When people come to visit me, whether it is in my studio or in one of my Pilates classes, one thing that they have often been told previously is that they have ‘weak glutes’. These ‘weak glutes’ often get lumbered with the blame for a number of different symptoms: Lower back pain, Knee pain, Ankle instability, ‘Pronation’ of the foot etc. Often we are told we need to ‘strengthen’ our glutes to bring good function back to the body and more importantly in the hope that it might resolve some of these issues.
In this article I am going to look at why you may get more benefit from taking a different approach rather than simply attempting to ‘strengthen’ your glutes.
Before I begin it is important to bear in mind that there are a number of reasons one’s glutes may appear ‘weak’. In my experience as a manual Therapist and teaching Specialist Pilates classes apparent ‘weak’ glutes could include the following reasons:
It is always worth considering why we may have apparent ‘weak’ glutes. Without founding out a potential cause of this ‘weakness’, we are unlikely to make much difference by simply going straight for strengthening exercises.
In this article I am focusing only on the mis-firing glute pattern.
Your Gluteus Maximus (Glute Max) is responsible for a movement called hip flexion (kicking your leg behind you). There are other movements it is responsible for, however for the sake of this article I will focus only on the action of hip extension.
When you perform a hip extension move (think of every time your leg goes behind you when you walk) the muscles should fire up in a particular order. That order is:
2.Hamstring (This can however go at the same time as Glute Max)
3.Opposite side lower back
4.Same side lower back
This basically means the Glute Max should do most of the work. Imagine now if that pattern was different and the Glute Max wasn’t going first. Imagine if it was the opposite side of the lower back for example. That means every time we move into hip extension the lower back on the opposite side is doing most of the work and if you think we take on average around 10,000 steps a day, that means 10,000 times the lower back is working too much.
So what could the result be if this is going on? Mostly commonly it will be lower back pain, but with an apparent ‘weak’ glute muscle. From this test we can see it may not be weak, it could just appear weak due to the muscle firing pattern.
Here’s how you can try the test yourself (you will need a partner):
1.Lay face down on the ground with legs straight.
2.Get your partner to place you finger on your hamstring and with the same hand place the thumb on your glute max (to the side and below your belt is good).
3.Your partner then places their hand flat across your lower back.
4.Keep your leg straight and lift slowly up.
5.Your partner identifies in which order the feel the muscles ‘work’.
There are many options to look at if your glutes appear not to be firing in the correct order (far too many for this article). One potential option would be to perform an MET for the antagonist muscles of the glutes. These could include:
This is simple test and MET’s can be very useful but please remember it doesn’t always tell us the full picture. For more in depth I would recommend having a good for “The Vital Glutes” by John Gibbons.
Give the test a go and let us know how you get on and as always if you need any help just let us know.
Gibbons, J: The Vital Glutes 2014 p69-71
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About the author
My name is Alex Moore & I'm a Manual Therapist & Pilates instructor who works across the south of England. My manual therapy covers a range of different disciplines which include: Massage, Biomechanics & Pilates. I work with a range of clients, who suffer with a range of different issues such as Back pain, Sciatica, Frozen shoulder, Hip bursitis, plantar fasciitis & more.
I work from my home studio in Poole and also hold Pilates classes around Corfe Mullen, Broadstone, Poole, Wareham, Bearwood & Wimborne.
Pilates Instructor & Therapist, helping you understand why we do what we do!