There’s an obvious giveaway about the importance of the gluteal muscles in our bottoms; they are rather big! Our anatomy is full of clues about how our body should be moving and functioning. The glutes are the biggest clue of all. For 4.4 million years we have been walking on two feet. We have been pronating, supinating, walking, running, climbing, bending and squatting. Our glutes have evolved to be powerful enough to successfully perform and control these movements.
For the body to work efficiently, it must make use of the strength from its larger, more powerful areas. If we don’t use these big muscles appropriately, then smaller muscles in other areas will be asked to do more and may end up failing. Strong, active glutes should be used in day to day tasks to protect us from injury and to provide a strong, successful, moving body.
The importance of the glutes is understood by practitioners and trainers all over the world. You may well have been told at one time or another that “your glutes aren’t firing”! A common problem for many of us! Unfortunately, the glutes are often blamed (and trained) in isolation.
A lack of understanding of how the glutes work, leads to a very limited approach to gluteal training. The glutes have not simply decided to switch off, it’s a little more complicated than that. So, why do so many of us underuse our glutes and how do you actually get them to work harder for you?
Evolution lesson #1 – use it or lose it!
The often used diagnosis of lazy glutes should be delivered with the caveat that it is a very common bi-product of modern lifestyles. It is not an unfair affliction; you should not curse your glutes for giving up on you when everyone else’s seem to be working just fine!
We are far more sedentary now than at any time during our evolution. The demands required to maintain the strength and power of our big muscles have reduced. Our anatomy has been fine tuned to cope with regular, unpredictable, multi-directional movement. By sitting and moving less, we are no longer putting these demands on our bodies. The environments in which our glutes have evolved to become strong no longer exist. Cushioned shoes, flat pavements, sedentary lifestyles, irregular exercise, the wrong exercise... These factors are reducing the demands on our glutes and deconditioning our most important muscle group.
If you study the anatomy of the glutes, you can see that they have evolved to control particular movements related to our walking gaits. They fire as a reaction to your foot hitting the ground. They decelerate the huge forces of body weight and gravity in walking, running, landing and jumping. Without them you would collapse in a heap. Importantly, they respond to three dimensional movement, so not just up and down, but side to side and rotational movements.
So, how do we actually get the glutes to fire?
The best way to get the muscular system to activate and to make any long term changes to the firing of muscles is to make them perform authentic movements. Movements relevant to their anatomy. During our 4.4 million years of upright function we have developed a neuromuscular recognition of certain movement patterns.
We need to understand what the gluteal muscles do in human movement. Why are they so big?
The glutes are designed to slow down and control our hip movements, both from the ground up and the top down. The hips are our strongest joints and they act as an important hinge during the majority of our daily movements. Every time our foot hits the ground, the forces from above and below place a huge demand on our hips and the large glutes are there to cope with this significant work load.
The glutes absorb forces from the movements of walking, landing or squatting, and then utilise this energy to fire us off into the next part of the movement, whether it be the next step or a jump from our squat. If we want to train the glutes, then we need to create authentic movements at the hip in order to replicate this process.
Glute bridges don’t cut it.
As much as it is nice to exercise lying down, I really don't feel it is reflective of true gluteal function.
If you have been told that you have lazy glutes then you may currently be doing regular glute bridges to turn the damn things on. This is where you lay on your back with your knees bent and lift your pelvis towards the ceiling.
Although this will indeed shorten the glute muscles and may cause them to fatigue – it is by no means an authentic, learnt movement. A glute bridge is not something that you are really required to do in daily life, it is certainly not something that we have done through our evolution. Why trick the glutes to fire with an invented movement when you can actually recreate the environment for gluteal firing when standing up.
Putting one foot out in front of you, while reaching forward to pick something up is an action you are required to do frequently. Landing on one foot, while rotating your upper body, is a movement that you do every time you walk and run. By exercising and challenging the hips in these authentic positions, we begin to re-educate the glutes as to their true purpose.
Our nervous systems are very plastic; they have the potential to adapt quickly. If we actually encourage the body to move in the way that it is designed to, our nervous systems will soon catch on and create the appropriate firing of muscles. If we continue to train in inauthentic, unrecognised and unlearnt movements, then our nervous systems will remain confused and will seek ways of compensating – often leading to dysfunction.
If we are true to our muscle function, we can unlock so much potential in our bodies. We can educate our glutes to be strong, reactive and protective.