Glute Training for Real-Life Strength
The term “functional training” has never acquired a strong definition. We know what maximal strength, power, speed, and many other physical qualities refer to, but functional training seems to be a rather vague umbrella term. Most people define functional training as “training that relates to real life.” This is a wonderful philosophical definition, but it does little to clarify the methods, programming, and use of functional training.
A great example of this challenge of understanding human function can be seen in the popularity of “glute training.” First, we have to clarify training the “glutes” versus “glute.” Most people use the terms interchangeably, but there is a big difference. The glute complex involves the glute maximus, medius, and minimus. Each has a different role in movement. While most people focus on glute maximus, all three are very important.
Your lateral athleticism is influenced by the strength of your posterior. [Photo courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography]
A Complex Group of Muscles
You may expect me to move into a discussion of what the muscles do individually, or a short functional anatomy lesson. While most would tell you, for example, the glute maximus is a hip extensor and external rotator of the hip, the reality is that things can be more complex in real life movement.
A 2006 study in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that the role of glute maximus may be a bit more complex:
"The major functions of the gluteus maximus during running are to control flexion of the trunk on the stance-side and to decelerate the swing leg; contractions of the stance-side gluteus maximus may also help to control flexion of the hip and to extend the thigh."
This statement reflects the researchers’ finding that glute maximus activity was relatively low during walking and much higher during running. What is also interesting is the role of glute maximus in controlling and preventing trunk movement and deceleration.
The glutes work synergistically to create force and stability during our most fundamental human pattern: running. Understanding their role in what our body is designed to do makes us realize that the complexity of our movement is far higher than what we typically see in the gym. Getting stronger or more active isn’t the whole story when it comes to glute training for real life.
Do Your Glutes Work?
Fortunately, the overall awareness of glute training and its value for better movement has improved. People now understand the the idea of gluteal amnesia, which has helped change the focus of a lot of training programs.
But gluteal amnesia may not just be a function of strength, but proper coordination as well. Leading spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill, breaks down the cause of gluteal amnesia into three categories:
- Lack of Use
Pain is a whole science in itself, and we are just starting to learn more about it. Many times, pain will cause movement alterations that cause a series of new issues to develop. As Dr. Heller states:
"Any pain that lasts more than 48 hours begins to alter function. That means trigger points begin to develop, the pain spreads up and down the chain, and key stability muscles shut down….Once the smaller local muscles go 'offline,' they no longer are stabilizing the joints. The joints begin to move too much, which is instability, and this creates more pain."
While one could argue the exact science of pain, working in the clinical setting I have seen many similar situations as Dr. Heller outlines. Pain will often, but not always, create alterations in posture and movement. Therefore, we have to know if pain is the reason the glutes have shut off, and that may change our plan of attack.
We can think of positioning as more of a postural concept. Renowned physical therapist, Dr. Vladamir Janda, has proposed the idea of “crossed pelvis syndrome,” which is characterized by weak glutes and abdominal wall with tight hamstrings and hip flexors. What Dr. Janda found in his work was that people often created compensatory movement by altering the pattern in which muscles functioned. Instead of just purely looking at an individual muscle’s strength, he investigated how the muscles worked in synergy to create movement.
While we may debate the phrase “tight and weak” that Dr. Janda mentioned in his earlier work, the disruptive pattern in hip extension became evident. In fact, Dr. McGill relays the same concept:
"Measuring groups of men with chronic back troubles during squatting types of tasks revealed that they try to accomplish this basic motion and motor pattern of hip extension emphasizing the back extensors and the hamstrings. They appear to have forgotten how to use the gluteal complex."
Lack of use is rather self-explanatory. Our sedentary lifestyle of sitting and inactivity has made our bodies rather lazy. Due to the artificial support of our modern lifestyle, important muscles such as the glutes have simply “turned off” because there is little need for them to work.
So what do you do?
Simple Functional Glute Screens
In any good physical therapy screen, one would not just isolate glute activity, but look at more functional tasks. There are two screens that I believe offer greater feedback into the functional ability of the glutes than isolated testing.
The first test is a single-leg stance test. As the name implies, to complete the test you simply stand on one leg for 20-30 seconds. The goal is to evaluate whether you can hold this position without the other leg touching down, as well how stable you are in this position. Do you sway? Rotate? Use any type of obvious compensations to maintain your posture?
