In my experience as a practitioner, the glutes are arguably the most important muscle group when dealing with athletes. When working specifically with runners and triathletes, this muscle group is neglected more often than any other. But, our social media timelines are filled with declarations of “the best glute exercise” and “get stronger glutes with this secret” and the like. But what does the research say about this all-important group?
First, let’s discuss the glutes as a group. You should be familiar with gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. Here is a picture:
The most aesthetic glute of the bunch is the gluteus maximus. This is the largest and most visible of the three, and acts to perform primarily hip extension (among other actions). Hip extension is how you generate power and drive when pushing off the ground or driving through your pedal stroke. Gluteus medius is a bit deeper than glute max and has the primary function of hip abduction, meaning pushing your leg away from midline. This muscle is responsible for stabilizing your pelvis and knee when running and riding. Gluteus minimus also performs important actions, but we will not discuss it during this post.
Let me take a moment to also address something that is a very common phrase in the rehab and strength domains. “Dead butt syndrome” is a misnomer and often does more harm than good. When we are talking about your glutes “not firing” this is very rarely the case. The fact of the matter is unless you have a nerve or spinal cord injury, the muscle will “fire”, it is just likely incredibly weak. So, when we discuss getting a muscle to fire understand that you have the ability to contract the muscle, but it may be too weak to be noticeable or effective at performing movement.
Let’s start with glute max. Gluteus maximus has several actions it is able to accomplish, but is primarily your hip extensor. What exercises are best to recruit the most fibers of glute max and make it stronger? A study from 2012 performed a literature review of several studies to examine what exercises are best for this muscle. (1) Here were the top 5 exercises for glute max activation:
1. Forward Step-Up
2. Single-Leg Deadlift
3. Single-Leg Squat
4. Wall Squat
5. Retro Step-Up