard movement. We need to know what is weak and how those muscles respond to load to effectively correct the issue.

If all we do is squeeze our butt throughout exercise, we’re creating a lot of noise in our system, but not functional strength. Yes, our glutes fire, but not in a way that is going to allow our joints to line up with good leverage and minimal compression.

Here’s what’s typically happening to our glutes. Our glute max (particularly the upper fibers) is a big, powerful mover (or global mobilizer).  Its job is to help move us through space. If you create a large, forced contraction (like a squeeze), then your glute max is the muscle responding.

Under the glute max are the smaller glute med and glute min. These muscles are considered stabilizers. This means that their job is to hold our pelvis in good alignment and track our femur or upper leg bones when we move.

Since they are stabilizers, these muscles gradually build tonality in response to the amount of force placed on the joints that they are supporting. They are often inhibited and responsible for poor alignment and joint pain. They respond to low load and can’t be targeted by brute force contraction, bracing or squeezing. I also cover stabilizers in greater detail in this post.

In the case of glute weakness or hip instability, we are typically referring to an issue with the stabilizers. We can have glute weakness for a number of reasons, but it usually relates to how we sit.

Siting for long periods of time alters our mechanics. It causes our hips to stay slightly fixed in hip flexion, which reduces our access hip extension, even once we have left the chair.

This contributes to glute weakness in a few ways. First, our stabilizers don’t have to work when we’re sitting. The hips are already flexed and the chair is holding up our structure. This causes these muscles to check out.

Second, when we do get out of the chair to walk, our structure is now patterned to bias towards hip flexion. This means that when we go to extend our hip behind us, we don’t do it very well. We can still partially recruit our glutes to move us (usually the mobilizers like glute max), but not the way that we should. Our positioning is so poor that our stabilizers aren’t stimulated to come back online to track our joints in good alignment.

When this happens, instead of extending from the hip and using an ideal mix of leverage and muscular power, we’re forced to get our extend from the low back. This is why weak glutes are correlated with low back pain.

To return to the original analogy, squeezing your butt to engage your glutes is like knowing a tomato is a fruit.

You know the butt squeeze falls under the glute engagement category, the same way that a tomato is categorized under fruits.

However, in the same way that there are different types of fruits, there are lots of ways to engage your glutes.

You can use slow sustained contractions during bridges, side leg lifts and eccentrically loaded glute max exercises (video below) to build better movement patterning and glute function.

Typically when we train #glutes we focus on the concentric phase (ex at the end range #squats ). Our ability to eccentrically control or release the glutes is just as important as the concentric phase as it keeps us from compromising the hips and low back. It’s a little like the difference between turning a light on and off or using a dimmer switch. If you want happy stable joints and max performance, you want your #muscles to work like a dimmer switch! Try this move to work the eccentric control of your glutes. As the leg lowers down, focus on slowly releasing the glutes. Make sure that you maintain a neutral pelvis (no arching or tucking) throughout the movement. #selfcare #pilates #lunges #lululemon #athleta #yoga #strengthtraining #lowbackpain #fitness #fitnesswisdom #selflove #igdaily #core

A video posted by Nikki Naab-Levy (@indigokinetics) on

You can hike up steep hills challenge your glutes to fire in diverse ways and to encourage hip extension. You can also practice squatting under various loads without the butt squeeze.

If you turn your attention to how your bones line up, you will actually begin to restore activity to the stabilizers. This gives the glute muscles a chance to fire in the right order, without the upper fibers of glute max immediately taking over and doing the job of the smaller muscles.

Each of these tactics and exercises are a different piece of fruit. All of them, including the butt squeeze, have merit, so the question becomes, “When you design your lower body workout or prep your proverbial fruit salad, what are you going to put in it?” This is where wisdom comes into play.

Assuming you want to build a butt that not only looks good, but also supports your joints, you’re going to want some stability work. You might considering doing bridges, clams and side leg lifts to recruit the lower fibers of glute max as well as glute med and min.

Got sciatic, low back or hip pain? Do your hips click when you work out? These can all be signs of a hip instability and among the weakest muscles are the deep lateral rotators and glute med. The clamshell is a great way to target these muscles, but you have to be precise! When you do this exercise, check that your hips are rolled forward and neutral. As your knee lifts your hip should stay still. It should not roll back or hike up. You should feel engagement in in side and bottom edge of your butt cheek. If you feel work in the front of the leg, top of the hip, or low back, you’re now noticing your body’s common compensatory pattern and that’s probably what it’s doing all the time. Got questions? Ask! 🙂 #clamshell #hippain #kneepain #lowbackpain #sciatica #chronicpain #selfcare #selflove #hipstability #fitness #pilates #wellness #wellnesswarrior #gait #lululemon #pinkhair #glutes

A video posted by Nikki Naab-Levy (@indigokinetics) on

Here’s another technique for activating your glute med using the #bosu Why do we care about this muscle? The glute med is responsible for stabilizing your hip and offsetting internal rotation of the leg when you run, walk #squat ect! If it’s weak, you can be prone to knee pain, hip pain, #backpain and foot pain. I’ve actually demoed two moves in this video. In the first rep, the goal is to isolate the glute med to lift the leg. To do this, make sure hips are stacked and the top knee is in line with your hips. You want to feel the side of your backend activate. Where you shouldn’t feel it is in the low back or on top of/in front of the hip. Also check that your waist doesn’t shorten to lift your leg and that your thigh doesn’t internally rotate. I like to think of letting my knee, not my foot lead the movement. In the second rep, I’ve done an add on, where you extend the knee after lifting the leg. Here you want to make sure you upper thigh isn’t moving. Just the knee will extend. I typically like to do around 6 reps of each. Great exercise to do before a hard workout to get your hips awake or pre #running or #walking


And that butt squeeze? Save it for those days when you’re doing a kettlebell or crossfit workout, you’re working with a max load and you need a max muscular contraction. It’s not that the butt squeeze doesn’t have value. It’s just that you’ll get more out of it and keep the compression out of your low back if you use it with the right recipe.

On a final note, let’s say you’re new to fitness programming and you’ve been using the glute squeeze in all of your exercise meals. My hope is that this post doesn’t make you feel bad or silly about it. We don’t know what we don’t know. I cued squeeze your glutes for a long time before I realized there was a more effective way of training.

Wisdom takes experience, time and practice. You’ll get there if you keep asking questions and trying new things. In the meantime, don’t be afraid to make a weird salad.

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