I often meet people who have been diagnosed, often after consulting a Physiotherapist or Osteopath or even their GP, with having “weak glutes”. That is, the major muscles in the buttocks, known collectively as the glutes, or gluteals, are weak, dysfunctional or , to put it another way, are not working properly.
All of those terms are used commonly and they are all rather vague, and with good reason. You’d have to undergo some fairly heavy duty lab testing to determine absolutely, the function of the muscle and whether it was sustained during different types of movement. Most people who are told this are still walking and moving about, so the muscles work, at least to some extent.
Doctors and Manual Therapists are making a best estimate of the situation when assessing that these muscles are not working optimally, and this is really the most they can reasonably be expected to do.
So we’ve waded into the muddy waters of movement, muscles, function, pain, posture……and boy oh boy, it’s murky and difficult out there.
Now I’m going to add to the murk.
Yes, into the murk is often added: exercise therapy. Frequently people are advised to do particular exercises to strengthen their gluteals. Commonly prescribed exercises are Squats, One Leg Squats, Lunges, Clam, Shoulder Bridge and its cousin Glute Bridge. These exercises will all strengthen the glutes, but here’s the thing, and yes, there is always a thing
How do you do an exercise for your glutes, if your glutes are dysfunctional? They are dysfunctional for a reason and that may prevent you from doing the exercise properly.
Hmmm. Shall we all just give up, go home and turn on the telly? After all, the football season is in full swing and barely a week goes by without somebody saying I should watch Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones
NO NO NO. Don’t give up, and only turn on the telly if you are intending to stand in front of it. Too much sitting is probably a significant contributor to the dysfunction. By all means watch TV, but preferably whilst sitting cross legged on the floor.
Yes, really. Imagine if we all did that: sit on the floor to watch TV. There’d be no more box sets! We’d only manage about five minutes and so we’d have to go back to watching those children’s programmes that used to be on before Nationwide. Let me explain to younger readers: back in the day, and by that I mean in the 1970s and 1980s, Nationwide wasn’t a Building Society it was a programme on BBC1 at about 5.45pm and before it was always a 5 minute programme such as Magic Roundabout or Will’O’the Wisp. Don’t ask me about Nationwide by the way, because I wasn’t allowed to watch it. We had to turn the TV off at 5.45.
OK back to life, back to reality. Don’t give up on the exercise.
How about we take one exercise, look at it carefully and do it as well as is possible in order to really, properly strengthen the glutes. Can you guess which one?
The Glute Bridge
In a moment I’ll give you a five point plan and suggest some modifications but before I do, let me point out a source of confusion
There is an exercise, often called Shoulder Bridge where you articulate the spine into an outwards facing curve as you lift the body up. This will, in theory, strengthen the glutes but the primary purpose of the exercise is spine articulation, not to work the glutes. For this reason I’m going to focus on the Glute Bridge where there is no spine articulation, just a lifting of the body. It is as if you are doing a squat from lying down.
Glute Bridge Watch Points
First lie down on your back. Sounds simple eh? Not quite. You need to lie as flat as possible – just a gentle curve of your lower back and no excessive arching of the spine and ribs flaring to the ceiling. Excessive arching will switch on your Back Extensor muscles and the body will “think” that you simply want them to work more and you’ll lift with an arched spine.
Have you feet fairly close to your body. This generally makes it exercise easier
Initiate lifting by “sending” the back of your thighs towards the back of your knees. In the vocab of Pilates: “send your sit bones (the attachments of the hamstrings) into your knees. You might also like to think of standing into your feet.
When you can no longer send the hamstrings anywhere, then you are ready to use your glutes. Don’t just jam or shove the body upwards. Think of sending the pelvis up by pushing upwards from your buttock muscles.
When you reach end range it can feel surprisingly intense. And very obviously in your glutes.
What Now? Hold it for a moment and then return, steadily, back to the floor. When you get there make sure you are have relaxed the muscles fully , ready for the next repetition.
What Might Go Wrong?
The spine arches – Your ribs appear to lead the way. This suggests that you are moving by sending the spine up and not the legs/bottom up. Go back to the watch points. Think about moving the body forwards and up rather than simply up. The cause of the arched spine is often tightness in the shoulders and so another solution is to consider lifting the upper trunk up slightly on folded towels or a blanket, so that not just the skull but the neck, shoulder blades, top of the ribs and the top of the arms too.
Bum squeezing. Don’t do it. Initiate with the hamstrings and let the glutes wait their turn
Hamstring cramp – notorious in this exercise. It’s not you, it’s the exercise! Good hamstring stretches before hand can really help
Tightness at the front of the hips preventing the glutes from sending the pelvis up. Tight hips prevent you from doing the exercise and tight hips may be an issue in other aspects of life too. As a society we have a big problem with tight hips and it certainly inhibits of entirely prevents correct execution of this exercise. In this context, stretching first can help a lot. Also doing the exercise with your feet on two inch yoga bricks
Take the feet and legs wider and repeat the exercise. This targets the outer glutes – Gluteus Medius (the pelvic stabilisers, and the ones that are worked during Clam)
If you tie a dynaband around your thighs and push outwards on the band, when the feet are wide and turned out, you can work Gluteus Medius even harder
In the top position you can challenge your muscles harder by alternate heel raises, feet raises and eventually leg raises. Beware though, often things go awry at this point. You must not alter the Bridge position on iota when you are doing heel raises etc. No sagging , no spine arches
How Many Should You Do?
It depends upon what you want to achieve. If you are trying to strengthen weak or dysfunctional glutes then try them daily. Always work on the quality of your movement. Really think about how you are working, bear in mind the watch points and start with around 10 repetitions, slowly and carefully, with a moment in between to check you are fully relaxed before the next one.
Here is a video clip to help to you put all of this into action