The glutes are one of the largest muscles in the body, and as such they have the potential to also be the most powerful. Unfortunately though, in a lot of people the opposite is true – the glutes have become dormant and inactive, and fallen far from the top when it comes to ranking as the most powerful muscle in the body. This article will explain exactly why this unfortunate situation is becoming more common, and exactly how to activate the glutes again.
Why the Glutes Become Inhibited
Constant under-use, caused primarily by our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, is the main cause behind why our gluteal muscles can become weak and as a result, inhibited.
A weak muscle is one that does not produce much power, whereas an inhibited muscle is one that does not to activate or ‘fire’ properly.
We sit too much
If you work a desk job or spend most of the day sitting down, then what tends to happen is that the front hip flexor muscles become shorter and tighter, while the gluteal muscles become weaker due to spending so much time in a lengthened position.
Once the glutes become weakened, the body tends to use other stronger muscles to take over from movements that would usually use the glutes, a condition that can be known as ‘relative glute weakness‘ or just ‘weak glutes‘.
We no longer run, jump, or hunt
The activation levels of the glutes for common everyday movements such as walking, bending over, standing and sitting is surprisingly low.
These muscles are more activated by explosive movements such as running, sprinting, jumping, dodging, squatting and the like. But let’s face it, how often do you do these anymore in everyday life? The sad fact is that most of us don’t do much of these movements at all.
The consequence of not practicing these muscle movements is glute inhibition, where the body simply forgets how to activate the rarely-used muscle.
The glutes are notorious for becoming inhibited due to both increasing weakness and under-use. In this case, the phrase ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’ certainly rings true.
Signs of Inactive or Weak Glutes
The following symptoms may be indicative of weakened or inactive gluteal muscles (but this may not always be the root cause of the issue described):
- A flat or visually underdeveloped butt
- Excessive forward tilt of the pelvis (anterior tilt), resulting in a standing posture with your butt sticking out
- Excessive backwards tilt of the pelvis (posterior tilt), resulting in a standing posture with your tailbone tucked underneath
- Lower back pain, hip pain
- Pain in joints when performing some movements involving the lower body, due to incorrect load bearing as the glutes no longer work to support the movement
How To Activate the Glutes and Wake Up Forgotten Muscles
Reminding the body how to activate the glutes can take work. The basic process requires you to re-establish and strengthen neural signalling pathways that will correctly route the signals from your brain to the target muscle, and cause it to activate or ‘fire’ as it is supposed to.
There are no short-cuts here. What it basically boils down to is consistent practice and quality repetition.
Pay particular attention to correct form and really activating the correct muscles during these exercises. The biggest mistake you can make is to progress too quickly, because of the way the nervous system works to propagate signals to your muscles.
Take Steps Forward, Not Back – Strengthen the Right Pathways
Every time your body sends signals through your nervous system, those neural pathways are strengthened, and the same signal is sent through faster next time. This is why practicing a particular movement, or learning a new skill, becomes easier with practice – every time you repeat the same thing, you are strengthening the neural pathway which makes it easier to do again the next time.
This means that in the following exercises you must perform quality repetitions over quantity. This can and will take a surprising amount of concentration – but take the time to set up and focus your mind before each repetition. It is possible to make backwards progress by practicing the wrong way.
Every time you complete one repetition of the exercise correctly, activating the glute in it way it is supposed to be used, that is a step forward.
Every time you complete a repetition of the exercise where you don’t activate the glute correctly, use poor form, or allow other muscles to take over, that is a step backwards.
Make sure that you are constantly taking steps forward, not backwards. Take your time to concentrate and perform each repetition correctly. Practicing the incorrect motions only serves to ingrain these patterns and compound any problems associated with relative glute weakness or inhibition issues.
Stage 1 Glute Activation: Visualization and Palpation
Palpation just means using your fingers to feel the area for a muscular contraction. You’ll use this tool to get to know your butt (nothing suss!) in this stage and see what level of control you have over your butt muscles.
