Do your clients have “gluteal amnesia” or dysfunction? Sitting for long periods of time, even if someone commits to exercising each day, is murder on the glutes (among other areas such as the core, hamstrings, and hip flexors). Sitting too much for too long can lead to tightness in multiple areas of the kinetic chain as well as the glutes “forgetting” how to work properly.
The glute muscles are some of the most powerful in the human body, but they do not always get the loving care and activation they need to be at their most powerful. As a result of neglect and improper recruitment, the glutes tend to give less effort during times when we need their force. This can lead to compensation, muscle imbalances, discomfort or pain, and a lack of hip mobility. But these are all correctible with a little bit of “memory” work for the posterior chain.
The Big Five Glute Activation Exercises
As part of any workout, you already have clients perform type of dynamic warm-up or movement preparation that includes movements that mirror those in a strength session. One approach I take, depending on the client and their individual needs, pain points, and goals, is to incorporate a 10-minute total body mobility and dynamic warm-up routine. Always included are five of my favorite glute activation exercises. Though I recommend the use of a resistance loop, these can be done without any type of resistance if your cueing techniques and client’s form is on point. Let’s walk through each one.
- Glute Bridge. This movement has the bonus of performing hip abduction at the top of the movement if using a band (a little glute medius action in addition to the hip extension movement). Clients should not feel this in the hamstrings, which will typically happen in situations where the glutes are not activated properly. Try using a lightweight resistance band and cueing clients to push through the heels, engage the core, and squeeze the glutes at the top. Perform for 30 seconds each side (repeat twice).
- Donkey Kick. This retro move can activate the glutes and isometrically strengthen the hamstrings. It’s a two for one! This movement also teaches clients to maintain a neutral spine (not arching the back) and keeping their core engaged while focusing on the kickback motion. Be sure the foot drives straight up (foot flexed), the client looks 3-5 inches in front of them, and cue them to hold the contraction for a couple of seconds before returning to the start position. Perform for 30 seconds one each side (repeat twice).*Note: Be sure to watch the glutes for firing; those with hamstring dominance may perform this movement without recruiting the glutes much at all!
- Fire Hydrant. A perfect exercise to wake-up that gluteus medius, which helps with balance and injury prevention to the hip, knee, and ankle joints. Building strength in this area will also help with an individual’s ability to change directions quickly while running or during their specific sports practice and competition. Similar rules apply here, keeping a neutral spine, core engaged, and control the movement at the hip (not leaning to the side to lift the leg higher). In this case, it’s not about how high the leg can go in abduction, it’s about the contraction and hip movement.
- Banded Side Steps. I recommend using a light to medium weighted band here. Have clients assume an athletic (semi-low center of gravity position) stance, band placed around the thighs (above the knee) and maintain a hip-width foot placement (to keep tension on the band). Take 4 steps to the right and 4 to the left. Cue the client to move from the hip, not the core (no lateral flexion to the opposite side as they take a step to the left or right). Core should be engaged; head should be in a neutral position and eyes looking forward (clients tend to look down during this movement). Perform for one minute (about 30 seconds in each direction, repeat twice).
- Squat: A classic move that involves the entire posterior chain. I do like to encourage the use of a band here (place it above the knees, but not mid-thigh as it helps clients keep avoid valgas or varus movements, depending on the clients’ tendency. Perform for 30 seconds (repeat twice).
As professionals, we know we must stabilize the body and work on joint mobility before we can effectively help clients build strength. These exercises are excellent options for helping the glutes remember what their job is and for teaching clients what they should feel when those muscles are awake and active. Try them out in your next session or perform them yourself in your next workout.