Though they show an often brash exterior, and are too commonly exploited for commercial gain, the buttocks are really just big softies.
The Gluteus Maximi are the biggest single muscle (or two) of the body, yet they are situated not in a place for attack, but for propulsion, padding, and the occasional appreciative pat.
Empowered with the primary role of pushing you forward as you sprint away from danger, their essential contribution is often not appreciated until it’s missing, and even then can be easily missed as we focus our attention on back pain or tight hips.
Part of a Team
No fewer than four people have passed my threshold recently with a variety of symptoms which can all be traced back to poorly activating glutes. These ranged from lower back pain to calf cramps and poor shoulder stability. This is because the glutes don’t work alone – they are part of a ‘sling’ of muscles that run across the back of your body and that all work in harmony when working well.
This ‘posterior chain’ of muscles runs diagonally from the back of your neck and shoulder to the opposite heel, gathering input from your latissimus dorsi, quadratus lumborum, etc – these are the big guys – solid, powerful and getting things on the move.
The deeper layers of this ‘chain’ also includes the multitude of tiny muscles that run up your spine, which have the role of stabilising the spine of the body as the big movers move us around, enabling us to do even the simplest things, such as carrying a bag, or reaching out for a beer. Perhaps think of these as the hardworking minions keeping the show on the road.
Should the mighty buttocks fail to do their part, the minions need to up their game, and can often get overloaded. This can show itself in generalised aches, or a specific point of niggle that just won’t budge, even when the more obvious problems (like tight hamstrings) have been resolved.
Sometimes the weakness won’t show itself until you really challenge your body, such as upping your mileage in preparation for a long race or event. Even the ultimate endurance race – having a new baby in the house – can highlight the lack of contribution from the glutes, for example in back pain from lifting bubba out of the cot. The whole body system will play to its strengths for as long as possible, trying to prevent injury and disruption. So chances are, your tight hamstrings or sore hip stabilisers have been over-working for a long time already.
Getting to the Bottom of Things
So where to start with your own pair of peaches? The most important thing is to make yourself aware. Why? Because your brain has a map of every body part (called the Homunculus). The more used a body part is, either for sensation or motion (or both), the more detailed and active the part of the brain this relates to.
If your glutes haven’t been properly activated for a while, the messages going between your brain and your bottom will be reduced, muddled and not effective when you need them. The brain has better things to do than maintain constant communication with a muscle that has stopped being used. It is up to us to consciously reinstate that connection if we are to achieve a swift recovery. And it is swift – improvement in contraction strength can occur within a few days, taking a week or two to start becoming automatic again. It’s important to start rehab with this sort of exercise – without habitual activation, you will simply be asking the tired compensating muscles to do even more. It’s also crucial to continue this activation well beyond this initial period too – the maxim of Use It or Lose It stands for any muscle, at any age.
Take Kylie’s Advice
Have a walk around with your hands firmly planted on your buttcheeks. Possibly best to do in private – mainly because you’ll get catcalls in the office, which will distract you from your pure purpose. Do they stay nice and squidgey throughout, or can you feel your fingers being pushed outwards on each step? Is one firmer than the other? You may even be able to feel your hip bones turning back and forth as you step – are these movements equal both sides?
If walking around isn’t an option, have a thoughtful sit on your hands. Can you squeeze one cheek, but not the other? Is one stronger than the other? Does the contraction feel powerful or vague? If you need a better motivator than my say-so, the great Kylie herself said that the best preparation for her golden-hot-pant moment was doing bum-squeezes at every opportunity, even while sitting in traffic! Ok, her buttocks are not so humble, they are the product of lots of hard work. But I’ve never heard tell of Kylie getting back pain either.
Another thing to try is to see whether your hip flexors are tight – if the flexors are tight, then their antagonist muscles, the extensors (i.e. the glutes) will often be weak. This is really common in office workers but also cyclists who do all their exercise with their hips in a tight bent position.
So assume the proposal position… down on one knee… and watch this short video on how to stretch your hip flexors while simultaneously improving the activation of your glutes. Huge thanks to James Dunne at Kinetic Revolution – I’d highly recommend his 30 day challenge!
The next step to strengthening your glutes can take many forms, and there is still uncertainty in the literature as to what is the ‘best’ exercise for strengthening them. Have a read of this article for a great discussion on what’s effective.
In reality, the specific problem you have will tend to direct the exercises you start with – it’s different for everyone. That said, for initial strengthening and ease you can’t go far wrong with a decent set of nice deep squats, letting your weight sink backwards as far as you can (not your knees forward), and giving a good old bum squeeze on the way up. Again, squat technique depends on your existing level of fitness and interests, and whether you also have knee pain, so check with your physio before setting a goal of 100 a day!
It’s key to note that in a squidgey bum situation, though you should definitely feel things moving, walking doesn’t really activate the glutes that much: you will need to run or climb steps while activating your glutes to start making a difference to strength. As a little analogy, you wouldn’t take a racehorse for a quiet, restrained stroll in the park – you’d give it a good long challenge over a decent distance to keep it in condition. Think of your buttocks as racehorses… ok perhaps that’s a tangent too far.
Although the Gluteus Maximus has an obvious presence, their actual strength and function can be severely impacted by our modern sedentary lifestyles, previous injury, or habitual dis-use. A new appreciation and understanding of this humble pair can help your self-image, and can be the key to resolving long standing issues elsewhere in the body. And don’t be downhearted if you butt isn’t up to par right now. If nothing else, think of the nutcracker jokes you can make at Christmas, and that you now have something in common with Kylie!