The Glute Reboot: Glute Activation Tests & Glute Muscle Exercises
This is a bit of a long one, so give yourself 15mins and settle in. I'm going to try to cover A LOT - from remedial testing to advanced stuff.
Before we dive in to my glute activation tests and glute muscle exercises, let's get familiar with the basics. There are two main parts of your glutes. Your glute medius (this is toward the side of your hip) and glute maximus (the big beefy part of your buttox). Either or both can be weak but this particular course really is aimed mainly at the glute max. The big guns.
Having said that, you'll often find weakness in both the glute max and glute med. I've got another big post about the glute med planned, so stay tuned for that.
From here on out, when I say glutes, I mean your glute max.
With all of these drills, which muscles you feel working (i.e. the feeling of tension and fatigue) is crucial. If you don't feel the glute muscles working, the drill you're doing isn't effective.
Glute Activation TestLevel 1: Are Your Glutes Even "Firing"?
You may have heard someone say “my glutes aren’t firing.” What does that mean?
Think about “firing” on a continuum. It might mean that you have virtually no control over that muscle (i.e. you can’t get it to fully engage). But it also could mean is that your glutes are relatively underdeveloped compared to your other leg and hip muscles. They "should" be engaging more, but since they’re the weakest link the chain, other muscle groups have to take over.
In that way, someone could have large glute muscles, but they could still be too weak for that individual. As you get fitter and stronger, it’s all about finding the right balance between muscle groups. We call this concept 'structural balance'.
Glute Activation Test 1.1: Do you Have Basic Control?
Believe it or not, many people can't squeeze their glutes. Here's the test. If you can't do this, that's where you need to start. You'll need to rebuild the brain-to-muscle connection and develop the ability to 'think' into your glutes and make them fully contract. It can be a frustrating process but stick with it.
This is essential.
Glute Activation Test 1.2: What's Your Posture Like? Position is Important!
Position is important. If your position is off, you'll be limiting your ability to activation your glutes. Try the drill I describe in the video called "This Posture Will Instantly Shut Down Your Glutes" to understand this for yourself.
Glute Activation Test 1.3: How to Progress Out of Level 1
Find one exercise where you can really feel your glutes working. Then practice often and get plenty of touches on it throughout the day. After a week, try another exercise where you previously struggled to engage the glutes, and see if you've improved. Then practice that one.
Since you can practice anywhere and it only takes a minute each time, I recommend finding one to two behaviours (set a trigger) that you do routinely (going to the toilet, walking to the copy room, going into the kitchen, compulsively checking instagram, etc.). Every time you do that behaviour, take 30-60sec to practice your glute squeezing.
That way, by the day’s end you’ll have accumulated tons of practice yet it never felt difficult to schedule into your day.
If you're having trouble finding an exercise that works, check out this blog post, drop me a line or talk to a local trainer that you trust. In the meantime, try the glute activation tests posted in the next section.
3 More Glute Activation Tests
LEVEL 2: BASIC GLUTE Muscle exercises
If you've got basic control, now we can challenge your strength-endurance with some basic glute muscle exercises. That's the first step.
4 Glute Muscle Exercises To Improve Strength And Endurance
Try these four drills. Can you feel your glute muscles working as the primary muscle in each one? It's OK if you feel other muscles working a bit, but you should mainly feel them all in the glutes. If you can't, chances are you have a weak link in the chain. You should be able to do these drills for at least 45-60sec continuously, while feeling the correct muscles working. This demonstrates a basic starting point of ability.
The clam drill works fibers of the glute med and glute max, so if you feel this a bit more to the side of your hip, that's OK.
If you're not feeling the exercise in your glutes, try to re-set your posture and engage the abs like I discussed in the posture video above. If your position if off, you won't be able to active the glutes as much.
Are You Ready To Progress Your Level 2 Glute Skills? Then try this:
First, the priority to think about is to build more control. Second, it's about building strength-endurance in the glute muscle. As always, make sure you can feel the right muscles working. Then, increase the duration of your sets.
For the single leg balance, a goal of a 60-sec hold per side is a good graduation point for an active person.
Everyone should be able to do a set of 12 reps with a 2sec pause at the top in the glute bridge with a 50lb weight on the hips for added resistance (while feeling the right muscles working... i.e. the bum muscles if you haven't been paying attention!).
And you should be able to work up to 15 slow controlled reps with a heavy mini-band for the clam drill.
