Interesting story that supports the idea that "sitting is the new smoking". I agree that the gluteal muscles are very important and often misunderstood. The author does a great job of explaining the function and benefits of glute training.
I see people on a weekly basis with a range of injuries that are due, at least in part, to their weak, inhibited or misfiring gluteal muscles. The main culprits are:
1. Gluteus maximus (Gmax)
This is the biggest butt muscle, and its job is to extend, abduct and externally rotate the thigh in the hip joint.
This muscle can become lazy, demonstrating a delayed contraction or in severe cases, complete inhibition. The ramifications this can have are massive.
For a start, this places additional stress on the other muscles, which share some of its functions. The hamstrings often become overworked and tight, predisposing them to strains. The TFL and other hip rotators also have to work overtime. This can lead to sciatica, IT band syndrome and patella maltracking issues.
Work your way up instead of down and the lats also try to compensate for an inefficient glute max. They contract harder and longer to tighten the thoracolumbar fascia (band of connective tissue in the lower back) from the top, where Gmax isn't doing so from the bottom.
If the lats get tight, shoulder pain can ensue. Where the thoracolumbar fascia isn't tight enough to support the lumbar spine, the paraspinal muscles become tense as they overwork to do the job of a much larger muscle.
Gmax is often known as the "powerhouse" of the hip. It is the largest and strongest muscle, which is capable of producing large forces to propel us forward in our walking and running cycles.
If its function is diminished, we have to get that power from elsewhere. The hamstrings help out, but many of us will rely increasingly on our calf muscles to push us forward from the ankle. The calves aren't designed for such high-intensity work and so often become tight and painful, possibly even developing calf strains or Achilles issues.
2. Gluteus medius (Gmed)
The second-largest butt muscle, its main job is to abduct the hip joint — both in standing and nonweight-bearing. It does, however, assist other muscles in rotating the hip in either direction.
Weakness in Gmed is most commonly known for causing knee alignment issues. Where it is weak, it allows the knee to fall inward into a valgus position. This places stress on the medial aspect of the joint, potentially contributing to issues such as medial meniscus (cartilage) degeneration and osteoarthritis. It can also be the cause of patella misalignment, which is often known as patellofemoral pain syndrome and can lead to chondromalacia patellae and even patella subluxation and dislocation.
Similarly to above, the weakness of Gmed means other muscles work overtime — TFL, for example, which can develop painful trigger points and radiate pain into the lower limb.
I have had issues with both of these muscles. They developed over time, initially as a lazy student, sitting around a lot and not doing much in the way of exercise, further compounded by five years in a desk job. This resulted in tight hip flexor muscles and an inhibited Gmax.
The problems started to become apparent when I took up running. I would always struggle with tight calf muscles, even on a short 2-mile run. They would gradually tighten up and never ease off. They rarely stopped me running, but they were uncomfortable and certainly slowed me down.
Despite this, I signed up for a half-marathon. Training went OK up until the last three or four weeks prior to the race. I started to get lateral hip pains and stiffness to the point I could only just lift my hips high enough for my feet to clear the ground. I completed the race, albeit very slowly and in a lot of discomfort. This was eight years ago.
After that disheartening experience, I stopped running. I don't think I made a conscious decision that I wasn't going to run anymore, I just wasn't enjoying it and so naturally stopped going out and started exercising in other ways.
I was working at a health club at the time, so the gym is where I ended up exercising. I also took up field hockey again and while, yes, this involves running, the short, sharp bursts felt comfortable to me.
In the last few years, I have become a lot more involved in weight training, and I really enjoy it. Gone are the days of slogging away on a cross trainer, rower or static bike.
I love the way that lifting weights makes me feel. Strong, in control — and, I'll admit it, a bit sexy!
I also love the way it's changed my body. I can see muscles and more defined lines than ever before — even when I weighed in at a measly 112 pounds (I'm now 140). I don't look masculine; I just look fit and strong. But as well as my appearance and confidence, weights have also improved my mechanics.
I've worked a lot on my glutes for two reasons. One is pure vanity — who doesn't want a great-looking, toned, firm butt? But also, because I realized that my previous hip and calf issues were due to poorly firing Gmax and a weak Gmed.
I've worked a lot on glute activation exercises — basically forcing the Gmax to contract by isolating it as much as possible. I've worked on nonweight-bearing Gmed exercises such as the clam and hip abduction, moving onto weight-bearing versions such as hip hitches and single-leg squats.
I now consciously squeeze my glutes when performing any exercise — be it squats, leg press, lunges, even upper body work — to help stabilize my pelvis and support my lower back. I am now aware of my glutes working throughout the day even when not consciously thinking to contract them.
And here's how I know it's worked:
My husband, in his infinite wisdom, decided to enter us for a charity 10K race that his workplace was sponsoring. We had not done any running for three years and had all of seven weeks to train from scratch. I am not condoning this short preparation period at all, so please don't copy his example. We are both fit and were aiming just to complete it — under an hour was an aim, but it wasn’t important.
We trained twice a week, working up from a couple of kilometers, up to 8.5 km as our longest prerace distance. Throughout this time, I felt pretty good. I had absolutely no calf pain or tension when running (a couple of instances of DOMS, but that's different), and my hips felt strong and flexible.
We completed the race in a time of 54:32, which I was over the moon with. I have continued to run since and am really enjoying it. Previously, it felt uncomfortable, painful even, and every kilometer went by so slowly. I never looked forward to a run like I do now.
While this is specifically an example of glute retraining helping with running technique, I do believe that every individual should make sure their glutes are working in tip-top form.
It's not only helped with my running, but I also experience fewer lower backaches, niggling knee pains and shoulder tension than I used to. I'm sure there are other reasons and exercises that have contributed to this, but as outlined above, the glutes can certainly help prevent all of these problems.
About the Author
Heidi Dawson is a graduate sports rehabilitator based in the United Kingdom. She runs two successful sports injury clinics and the injury website Rehab4Runners