In the first stage of reactivating your glutes, you’ll be focusing on trying to feel the glute muscles working and actually getting them to fire correctly.
First of all, you need to familiarize yourself with the actual muscles of the butt. Don’t skip this step, as learning about your anatomy will help you to visualize the muscles in your body working as well.
Your butt is primarily made up of three different muscles, named and pictured below:
- Gluteus Maximus
- Gluteus Medius
- Gluteus Minimus
From a standing position, place fingers on each side of your butt cheeks and attempt to contract the glutes by imaging squeezing your butt cheeks together (this may sound funny but picture a pencil slotted between your butt cheeks and then clenching them closed as hard as possible to hold that pencil in place!). If you do already have some glute control you should be able to feel the muscle moving beneath your fingers. You can also do this exercise lying down, but you should be able to see or feel the butt muscles moving as you contract, as you can see in this video:
If you can’t feel any muscles working or have difficulty clenching your butt cheeks together, don’t feel bad. This is extremely common and it means that your glutes are quite inactive, or you haven’t built up the proper mind-muscle connection in order to be able to voluntarily contract those muscles.
If you have difficulty with the above, then try performing the exercise lying down on your side or even seated. Another key is to visualize the muscle moving as you perform the contraction, even if you can’t feel any movement with your fingers. Studies have shown that visualization of the muscle moving can increase muscle activation.
Once you get more practiced with this exercise, try to increase your level of control to be able to activate one side of your glutes at a time.
Stage 2 Glute Activation: Isolation Exercises
How did you go in Stage 1? Were you able to contract your butt muscles and feel them contracting?
If so, that’s excellent. You will need to try and refine your level of control so that you can just activate the glute muscles voluntarily while keeping any surrounding muscles (for example the muscles of your legs – the quadriceps and hamstrings) relaxed.
If you weren’t able to get a contraction in Stage 1, don’t feel bad. This is actually really common for most people starting out. In this Stage 2 exercise, you’ll be learning an isolation exercise that should help you to get some control over your butt muscles.
Isolation Exercise 1: Pelvic Tilt/Glute Squeeze
The first exercise we’ll try is a pelvic tilt or glute squeeze. These can be done standing, with your hands over your butt to help detect any contraction. This kind of feedback from feeling the muscles working is excellent at helping build up your voluntary control over the glute contractions.
Here’s what a glute squeeze looks like – you will need to tilt your pelvis forward and under. To do this motion, you’ll basically be forced into using your glutes. Another cue that can help with getting the glutes to fire when you do this exercise is to imaging screwing your heels down into the floor in an inward and forward fashion (though don’t actually move your feet). This can help the glutes to fire also.
Once you have mastered the basic movement, you can get a bit more intense with the motion. Try doing the glute squeezes both fast and slow, to see if you can get and ‘burn out’ in the glute muscles (in which case you know they’ve been working!).
Be sure to keep any other muscles relaxed as much as possible. You really just want to activate only the glutes and minimize any other muscles from taking over, so if you notice you are tensing up your quads or abdominals when you perform this exercise, then slow down and try to isolate just the butt starting with a weaker contraction to begin with.
You can repeat this exercise palpating (feeling) around the different areas of your butt, and experimenting to see which areas move as you focus on creating a movement in the muscles. Try feeling for the upper glutes, the side of the butt and the lower portion of the butt.
Stage 2 Glute Activation: Isolation Exercises
Once you’ve mastered stage 1 (being able to actually use your mental focus to target your glutes), you’re ready to begin some isolation exercises that will help strengthen that mind-muscle connection that you established in stage 1.
These isolation exercises are very basic, and designed to build on the work you’ve already done in Stage 1.
Isolation exercise 1:
Isolation exercise 2:
Stage 3 Glute Activation: Isolation Exercises
Stage 4 Glute Activation: Compound Exercises
Stage 5 Glute Activation: Constant (subconscious) activation during all movements