LEVEL 3: Glute Muscle exercises to boost your performance
By this point we know you can control the glute muscle and that it has a base of strength. Now it's time to assess glute performance on a higher level.
This is a great point to talk about the difference between your technical max and your absolute max. We're talking about it with respect to the glutes, but this applies to any imbalance. Keep this in mind when progressing any of these exercises.
The deadlift is a great place to start because the glutes get a lot of direct work. If I was coaching a beginner lifter, I would typically start with Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs) until their hip hinge was perfect. Then I'd move to deadlifts or another suitable variation.
If you need help with deadlift fundamentals, please check out this free serious of lessons (scroll down to 'Workout 4' at the bottom of page) that I put together with Alastair MacNicol.
When it comes to deadlifting, watch this video to learn what you need to know about activating your glutes.
Fully engaging the glutes is a bit less natural for most lifters than the deadlift. But, I've found that it's essential in order to maintain optimal position, keep the back and pelvis stable, avoid excessive strain on the knee, and of course, boost performance!
In my experience, here are some of the problems that are often caused by a lack of glute activation in the squat.
The chest tipping or leaning forward while you stand back up.
Knees caving inward as you stand back up.
Knee pain or back pain when squatting (of course, there are other causes besides weak glutes, but poor glute activation does cause this many times).
Feeling a lack of strength out of the bottom of your squat.
To engage the glutes properly in the squat, remember that you should feel constant tension in that muscle. If you lose tension, you’re losing strength and stability. Good lifting is about developing layers of tension.
MAJOR SQUAT CUE 1: THE 'SWING SET'
One of my cardinal rules in the squat is that the way down should look exactly the same as the way-up.
The 'Swing Set Cue' helps. You know when you push a kid on swing set? Imagine that someone was doing that to you out of the bottom of your squat. Your hips should stay right underneath you, as they come up and slightly forward right from the bottom. I.e. the hips should start extending as soon as you begin to stand up.
Most of the time when people have trouble with this, the hips don’t stay under the body. They drift backward.
Sometimes this is a small flinch. Other times it’s a major disaster and causes the lifter to tip forward significantly! Either way, both errors show an underlying weakness that’s limiting your potential.
MAJOR SQUAT CUE 2: CREATE TORQUE IN THE HIPS
Second, the idea of creating torque through the hips helps a lot of people. Torque just means rotation. We produce a little bit of rotation in the hips to activate the glutes more and to develop more tension and stability.
Actively grip your feet into the floor as if your toes were claws. Develop a tripod between the big toe, little toe and heel with even weight across the entire foot.
Right from the hips, rotate your thigh outward.
Don’t let your big toe come off the floor! We don’t want the foot to tip onto the outside of the foot. We need to maintain our tripod foot no matter what.
Maintain that hip rotation/tension all the way and all the way down. If you have trouble and lose tension half way down, keep practicing until you can do it for the entire range of motion of your squat. This may take lots of time and practice, but you will get it.
MAJOR SQUAT CUE 3: STARING POSTURE
Remember that your starting posture has a huge impact on your ability to engage the glutes properly. In case you missed this video the first time, check it out. It's important.
MAJOR SQUAT CUE 4: THE FEET
Our feet also play a major role. Keeping your feet grounded with even weight distribution will set you up for success.
You need to learn to "ground your feet" or to root them into the floor actively. If you can't do this, you won't be able to fully engage your glutes. This is especially important for runners, sprinters, and anyone involved in field or agility based sports like football, soccer, basketball, etc.
PROGRESSING THE SQUAT
I find that it's easier for most people to 'feel' how the glutes should be in the squat with a front loaded squat. In fact, research shows that front loaded squats increase the demand on the glutes. For that reason, I typically start with goblet squats, then I might move to sandbag squats or front squats.
From there, progress to any variation that's a good fit for you or your client.
Single Leg Activities
It can be harder to develop the glutes with some single leg exercises since our stability is compromised. Here are a few key tips for engaging the glutes in single leg training.
Start with exercises that give you more stability, like a split squat. Then move to step-downs, lunges and other activities where balance is increasingly difficult.
ONE MORE TIP FOR COACHES:
- Look at visual signs that the glute are engaged.
- Palpate if necessary.
- Ask the client 'where do you feel this?'
For those that are still reading this far down, I hope that helped! If you have any questions, drop me a line or comment on my videos.
If you have any excellent tips for coaching glute engagement, I'd love to hear from you! Hit my on Facebook or shoot me an email.