Are Your Glutes Working Properly?

Buns Of Steel: Are Your Glutes Working Properly? w/ Dr. Jon Herting
Origionally posted at Break Parallel by Misbah Haque

If you were to sit in the bottom of a squat, can you squeeze your glutes? It’s amazing how hard this is and how common it is to not be able to do this.

Today I’d like to get Dr. Jon Herting’s opinion on exactly

What happens when your glutes aren’t working appropriately?
How we can spot underactive glutes?
What progressions we can use to recoordinate your glutes?

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience with CrossFit and Weightlifting athletes.

Thanks, Misbah! I am a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a Certified Strength and Conditioning coach. I am also a certified Health Fitness Specialist, Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization Certified Exercise Trainer and am certified in the Functional Movement Screen, Selective Functional Movement Assessment, Functional Range Conditioning and Functional Range Release. I have a background in Postural Restoration Institute methodologies.

I have been involved in and around CrossFit since 2007 when athletes were taking workouts off the main page and you didn’t have to scroll down to see the number of affiliates. I am also certified as a Sports Performance Coach through USA Weightlifting and have had the honor of serving on their medical team for Junior Nationals this past February. I support CrossFit athletes at numerous local events yearly.

I stay very current in continuing education and have taken courses in all of the most current soft tissue techniques and training philosophies so that I can best treat athletes merging principles of several different philosophies for improved patient outcomes.  

I have also developed and taught a 1-day, 8 hour CEU approved course entitled Evaluation of the Olympic Lifting Athlete that has been presented to personal trainers, physical therapists and chiropractors.

What can happen if you have underactive glutes? (performance, pain, etc)

Gluteal amnesia is currently a buzzword in performance and rehab settings. The fact is, our glutes never “shut off” and they are always working to extend our hips and keep us upright against gravity. The trick is are we using them appropriately?

Unfortunately, due to several factors including sitting for extended periods, certain people tend to fall into compensatory movement patterns where their glutes do not become the primary muscle group for hip extension.

This leads to problems with foundational movement patterns including hip hinging and squatting. When this occurs people will overuse surrounding muscle groups to perform basic human movement patterns.

When we lose the ability to hip hinge and eccentrically load the hamstrings and glutes people will often tend to overuse their back musculature to pull weights from the floor leading to low back pain.

The glutes are the strongest and largest group of muscles in the body, we should always be using them to safely and efficiently perform a task.

During hip extension or any other action you feel is really common in CrossFit, what role do the glutes play in firing patterns?

Again, glute max is one of the largest and strongest muscles in the body and should be the primary hip extensor during squatting and hip hinging activities.

In Weightlifting and CrossFit, I often see low back strains and soft tissue injuries that are a product of an athlete’s poor ability to maintain a neutral spine position. This leads to poor hip position during both pulling and squatting and subsequent low back muscle dominance to compensate for poor hip position and decreased ability to utilize their glutes to perform hip extension.

Often by teaching proper low back and hip position while promoting spine sparing techniques, an athlete’s pain can quickly be resolved in these situations.

What does it realistically look like in most of the people you get to work with?

Most Crossfitters I work with have not prepared themselves appropriately to handle the load and repetitions of the complex lifts. This leads to chronic tendonitis type symptoms as well as acute muscle strains.

Most Weightlifters I work with are strong enough to compensate through their training, but because their training repetitions are generally lower, they deal with less chronic tendonitis type symptoms.

I say this because as stated above, many of these athletes do fall into compensatory muscle firing patterns that lead with their low back to stabilize, pull and extend hips.

In my opinion, a good lift starts with proper trunk and pelvic position and stabilization. Most injuries in these athletes are due to poor trunk control which leads to low back paraspinal dominance and poor glute control in their lifts.

What’s a good measuring stick to figure out if your glutes are underactive?

Can you touch your toes and perform a hip hinge to wall movement pattern without pain?

In my practice, if a patient cannot touch their toes with the ability to shift their hips behind their heels they are not allowed to pull from the floor. If a patient has trouble doing this then I will have them stand about a foot from a wall with their toes facing forward. As they reach forward, they should be able to maintain a flat low back while shifting their hips back to touch the wall.

If they cannot do this, then I will regress them back to glute dominant bridge and hip thrust progressions.

I’m a huge believer in being able to consciously use your glutes in the bottom of a squat, coming out of a squat, pulling off the floor, etc. Is this something people should work towards? Should you be able to have control of your glutes throughout the full range of motion in a squat?

Yes, I believe that we should have both conscious and reflexive control of our glutes through all positions. There will be both advantageous and non-advantageous positions for optimal glute contraction though our awareness of glute firing patterns is something that all athletes should be aware of.

There can be a lot of value in tempo lifts and isometric holds at certain positions where you may feel you lose glute centered pelvic and trunk control. Stability is position specific. Concentrating on the areas of the lift you feel you lose control and holding tension at these positions can expedite results and lessen energy leaks through the kinetic chain.

What are some ways to recoordinate, reactivate, and strengthen the glutes?

The first step I use in helping a patient tap into their glutes is finding out their hip position and helping them achieve an improved position to progress them from. Without a stable, congruent joint position you won’t have a stable foundation to lift from.

I believe if you don’t truly know the position of someone’s hips, then they may not be positioned appropriately to achieve optimal glute muscle contraction and control. To help them achieve a proper position you can use any number of soft tissue release techniques and chosen “activation” drills which will vary from person to person.

Once in a good position I will typically take someone through a progression that may look like this.

  • Bridge Variation
  • Side Bridge Variation
  • Quadruped Variation
  • ½ Kneeling Variation
  • Tall kneeling Variation
  • Rack-Pulls or Kettlebell Deadlifts from elevation
  • Progressing through Kettlebell Deadlift variations working towards the bar.

It is important to have a graded and systematic progression and to not haphazardly progress a patient through random exercises. This way we can continue to load an individual through training to see training progress while learning glute re-coordination and strength.