Struggling to feel your glutes in your workouts? Don’t worry. In this article, I cover a 4-step plan that will help activate your glutes.
Your butt is home to the largest, most powerful muscles in your body. It basically acts as a support system and shock absorber for the entire body. And plays a major role in generating power and force in many movements. Not only that though, but well-developed glutes just look good on both men and women. And yes, for the guys out there, we have insider confirmation that girls do take notice of your butts. The problem nowadays? We tend to sit a lot and for prolonged periods of time. Which is a great way to potentially “forget” how to activate your glutes. This is especially if you don’t take action to counteract this.
And this can become problematic for some individuals. Why? Because glutes inhibition and excessive sitting can often lead to lower back and/or hip pain. This then worsens the whole problem. Research has shown that your body will tend to avoid using the glutes in response to any lower body pain or injury it has as a protective mechanism. And what often happens is that even after the pain or injury is resolved, the body still remembers this pattern. And will still continue inhibiting the glutes.
What You Need To Know About “Gluteal Amnesia”
World- renowned spinal researcher Dr. Stuart McGill has looked into this topic extensively. And terms this phenomenon as “gluteal amnesia”.
Now, the main problem here is that as you “forget” how to use your glutes due to disuse or pain, your body compensates. So now when you’re:
- Deadlifting, or
- Doing any hip extension movement (where you where your glutes are supposed to be helping out)
…Other muscles will take over instead. Often times, it’s the hamstrings and lower back that take that extra load. This inhibits your glutes development. And it’s not just that, too! This is also why we commonly see this pattern of weak glutes, tight hamstrings, and lower back pain. It can even get to the point where simple tasks that involve hip extension like walking or jogging will cause lower back discomfort. And that’s because the glutes are essentially just turned off.
So, long story short, your glutes are important. And to find out if your glutes may indeed be needing some attention, there are 4 key indicators we can look at.
The “Do I Have Gluteal Amnesia?” Test
The following gluteal amnesia symptoms will help you see if you’ve indeed forgotten how to activate your glutes.
First, do you generally have a hard time feeling your glutes working or contracting them during your lower body exercises? And does your lower back and hamstrings tighten up instead? Then this is a good sign that your glutes aren’t activating how they should be.
Second, perform a single leg glute bridge like so:
- Have one leg straightened and the other leg bent on the floor
- Hold this position with your hips in the air.
Feel your hamstrings, lower back, or quads more than your glutes? Then this is an indication that your glutes aren’t doing what they’re supposed to during hip extension.
Third, are you exhibiting an anterior pelvic tilt posture from the side? Then your glutes are likely failing to pull your pelvis into its neutral position due to weakness.
And lastly, do you sit for most of the day? And have what I’ll just call “flat butt syndrome”? Then chances are your glutes could use some work.
How To Activate Your Glutes
Tested positive for one or more of those 4 indicators? Or, you’d just like to see better results with your glutes training? Then it’s time to start awakening those glutes.
And to do so, in this article, we’re going to use a 4 step plan. Where. with the use of a few daily exercises, we’ll be able to gradually get your glutes firing harder and harder. To the point where you’ll actually use your glutes whenever you walk, move, and perform your lifts. Instead of having your lower back or other muscles compensate and work overtime as a result.
Step 1: Contraction
The first thing we want to do here is just to get you to understand what a glute contraction actually feels like. And getting your brain to connect to the muscle.
So to start:
- Just sit down and place your hands under each butt cheek
- Then, take turns contracting each of your glutes
- With your hands, you should be able to feel those glute muscles firing as you contract them one at a time
Once you’re able to do that, we’ll progress this by going into a kneeling position. This time, engage your core and place your hand on the glute of the down leg. Try to flex it as hard as you can. You should feel the contraction with your hand and your glute changing shape as you do so. Keep working until you can establish this.
Now, after you’ve run through a few sets of each of those and are able to successfully contract your glutes in each of those positions, we’ll progress to step 2. That’s where we’ll now work progress to activating our glutes against gravity.
Step 2: Activation
To do so, we’ll use two simple exercises. These are exercises that Dr. Stuart McGill, based on his 30+ years of extensive lab and experimental research, found are the best options for glute activation.
And luckily, Dr. Stuart McGill was kind enough to spend the time to personally guide me through each of these exercises to explain the setup and various cues that he found to work best to maximize glutes activation. These were all based on his several years of research.
I’ll summarize them as I go through each exercise.
The first move, the glute bridge, will target the largest of your glute muscles, the gluteus maximus. For these:
- First lay on your back with your knees bent
- Keep your core braced. And without arching your lower back, squeeze your butt muscles to get them engaged first.
- Then, lift up while keeping your glutes contracted
- At the top, squeeze your glutes as hard as possible for about 5 seconds before coming back down
Now, if this alone doesn’t activate your glutes very well and you feel it more in your hamstrings, then you can experiment with the following cues:
- First, think about as if you were holding a $100 bill between your butt cheeks. So, to keep that $100, constantly squeeze your glutes throughout each rep. You want to prevent that bill from dropping.
