Updated: Jul 30, 2021
Most people are aware of the gluteal muscles from an aesthetic point of view. Whether they are too round, too flat, too saggy, too big or not big enough is usually the thoughts given to the glute muscles. However as physical therapists, we are concerned about them, not for how they look, but how they function.
The glutes play a critical role in hip and spinal stabilization and therefore we want to be quite sure that they are strong enough to stabilize and do their job. We also want to ensure that they are working well in concert with other muscle groups to allow for proper support and function in our daily and recreational activities. The glutes collectively typically refer to the gluteus maximus and the gluteus medius, however there is actually a third muscle in the group which is the gluteus minimus. All of these play a critical role in hip strength.
The glute max is the main extensor (moves it behind you) of the hip, and also laterally rotates (moves it outward) the hip. The gluteus medius is the main abductor (moves it out to the side) of the hip, however it gets help from the minimus.
In addition, both the medius and minimus internally (moves it in towards your body) rotate the hip as well. The three work together to maintain stability at the hip and pelvis and have a significant influence as to how well the low back is supported. So, given what an important role the glutes have to our function and spine health, just how do we go about getting our glutes strong?
The research tells us that certain exercises are more effective in firing the glutes than others. Several studies have measured the peak levels of muscle activity for the glutes via EMG during a variety of exercises. Three recent studies done in 2012 (Reiman, Bolgla, & Loundon), 2011 (Boren, Conrey, & Coquic, et al), and 2009 (Distefano, Marshall, and Blackburn) all found similar results.
The three studies determined that the best glute max exercises include quadruped (hands and knees) lifting the opposite arm and leg, one legged squat, retro (backward) step up, wall squat, forward plank with leg extension, and a single leg deadlift-with the greatest activity occurring during a forward step up exercise.
The best glute med exercises were found to be side plank (greatest on the down leg), single leg deadlift, side-lying hip abduction, and wall squat-with the greatest activity occurring during a single leg squat. The glute minimus fires similarly to the glute med, so these exercises are targeting this muscle as well.
Ensuring proper technique is critical to ensure that these muscle groups are being isolated well and that there is not compensation or "cheating" of other muscle groups which can further promote bad muscular patterns. Therefore, working with a physical therapist or fitness professional even for a few educational sessions can be extremely helpful in increasing both your glute strength and hip joint health.
Having stronger glutes can go a long way in avoiding back pain, improving your game, and keeping your active. As a bonus, it can even make them look better too!
If you want to give these a try, go to the Resources page for pictures and descriptions of these exercises. You can print them for your reference.
Stay well and feel good,
*Always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.
Hi! I am Dr. Kim MacDonald. I am a physical therapist who specializes in empowering my patients to optimize how they move their bodies and improve their ability to do the things they love regardless of age, experience, or capabilities.
My experience in the health care field allows me to teach the tools you need to ensure that you are working safely to improve your pain and maximize your physical potential.
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