What are the Glutes?

The glutes are the butt muscles. There are lots of them, some superficial, and many more, deeper into the buttock. When we talk about the glutes, and specifically glute activation, we tend to be referring to the three biggest glute muscles — gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus.

As a physical therapist, I see and treat people whose glutes are not working as they should on a daily basis. In many cases they don’t fire (contract) when they should to produce the movement they are designed to produce.

The role of the glutes is to extend and abduct the hip joint. That is to say, they move the leg backwards and out to the side. They also assist in rotating the hip, some medially and some laterally, depending on their location and attachment points.

They are such a vital muscle group for good form and function. Inactive or weak glutes can result in faulty biomechanics, leading to pain and injury. For example, if your gluteus medius is not strong, your thigh adducts (falls inwards towards the other) and the knee is placed under excessive stress.

If the gluteus maximus is misfiring, the lower back fascia is not tightened sufficiently to support the lumbar spine. This can cause sacroiliac joint dysfunction amongst other problems, even as high as the shoulder and neck.

Why are the Glutes Inactive?

In many cases the glutes are inactive due to postural issues. A large number of people now have an anterior pelvic tilt, whereby instead of sitting level, the pelvis tips forwards at the front, resulting in an exaggerated curve in the lower back and lengthened glutes. A muscle held in a lengthened position for extended periods becomes less effective.

Sedentary individuals, and even those who exercise regularly but sit for long periods also face the problem of inactive glutes. This is simply a case of “use it or lose it.”

Previous injury is of course another factor which may contribute to glute issues, especially if not rehabilitated thoroughly at the time.

What is Glute Activation?

The aim of glute activation exercises is to get the glutes working again. They are simple exercises designed to “switch on” the glutes. The individual has to learn how to contract the muscles rather than compensating by using other muscle groups such as the hamstrings.

These exercises are best performed prior to activity, i.e., first thing in the morning, after long periods of sitting and also at the start of a workout. This ensures the glutes are awake and firing, ready to take on the task at hand.

They are low-load exercises with high reps and should focus on form on both sides, maintaining a good pelvic posture and a tight core throughout. The idea is not to fatigue the muscles at this point.

Example Exercises

Every therapist has a different approach to getting the glutes up and firing again. The approach will also depend on the severity of the issue. A starting point for one person may be to simply lie on their front and practice squeezing the glutes, first both sides together and then trying to isolate left and right.

If you can achieve this, then there is a whole catalog of exercises you can try. In all cases, you should be able to feel the glutes contracting, and not feel the hamstrings, lower back or hip flexors instead.

Standing hip extension/abduction

  • Stand facing a wall, finger tips lightly touching for support
  • Tighten your core muscles and perform a slight posterior pelvic tilt, tucking your tailbone underneath you
  • Take the weight onto one leg, without shifting the pelvis over
  • Move the free leg backwards and out to the side, in a diagonal line, keeping the knee straight. Try to squeeze your butt muscles as you move
  • Ensure the lower back is not arched on the movement — the upper body should stay still
  • Return to the start position and repeat
  • Resistance in the form of an ankle weight or resistance band can be added later

Lateral band walk

  • Use a mini resistance band around both feet
  • Contract the core and lightly tuck the pelvis under
  • Walk sideways taking small steps
  • Ensure the upper body is as still as possible

Hip thrust

  • Lie on the floor on your back, knees bent and feet hip width apart
  • Contract the glutes and core muscles
  • Lift the buttocks, lower and mid back off the floor to form a straight line from shoulders to knees
  • Avoid over-arching the lower back
  • Return to the start position and repeat
  • For all-round glute activation, add a mini resistance band around the knees and push gently outwards as you lift up

Modified clam

  • Lie on your side with your head supported and bottom leg straight
  • Have your top hip bent up to 90degrees, knee on the floor and your top foot resting on your other knee.
  • Contract your core muscles before you move to stabilize your pelvis
  • Keep your top foot rested on your bottom knee as you lift your top knee off the ground
  • Make sure your hips don’t roll back as you lift your knee
  • Lift as high as is comfortable without rolling backwards
  • Slowly return to the start position and repeat

Frog pump

  • Lie on the floor on your back
  • Place the soles of the feet together and allow the knees to fall apart as far as is comfortable
  • Maintaining this position, squeeze the buttocks and lift them and the lower back off the floor, as if performing a hip thrust
  • The laterally rotated, abducted position of the hip in this hip thrust variation adds for additional glute max activation at end range