Whenever a new client starts with me one of the first things we look at is if all the key muscles on the body are awake and active. This is especially important with anyone who is suffering from injuries.
The body has the ability to inhibit muscles, which means switching them off so you use them less. It does this to protect yourself from further problems.
The primary inhibiting signals are pain in and around the area or joints being slightly out of alignment. Other factors include muscle stiffness and strength of the muscle.
The way we lead our modern lives, e.g. sitting down for most of the day, means certain muscles are more likely to become inhibited. So it is common to see the glutes, deep lower core stomach muscles (TVA), pelvic floor muscles, thigh tear drop muscle (VMO), lower trapz & rhomboids amongst others switched off. This is important because these same muscles provide a large amount of stability to the body and contribute to posture.
Many people want to work on their glutes for looking good reasons or through advice for injury management from physios etc. The key to strengthening and developing them is first to ensure they are awake so that normal exercises target them. Here are some different ways to awaken the glutes:
1) Release the Tension in the thighs – The thighs often become tight through sitting too much and then get selected by the brain to be used when lifting. To deactivate the thighs a little and therefore activate the buttocks you need to use massage techniques to release the tension. This could be a human hand, massage gun, lacrosse ball, foam roller or similar device to release tension in thighs followed by stretching them.
2) Release the tension in the lower back – The lower back often ends up doing the work of the glutes. The result is each stride you take when walking or running is coming from the back which is bad news for your spinal health. Releasing the tension in this area through massage, tennis or golf balls can allow the glutes to work again.
3) Wake the Glute muscles up – If you punch yourself in the buttocks (yes, I am being serious! 🙂 ) then you will trick the nervous system into using the glutes more. These are very light punches and not enough force to create pain. If you do have pain then use less force or instead use open fingers in a claw like posture over a fist. This fires up the muscles spindles. You will sometimes see sprinters in 100m races doing this before they compete.
4) Re-align the sacrum – If your sacrum is slightly twisted it will immediately shut down one side of your buttocks if not both. To realign it you will nee to release tension through the pelvis area. This can be done by a professional or helped through using massage techniques such as sports massage, foam roller or a lacrosse balls to release the spasm on the one side of the glutes.
5) Re-align the hip joint – If the hip joint is slightly out of place in the socket it will also shut down glute muscle activity. This can be realigned through a professional or pulling the joint back into itself on certain stretches.
6) Mental Focus On Glute Activation – If the body has not been using the glutes for a while you will need to make sure you are mentally encouraging it to work while exercising. This is done through directed mind-muscle focus while exercising to focus on the contraction. It is about focusing on using the muscle not simply counting reps or trying to use maximum weight.
7) Choosing Exercises That Force The Glutes To Work – You can greatly enhance the chances of your glutes being used by choosing an exercise that forces the glutes into action. For example, to feel your glutes on a narrow two legged squat you will need a fairly awake and functioning system. To feel it on a wide squat legs turned out stance will be easier as would a 1 legged squat with your body weight through the heel. As activation improves you can then use the more difficult to activate exercises.
8) Using Low Level Glute Exercises – Very often the issue with glute activation is simply there is not that much blood flow in the muscle. In this case, using a light, easy exercise that gets blood into the area immediately reminds the brain that this muscle group is good to go. This can include a variety of exercise band based preparation exercises.
Conditioning the glute muscles when awake.
The above methods should increase the glute muscle activity both in the short term and the longer duration if the root cause has been addressed. When your glutes are awake you should then condition them with the appropriate training plan for your goals. If the cause / issue of the glute inactivity has been removed you will find that your glutes are now always awake and active in any exercise you do.
On the flip side, if you pick up any issue that could deactivate your glutes you may find they do not work as well as previously. e.g. you pick up a thigh strain, your sacrum is slightly twisted from a long time sitting etc. In this case you just need to work through the issue to return to your previous point.
Photo – One of my training partners hitting out my favourite glute exercise.