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Glute activation: More than aesthetics

May 7, 2018

Michelle Tola, Personal Trainer

While we would all love to be able to spend a few hours a day at the gym, this is unrealistic for most people. Our schedules are busy, and we find ourselves pulled in a million different directions. We get to the gym, get through our workout as fast as we can, and move on to the next thing on our to-do list. This leaves time only for the exercises that fit our goals. The National Academy of Sports Medicine identifies the SAID Principle, which gives us an idea of how to prioritize our workouts. According to the SAID Principle, or Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands, we need to train our bodies for the specific adaptations that we want to achieve. Someone looking to bulk up, build strength, or lose weight will have different workout routines. We are not going to spend time on a certain part of training that does not produce the specific results that we are looking for.

When designing their workout, people will often fail to incorporate glute activation and strengthening into their routines because they think that glute training is mostly for aesthetic purposes. For a lot of people, this is not part of their desired outcome for their workouts, so they do not incorporate glute strengthening into their routines. While it is true that glute training can often produce results that women are looking for from an aesthetic standpoint, the importance of strong glutes goes far beyond appearance.

There are three muscles that make up our “glutes”: gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and gluteus maximus. They play important roles in many of our functional movement patterns. At their most basic functions, they extend, abduct, and externally and internally rotate the hips. These movements play a key role in walking, running, and many other functional movements. Even something as basic as sitting into and getting up from a chair requires the glutes.

One of the most common reasons for weak glutes is tight hip flexors. Our psoas, one of our main hip flexor muscles, becomes tight as we spend a lot of time sitting with our hips in a flexed position. As the front of our hips become too tight, the back of our hips, our glutes, compensate by becoming too elongated, or weak. Our bodies do not care that certain muscles are weak; we will still need to move. Because of this, we see something called synergistic dominance, where smaller muscles not meant to be doing all the work for a movement are now forced to take over (Clark, 2018). When our glutes are weak and not able to perform the functions that our bodies need, our piriformis will take over. The piriformis is a much smaller muscle than the glutes, and is meant to assist in those motions, not perform them completely.

With the piriformis working too hard, it does not take long for it to become overactive, or tight. A tight piriformis muscle puts stress on the sacrosciatic notch of the piriformis muscle, the sciatic nerve, leading to pain that radiates into the hip. This is a common form of sciatica (Robinson, 1947). Our glutes stabilize our pelvis and regulate the movement of the hip. If they aren’t strong enough to do this, we will experience low back pain as well as knee pain. A stable pelvis keeps unnecessary strain off of our knees when we move. With strong glutes, instead of our knees trying to stabilize the shift in weight, our hips will do the job that they are meant to do. Keeping our knee properly aligned will also prevent our feet from excessively turning out, or pronating, which can lead to plantar fasciitis and shin splints. Weak glutes will also put excessive strain on the hamstring complex, leading to recurrent hamstring strains.

While not everyone has the goal of filling out their favorite pair of jeans a little better, so many of us spend the majority of our time sitting. We all need to walk. This means that all of us should be strengthening our glutes. It can be easy to add a few glute strengthening moves to our workout routine, and if we are consistent with it, we will find ourselves moving better. Next time you are at the gym, try some simple banded walks and hip thrusts to activate those glutes. Your hips will thank you.

To learn more about the NCH Wellness Center, visit or call 847-618-3500.