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There’s a muscle in your body that doesn’t really get as much press as it should. It’s involved in holding you upright, in supporting your lower back so you don’t get injured and it fires up every time you run, walk uphill, pick something up off the floor, throw something... In fact, it’s safe to say:
It’s also safe to say you never train it directly, and equally safe to say that the exercises you do that are supposed to target it aren’t hitting it anything like as well as you think they are.
I’m talking about your glutes.
The gluteal muscles form your butt, and they’re some of the most important functional muscles in the body. In fact, some would say they’re the most important muscle group in terms of function. The glutes extend your hips and help flex your knees, and they play an important role in spinal and pelvic stabilization.
There are four gluteal muscles. The two smaller ones are the gluteus minima, which attach the tops of your thigh bones to the back of your pelvis, the gluteus media, which attach the tips of the thighbones to the hips further up. The gluteus maxima, the visible portion of the glutes attaches the coccyx, the sacrum, the spinal erectors and the pelvis to the iliotibial tract. Finally the smaller tensor fascia latae muscle is in front of and outside the rest and plays a role in hip abduction (opening the legs).
Scientists think the glutes evolved to be proportionately large in humans to facilitate running and an upright posture, and they’re certainly larger in us than in our primate cousins. However, we got lost somewhere along the way and invented the chair.
After a lifetime of this it can be hard to activate the glutes well. Additionally, some people think that sitting down too much can result in a flat or sagging butt. While it’s hard to separate out what the effects are when you have to take into account the fatty deposits on the surface of the glutes that go a long way to giving your butt its shape, being leaner and stronger can’t hurt.
Focus on the Glutes
Considering the effect the glutes have on athletic performance, you’d think they’d be a major focus of our training efforts – but they’re not. Most strength programmes hardly take account of the glutes at all, and those that do assume that exercises like deadlifts and back squats will give you all the glute work you need. After all, they both involve resuming an upright posture, the job of the glutes, and they both involve lifting some seriously heavy weight, at least subjectively.
So they should be great glute exercises.
But they’re not. Studies show that most individuals show greater glute activation during body-weight glute exercises than when squatting or deadlifting their one-rep maxima. That means that, while stronger glutes will help you get a better deadlift, a better deadlift isn’t the best way to chase better glutes. Therefore, it’s a good idea to take advantage of that one-way crossover to get boosts in your bigger lifts by building stronger glutes.
While that ideally means exercises that focus on hip extension, hip hyperextension (pushing your hips out forwards), hip abduction and hip external rotation, this article will introduce hip extension and hyperextension exercises before moving on to tougher and more directly functional training movements. In the second half of this piece, I’ll show you how to activate your glutes and get real power out of them, making your lower back safer and your big lifts bigger.