Every triathlete who has ever seen a physio or personal trainer will have been told at some point that they have weak glutes and given exercises to do (and probably not have done them!)………….but what do the glutes do and why are they so important??
As a physiotherapist and triathlete myself, I really do believe that glutes are key for performance enhancement as well as injury prevention. In our clinic we see heaps of triathletes suffering from glutes related problems. Our aim is to treat the injury and prevent it happening again but also to improve the athletes function in order to train and race better than their pre injury level.
So what do our glutes do?
Firstly we should seperate the glutes up as they actually have very different functions.
Glut max is the large “bum cheek” muscle. Its role is to extend the hip backwards forcefully to propel you forward, especially forceful movements eg running and cycling. A poor glute max function can often result in calf problems and lower back pain.
Glut med is a smaller muscle more toward the outside of the hip. Its role is to move the leg out sideways but perhaps more importantly to stabilise the hip when the opposite leg is lifted off the ground. Hence it plays a greater role in lateral stability. A glute med dysfunction can often lead to injuries such as shin splints, Achilles tendinopathy and knee pain.
Hence both glute max and med have a significant role in injury but also in effective performance.
So how do we train these two muscles?
It is commonly thought that for most people glut max is quite strong, however it just does not kick in at the right time. Often the hamstring will initiate hip extension and the glute max kicks in later if at all. The good news is that glute max timing/activation is very easy to teach and you can make significant progress very quickly. Your brain just needs to be reminded about your bottom!
Here are some simple exercises to try at home to get your glutes engaged. They aim to get your glutes firing and the connection between your brain and bottom improved. If you find it hard to switch on your bottom in isolation as below, it might mean that your glute timing is not as good as it should be and you may not be getting the best out of your glutes……so have a go and see how good your glutes are!
- Glute squeezes
How? Squeeze your bum cheeks together, hold for 3 seconds and relax. Then try to squeeze the left cheek without the right cheek and vice versa. Be careful that your quadriceps or hamstrings don’t join in too as this often happens – it should just be your gluts. Can be done in any position. Place your hands on your bottom to have a better feel of what’s going on.
Why? Isolates the gluts and improves the pathway from your brain down to your bottom which improves the use of the gluts in function
- Glute squeeze and lift
How? Lying on your stomach, squeeze your left glut and then raise your left leg straight up a few inches off the floor and slowly lower down. Key is to initiate from the glute first
Why? The glute is the primary muscle for this movement but for most people the hamstring wants to do the work. This exercise re programs your brain to say the glute does this movement and encourages the glut to kick in first.
This can then be progressed to standing, standing with a resistance band and then into your running.
How? Lying on back knees bent up. Squeeze glut max (squeeze bum cheeks together) and drive hips up to make straight line between ankles, hips and shoulders. Hold at top for few seconds and lower. Progress to single leg bridge – squeeze cheek of planted foot to maintain stability of bridge and stop hips from dropping.
Why? Putting glute max activation into a more strength type movement and reinforcing pattern of glute max initiation first.
Getting the correct activation pattern of glute max can dramatically improve the drive phase of running as well as cycling and lots of our athletes have noticed a huge improvement in performance so I thoroughly recommend trying a bum squeeze!
Glute med is more often a strength rather than timing issue especially in a fatigued triathlete. At the end of a race, you often see triathletes running with their hips going side to side as glute med has fatigued and provides no stability to the pelvis. This results in a lot of wasted energy that should be used to propel the athlete forward. Hence is an important muscle to train.
A single leg squat is a good way to test glute med and lateral stability. If your knee falls in when you single leg squat it may mean that glute med is not working as well as it should be.
The important thing with glute med re training is that we don’t over train our hip flexors and tensor fascia lata (TFL) instead. These more anterior hip muscles will want to work instead of glute med. A good way to know which muscles are working is to place your hands on your hips – fingers on hip flexors and thumb on glute med – and feel which muscles are kicking in. The aim is to activate glute med without activating your hip flexors/TFL.
A good exercise to practice this is weight transference in standing feeling which muscles are active and trying to recruit the correct ones. This is a really hard concept to get so often you are best to discuss it with your physiotherapist.
Glute max and glute med are very different muscles but both play a significant role in injury and performance of a triathlete. And if you can take one thing away from this then it’s to squeeze your bum more!!!