The forgotten backside
What’s the deal with glute activation? Is it just one of those trendy terms that us strength and conditioning folk throw around, or does it actually carry some weight? In this post, we are going to look at what glute activation is, why it’s important, and how it can increase your performance.
Why would you possibly need to activate your glutes before performing an exercise? It seems pretty silly, right? If the muscle is there, you would think it would turn on automatically. But that’s not the case because of a few simple words: altered reciprocal inhibition. Sounds fancy, but it really is very simple. Essentially, you want one side of the joint firing, while the other is turned off. But for several reasons, our bodies are having trouble activating the right side of the joint. For one, we live in a society where people are becoming less active and spending more time sitting at a desk. All of that sitting causes the hip flexors to be very active and to shorten/tighten and the glutes to lengthen and become inhibited. The hip flexor (front of the joint) is activated when it should not be, sending signals to the brain to inhibit the glutes (back of the joint) from firing. For an even simpler visual, picture your biceps and triceps. When the biceps are working/contracting, the triceps are relaxing to allow the biceps to function. The same should be true for the glutes and hip flexors. When we reverse the signal, we cause all sorts of issues.
As far as athletes go, tight hip flexors are very common in long distance runners because they rarely use 2 of their hip flexors (the psoas and the ilacus). These hip flexors are responsible for hip flexion over 90 degrees, but distance runners tend to shuffle more than drive the knee up like sprinters. Their knee will never reach 90 degrees, causing reliance on the other hip flexors (rectus femoris, TFL, sartorius, adductor brevis, pectineus) and inhibiting the glutes. Other athletes can experience inhibited glutes for this reason, but also just for structural reasons. Some athletes develop anterior pelvic tilt, meaning the pelvis tilts towards the front, causing tight hip flexors and lengthened glutes. See the position in the middle picture? I'm sure you know someone who stands like that!
In the simplest terms, many athletes have very tight hip flexors that inhibit the glutes from working properly. If you don’t have enough hip flexor flexibility, then you wont be able to open up the hips enough to activate the glutes.
There are several problems with this altered functioning. First of all, when the glutes don’t work up to snuff, then the hamstrings and erector spinae are forced to compensate for their poor performance. This often results in injury. Look at the sideline report for the NFL and see how many players suffered hamstring strains this year. It’s not just a coincidence that so many athletes suffer hamstring tears. Second of all, the glutes are responsible for stabilizing the torso over a leg that is planted and allows power to be transferred through different actions such as hip extension, hip abduction, and hip external rotation. Every muscle in the body has a certain length where it can produce force optimally. The glutes contract optimally when the hip is at 20 degrees of hyperextension. For a visual, look below or imagine a person lying face down on the ground and raising one leg up 20 degrees – this is hyperextension.
However, many people are unable to reach this position of hyperextension because their hip flexors are so tight that the movement is impossible. Altered mechanics means poor performance because these are the actions that are responsible for allowing athletes to sprint, change direction, jump, and rotate.
So what’s the solution? We are unsure whether the glutes are weak because the psoas is tight, or the psoas is tight because the glutes are weak. Either way, the solution is still the same – activate/strengthen the glutes and make the hip flexors less tight. Just like when you begin a resistance training program, most of the gains in strength will be due to neuromuscular changes. Basically, we are just re-educating the system how to properly use the glutes to produce power. Glute activation is so important because many people have altered mechanics. Sure, deadlifts, lunges and squats are great exercises for your glutes, but you won’t get the benefit out of these exercises if your glutes aren’t firing properly. Do these glute activation exercises before you do your big lifts or plyo work and you will see the difference. I know some of the exercises may look silly, but I challenge you to give the exercises a few weeks before you disregard them.
If you pay close attention to the videos, you can see that some of the exercises aren't so easy for me. That's because I am a very hamstring/low back dominant athlete. Getting the glutes to fire properly is vital for athletes similar to me to not only prevent injury, but also to get the full potential of power production. So for the moment you’ve been waiting for: