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Are your Glutes not Firing?

Read time: about 5 minutes.

Glutes can be complicated little buggers and it seems they are also the new buzz word in the fitness industry, more specifically strength or powerlifting community, as to why things happen. Online coaching sensations everywhere are claiming to have the best training programs to activate ze glutes and are building armies of Kim Kardashian booty wannabes. But, before we delve into the Instagram shelf pose let’s first look at your glutes from a functional perspective; as in what are they, what do they do and how do we train them.

If we look at the anatomy of your glutes there are 3 primary glute muscles I am going to focus on for the purpose of this blog, you have your Maximus, Medius and Minimus, I think those names speak for themselves really. Next we have what I will call for the purpose of this blog, your secondary glute related muscles, so here we are looking at your Piriformis and your TFL, there are a handful of other deep glute muscles that I won’t go into here but essentially support the muscles I have already mentioned in doing their jobs.

So can different parts of the glute muscles be weak? Hell yes they can! So to understand weakness we need to understand the function of these muscles.

The glute muscles collectively are one of the muscle groups that we use to sit, stand, walk and run. The extend and flex the leg, externally rotate, internally rotate, and stabilise the pelvis and the femur together.

Now let’s talk about when they don’t do what they are meant to do.

Firstly, we are humans and our movements and actions each day are different but generally speaking most people’s muscles will follow the same process of dysfunction. For example, sitting at a desk all day we decondition our cores as we are not required to use them sitting at a desk, the muscles supporting our shoulders from the front tighten into this position giving us the slouched look and we also decondition our glutes as they are not being used.

So technically speaking can a muscle not fire? Well the short answer is sort of and it depends, and as this is a blog about glutes let’s answer this relative to these bad boys.  Muscles are made up of fibres (cells) which contract and relax in response to specific messages from the brain. For example, our brain will send a message via our central nervous system to the nerves in the muscles, they then cause specific muscle fibres (motor units) to contract which allows the muscle/s to perform the required movement (extending your quad for example).

Muscle fibres don’t all contract at the same time, as some are contracting others are in the process of relaxing, if these opposing muscle fibres cannot relax then we can say that the muscle contraction will be inhibited or not firing.

So why does this happen? Couple of reasons, your CNS (central nervous system) may simply be sending the messages wrong or be out of sync (this happens fairly regularly) and the other is a structural limitation such as an injury or tightness reducing range of motion.

A muscle can also just be weak, so receiving all the appropriate signals but just weak and unable to do what is asked of it (a good practitioner will be able to assess this for you).

I mentioned earlier about the Glute muscles weakening in people who sit at a desk for longer periods of time. This is an excellent example of poor adaptation to lifestyle.  The glutes become inhibited because people tend to sit on a chair with their pelvis in a slightly forward position, the hip flexors then become tight and the glute muscles become tight and stretched and unable to fire properly. Soon the messages will become diverted to other stronger muscles to do the same job, like the TFL, Quads, Piriformis etc.

Still following?

Then, when we do need them to do something like squat, which for most people is a foreign movement as an adult, the muscle that is naturally the strongest will exert more force during a movement and then will continue to get stronger, overriding the ability of the other muscles to do what they are supposed to do, so they will adapt at a much slower rate if at all.

Let’s talk more specifically about the glute med. The glute med is a really cool not so little muscle (more medium size ;-)) in your butt. It sits in the upper right hand quadrant of the glute and is a neighbour to dun dun, the TFL.

You’ve probably heard this word thrown around a bit before but what does it actually do and why is it important?

Your glute med is responsible for stabilising the whole pelvis with the femur, it is also responsible for externally and internally rotating the femur and extension and flexion (leg forward and back so walking) and abduction (raising leg out to the side). Now let’s look at the TFL or Tensor Fascia Latae, this sits to the front of the glute med and its job is flexion (leg forward), extension (leg back), abduction (leg out to the side) and internal rotation only for the femur.

So what if your glute med is weak and you need to externally rotate the femur? The femur can’t just do its own so guess what muscle jumps in? Bingo! But the TFL isn’t designed to externally rotate? No it isn’t that’s exactly right but we have to adapt but that doesn’t always mean the way our body adapts is efficient or appropriate.

So enough about how we got here how do we make it better?

Well before I really continue I need to mention that if you do suspect you have a weak glute med (unstable as hell on one leg, hips dance when you squat, knees come in when you squat) please go and see someone who is qualified in this area, like a sports scientist, Exercise Physiologist or a damn good coach with a good understanding of functional anatomy or even a physio to begin the process.

For a weak muscle to become stronger it needs to be put into a situation where it has no other choice but to do what it is meant to do and without having surrounding muscles assisting more than necessary.

Some good research has been done in regards to what the more optimal exercises are for strengthening the glute med and at this stage we know that the banded clam is still superior (along with single leg banded stability work like assisted step backs, single leg taps, Bulgarians etc.) however, it is pointless as hell doing 34356845943 clams every day if there is no progression. But that’s something best left to face to face coaching.

Some examples of glute progressions courtesy of Redefining Strength

When a muscle is underactive or weak it needs to be matched with an exercise of an appropriate scale and then have appropriate progression applied. If your glute med (and let’s say glutes in general) are so weak that you can’t stand on one leg without holding onto anything than floor work will probably be the best place to start. Why? Just as I mentioned before appropriate exercise for the skill level of the muscle which will allow it the brain to increase the volume of nerves within the muscle and improve the muscle mind connection too (I like to call this more telephone wires). From here we progress from static to strengthening during movement to then the final movement which would ultimately be a strong squat.

“What about squatting and deadlifting or hip thrusts? Can I just strengthen my glutes that way with heaps of banded paused work?” You can try! But the likelihood due to the natural muscular firing pattern that exists within everyone (the order which muscles activate during a movement) is that they won’t do 5/8ths of sweet f.a and instead the other muscles that are already compensating will simply continue to get stronger and we are back to square one.

So to sum it up, TLDR do lots of donkey kicks. Kidding! Have a play around with some basic progression and if you feel like you are chasing your tail recruit the help of someone who knows what they are doing and has a good understanding of anatomy and functional anatomy.

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