This represents what notable physical therapist, Diane Lee, refers to as the lateral system. The lateral system requires hip abductors and abbductors to work with the opposing quadratus lumborum to maintain posture with large frontal plane forces acting upon the body. If this sounds confusing, just think about when you climb up stairs, run, or do any dynamic real-life activities where the body maintains alignment.
Another great tool to measure functional gluteal ability is the Functional Movement Screen’s (FMS) Y-balance test. This test allows you to evaluate differences from side to side, as well as strength in different planes of motion. The information can be extremely valuable and gives us a more specific means of understanding where weaknesses lie.
3 Drills for Functional Glute Strength
What I want people to take away from this article is not just great glute workouts or more exercises, but rather, a system of looking at how you progress training. Much of this is from our Dynamic Variable Resistance Training system (DVRT), where we look at progressions outside of simply load and volume.
Body position plays an important role in this progression. Starting on the ground may be necessary for those who are in pain or who need to re-pattern and remove some of the challenge posed by being upright. Even though we are starting on the ground, this stable position is simply a means of teaching and not where most of your work should be performed.
1. Glute Pull Apart Bridge
The addition of the sandbag in this exercise might seem somewhat random. But what we are trying to accomplish is not only simply glute activation, but also teaching the glutes to work with the core and lats to build a strong kinetic chain. In real-world activity, the lats, core, and glutes work together to create motion. This is known as the posterior oblique system.
Pay attention to how you walk. You will notice that your body works with opposing limbs to create motion. As you create hip extension, the opposing arm swings back and activates the lat as well as the core to create stability and force.
Isolating the glutes in training is an inefficient way of training them, because it does not train these natural chains. The sandbag provides a necessary activation of the entire kinetic chain. It isn’t simply the act of pulling apart, but the load wanting to sag down vertically as well that lights up this entire system.
As Dr. Liebenson explains:
Many exercises 'isolate' problem areas, but don't mimic the way muscles are used in the patient's functional activities. Such exercises may be important stepping stones in training, but they are not ends in themselves.
2. Moving Deadlifts
Deadlifts are a great way to lay a foundation for functional glute training, but just going heavier and heavier isn’t always the best answer. While doing these variations, you’ll notice it is easy to lose the pattern of the hip hinge and begin to create compensatory movements to counteract the more challenging patterns. That’s because the glutes not only produce force, but are also key in providing stability in motion. We want to use exercises that accomplish both goals.
3. Rotation Training
We can learn a lot about what a muscle does just by looking at its anatomy. Looking at the glute maximus, you will quickly notice the muscle doesn’t run just up and down, but fans out the pelvis. Such a design is meant to reflect that the muscle does several actions at once, versus a more linear set of muscles like the biceps.
We can think of the glutes as being “tri-planar,” meaning that they do work in all planes of motion, often at once. They also help develop great force in rotation. If you are looking to develop high levels of athleticism or functional movements, you need to properly progress through rotational drills. Most leave out rotation because it raises the complexity of movement. In other words, most people just aren’t very good at it.
While many may believe rotation occurs through the core, it actually should come from action of the hip. Looking at the structure of the body, we see the ball and socket joint of the hip is designed for a lot of motion, while the lumbar spine is quite limited (you can read my article about this subject here).
The series in the video will progress your rotational training by moving from more stable, slower environments to more explosive and reactive-based training.
Are Your Glutes Functional?
I hope this article gives you a new understanding of glute training for purely aesthetic purposes, as well as life and sport. While many strategies can help in developing “stronger glutes,” the overall goal of any good functional program is not to just make a muscle stronger, but more integrated with the body’s entire system.
Ready to Fire Up Your Posterior?
Coaches: Keep Your Athletes Healthy For the Long Haul:
1. Daniel E. Lieberman, David A. Raichlen, Herman Pontzer, Dennis M. Bramble, Elizabeth Cutright-Smith, “The Human Gluteus Maximus And Its Role In Running,” Journal of Experimental Biology 209(2006): 2143-2155.
2. Lee, Diane G. The Pelvic Girdle: An integration of clinical expertise and research, 4e 4th Edition, Churchill Livingstone, 2010.
3. McGill, Stuart. Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation 3rd Edition, Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2016.
4. Heller, Mark. Changing Inhibition Patterns: Breaking the Pain - Inhibition - Instability Cycle, Dynamic Chiropractic, Volume 34, Number 9.
5. Liebenson, Craig. Are We Restoring Function?” Dynamic Chiropractic, Volume 34, Number 9.