Does my butt look big in these genes?
Geraldine Campbell, MSc
September 14, 2017
Your glutes are the largest muscle group in your body. Although very powerful and important muscles that contribute to posture and functionality, your glutes are often underused - even when performing exercises like lunges and deadlifts that should involve large amounts of recruitment. This lack of engagement can seriously hamper body composition or performance gains.
It’s like leaving your strongest player on the bench, never bringing them on, or even letting them practice!
The glutes extend (backward movement of your thigh), adduct (bringing the leg across the front of the body), abduct (bring the leg out to the side), and externally rotate the hips. They also stabilize your posture. These motions are particularly important for sports requiring sprinting, jumping, throwing, rotational and lateral movements.
If you think that a lack of glute activation doesn’t bother you, then you should know that even walking requires you to have a muscular balance between your hip flexors and extensors. A muscle imbalance here can lead to gait pattern changes – so your future self could seriously regret not addressing this matter. Add to that the increased risk of injury associated with muscular imbalance, which includes ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), knee and ankle injuries, and you’d be unwise to neglect your glutes!
So what’s causing the problem?
Recognizing your dominant muscles for hip extension can help you plan appropriate exercises for resistance training. In turn, these tailored exercises can help resolve any issues or muscular imbalances you may have when training. A great exercise to use is the glute bridge – as demonstrated below. For more advanced clients, I recommend performing this exercise single legged as this ought to reveal any imbalances on one particular side.
How to perform the glute bridge.
1. As shown in photo A above, lay flat on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor (semi supine position)
2. Flatten your back on the ground before you lift – “Pull your belly button down.”
3. Brace your core
4. Shins should be in a vertical position
5. Drive hips and chest up at the same time, finishing as shown in photo B above.
6. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement and hold.
Repeat this exercise for two sets of 10 repetitions with a 5-second isometric hold at the top of the movement. Actively engaging your glutes at the peak of the contraction will ensure that you avoid any hyperextension (excessive backward movement of your thigh), and increase the neural drive to your glutes.
When performing this exercise, which muscles do you feel working the most?
Lower Back? Hamstrings? Quads? Glutes?
If you feel any of the above (except your glutes), you may have some imbalances that might need to be addressed. A common coordination issue seen when performing the glute bridge is the inability to activate the glute muscles. This causes other muscles to strain and overcompensate for your weak glutes. You may feel this strain in your hamstrings, lower back, and quads.
Feel it in your Hamstrings?
It is normal to feel a little tension in your hamstrings; although, at the peak of contraction, you should be able to squeeze your glutes hard. If hamstring pressure is the predominant sensation, then several factors could be to blame. One possible reason is excessive anterior pelvic tilt - This is when the front of your pelvis is tilted too far forwards and is generally caused by a shortening or tightening of the hip flexors.
Excessive anterior pelvic tilt may cause the hamstrings to be over-innervated to protect against the strain which would be other placed on the lumbar spine. This is especially true in females, due to a greater level of anterior pelvic tilt. In addition to pelvic tilt, lumbar disc issues, previous hamstring injuries, and acute hamstring strains can also be potential causes of perceived tightness in the hamstrings.
Although your hamstrings may be tight, it may not be the best idea to stretch these muscles directly. This is because your hamstrings could be weak from being lengthened, which in turn may be due to tight, overactive hip flexors. In this case, stretching your hamstrings without addressing your overly tight hip flexors could lead to further dysfunction.
Try stretching your hip flexors and quadriceps and strengthening (not stretching) your glutes and hamstrings. Using resistance exercises through a full range of motion increases flexibility and strengthens these muscles.
Feel it in your Lower Back?
If you feel tension in your lower back when performing the glute bridge, then you could be doing one of several things incorrectly. For instance, you may be arching your back first, before extending your hips. Lower back strain may also be down to a lack of knowledge of sound exercise form and poor lumbopelvic control.
Core stability and strength exercises should be used in this instance, to help improve your motor control and movement pattern when performing the glute bridge.
Feel it in your Quads?
If you feel tension in your quads during the glute bridge, then you could be very quad dominant and you need to learn how to work those glutes!
Your body will always try to find the easiest way to perform a physical task. If your quads have become your dominant leg muscles and your glutes are weak and inactive, you will struggle to get the maximum out of the largest muscle in your body.
Poor muscle recruitment of the glutes could be holding you back. But don’t worry, it’s a common problem. Try to establish a mind muscle connection with your glutes and see if you can tap into the power you have been sitting on.
You can use the glute bridge exercise not just to help identify your movement restrictions, but also to help in your pre-workout routine. Use it in your RAMP warm up to assist in getting the muscles firing correctly.