As a runner, you’ve probably been told by someone in your circle, be it a coach, training partner, Physical Therapist, Doctor, etc., that you need to strengthen your glutes. Terms often used to describe poor glute activation with running are “dead butt syndrome”, or “sleeping butt syndrome”, both of which are not a very nice way to describe our bodies.
So instead of calling our backside some not-so-nice names, let’s learn why the glutes are important, and what to do to if they aren’t quite living up to their full potential.
The “glutes” include three muscles: gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. The glute max is a powerful extensor and external rotator of the hip, while the glute med and glute min play a larger role in hip abduction and stability of the pelvic girdle. Spatially, the glute max overlays the glute med and min and is much larger in surface area.
What does that mean for you, the runner? In summary, the glute max helps you push off the ground to propel forward, and the glute med/min works to keep the pelvis level while supported on one foot. When working appropriately, strong glutes help you move forward faster and avoid inefficient movement from side to side.
Put your glutes to the test
While there are many ways to assess the function of the glutes, we’ll focus on three different tests here.
Bridge: Start on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Push into the floor with your feet, and lift the hips as high as you can without arching the lower back. While your hips are lifted, straighten out one leg. Note how that feels in your body and assess the position of your hip bones. The most common deviation I see clinically is that the hip opposite the support leg drops closer to the floor. Repeat on the other side and compare between sides. We associate this “drop” with the inability of the glutes to
maintain the bridge height and level pelvis while supported on one leg.
Single Leg Stance: Stand in front of a full-length mirror. Stand on one leg and bring the other knee towards your chest until your hip is flexed to 90 degrees. Observe how much you have to shift to balance comfortably and check to see if your pelvis is level. Trunk lean in either direction, dropping of the opposite hip, difficulty maintaining balance, and excessive foot muscle activity are all signs of hip weakness and/or motor control.
Single leg squat: Again, stand in front of a mirror. While standing on one foot, bend the knee into a slight squat- it is not necessary to go into a full “pistol squat”, but rather about 30 degrees of movement, similar to what is required for running. Observe the angle of the knee, how difficult the movement feels, and how much side to side trunk movement is present. Pelvic drop of the opposite side, a knee position angled towards midline, foot pronation, and difficulty with balance are common deviations seen with this test. This is most run-specific and is indicative of how well your body can absorb shock with each footfall.
In addition to these tests, another way to assess glute function is via gait analysis. Runners who are in the habit of not using their glutes have predictable running form. Decreased hip extension, overstriding (hitting the ground too far in front of the body), overworked calves, and backward trunk lean are all commonly observed. It is important to note that just because a runner tests well with the assessments outlined above, does not mean that the glutes are utilized properly while running. In other words, the glutes may be objectively strong, but the brain-body connection while running is either not present or fatigues with distance ran.
Hi, my name is ____, and I have weak glutes.
Okay, so maybe you’ve identified that you would benefit from glute strengthening. There are a myriad of glute exercise variations, and all of them have the potential to be beneficial and make you a stronger runner. The exercises described below are designed to reflect the way the glutes have to work while running to maximize transferability.
Start on your side with your elbow tucked underneath your shoulder and knees bent. Push down into the floor with your bottom knee, squeezing your glute as you do so, and lift your hips off the floor. Once you’re up, make sure that your body is in a straight line and that your trunk isn’t rotated forward. Hold this position briefly, then return to the starting position. Repeat 10-15 times for 1-3 sets, depending on how difficult this exercise is for you to complete.
Single Leg stance with posterior and curtsy taps
Stand on one foot with your hands on your hips. Bend your knee slightly and “reach” straight back with the other foot. Return to the starting position. Complete the same reaching motion again, except this time reach back and across your body (almost like a “curtsy”). Return to the starting position again. Complete 5-10 times per set, as long as you can keep your pelvis level while completing the exercise.
Stand on a step that is about 6-8 inches high. Sit the hips back, as if sitting in a chair, and lower yourself until the unsupported heel touches the floor. Squeeze your glute as you return to the starting position. Ensure that the pelvis stays level and that your knee stays in alignment with your foot and hip.
Aim to complete these exercises 3-4 times a week for maximum benefit. You can incorporate them into your pre- or post- run routine to help with compliance and improve the aforementioned brain-body connection. Try them out and let us know how it goes!
Keep going, you got this!
Dr. Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT
Photo credit: Physiotec.com