- Thinking about driving your heels into the ground tends to activate the hamstrings more. So, think about pushing your feet away from you instead. Actively push your feet forwards as if you were trying to perform a knee extension. You can perform these against a wall like so if you need something to push against. What this does is it will activate the quads, and then through a concept called reciprocal inhibition, will as a result decrease the activation of the hamstrings so that the glutes are now forced to do the work.
- And finally, if needed, you can add a mini-band around the knees. Doing so can help boost activation since your knees will actively have to use your glutes to keep them spread apart as you perform the movement.
So, experiment with these various cues and use them as needed in order to maximize the activation of your glutes.
Next are clam shells, which will be used to target another important glute muscle, the gluteus medius. For these:
- Lay on your side with your knees and hips bent
- Use one arm to make a pillow for your head
- And then with your other hand, place your thumb on the bone in the front of your hip
- Wrap your other fingers around overtop the upper part of your butt. This muscle is the glute medius, and you want to feel this muscle working as you do the following movement.
- Next, while keeping your feet together and core braced, open up your top knee like a clam shell so that the knee of your upper leg rises towards the ceiling.
It’s important that you avoid rotating your hips as you open up your top knee by maintaining that abdominal bracing. Again, you should feel the glute medius contracting with your fingers as you perform each rep.
And as for sets and reps of these exercises? Dr. Stuart McGill recommends 3 sets of 10 reps. But with each rep performed mindfully and with strong activation of the glutes.
Step 3: Progression With Resistance/Load
Now, once you do get to a point where your glutes are “back on” and your hamstrings and lower back feel a little relieved as a result, you’ll want to then start progressively challenging your glutes with more resistance and with different movement patterns.
To do so, here are 3 exercises that Dr. Stuart McGill recommends would be best based on his research and experience.
Lateral Step Ups
This is a great low impact exercise that can be used to challenge the glutes in multiple planes. To progress it, you can pull your knee up at the top and hold at this top position for 1-2 seconds.
Next is the goblet squat. This will be used to teach the glutes how to work with your other lower body muscles in a squat movement pattern. Use the various cues provided below, and experiment with a “weight shift” progression where you descend to about ¾ the way down, hold this position, and then slowly shift your weight from one foot to the other side to side. This movement will help challenge all the neuromuscular compartments of the glutes.
Lastly, we’ll use cable pull-throughs to teach the glutes how to work in a hinge pattern with the hamstrings. This will transfer effectively over to movements like the deadlift. It’s also an especially useful way to start integrating the glutes in movements that produce power and force.
These exercises are essential to get your glutes in the habit of knowing how to work together with your other muscles in various movement patterns. Then eventually you’ll be able to do your more demanding exercises like split squats, barbell squats, and deadlifts and gradually load them with more and more weight, but this time with your glutes actually doing what they should be doing as opposed to having other muscles compensate. Until then, however, prioritize focusing on these progressions.
Step 4: Prevention
Now lastly, although you will likely have success with the previous steps, it’s important that we don’t overlook a potential root cause of all this – too much sitting. Which is where step 4. This is where prevention comes in. Avoid prolonged periods of sitting where you aren’t using your glutes at all. And instead, get up and take a walk or have a stretch at least between every 30 minutes of sitting. And even better, during your breaks, perform what I’ll call a “wake up” exercise for your glutes.
For example, one great mindful exercise is toe raises, where you:
- Point your toes outwards
- Squeeze your quads
- Then, rise up to the balls of your feet while squeezing your glutes
- Hold for 5 seconds and then come back down and repeat for a total of 10 reps
This will just serve as a quick exercise to keep your brain in the habit of knowing how to properly fire and use your glutes throughout the day.
How To Activate Glutes: Summary
So, as a summary, here’s the action plan to follow to activate your glutes.
Perform the 2 activation exercises, the glute bridge and the clam shell, every single day at least once a day with the following reps and sets. Then, in addition to this, you’ll want to add in one “wake up” exercise like toe raises that you can do throughout the day to break up your periods of sitting.
GLUTE ACTIVATION WORKOUT DAILY MOVES:
Glute Bridges (3 sets of 10 reps with 5 second pause at top)
Clam Shells (3 sets of 10 reps per side)
Wake Up Exercise (10 reps with 5 second holds, done 3-5 times throughout the day)
Now as your glutes activation improves and you’ve had success with the progression exercises, eventually you’ll reach a point where these daily glute exercises, for the most part, will no longer be needed. That’s because you’ll be able to activate, strengthen, and grow your glutes to a much greater degree through your main lower body exercises. But, to get to that point, it’s absolutely vital that you stay consistent with the plan we’ve outlined.
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