Activate Your Glutes: Why Your Butt Could be Causing Your Pain

Do you have a case of flat butt?

Your glutes aren’t just responsible for filling out your favorite jeans. They play a major role in how you move (or don’t move) and are the lynchpin to many common pain patterns, including lower back, neck and shoulder pain. Learning how to activate your glutes not only helps protect your body from common injuries, but also enables you to use your body as a more powerful unit.

When someone comes to me in pain or because their performance has taken a nose-dive, one of the first things I assess is if their glute max is inhibited. Does it fire when we ask it to? Is it playing nicely with the other muscles in the movement pattern?

The gluteus maximus is that largest muscle in the body, so why does it have so much trouble showing up for work?

how to activate the glute max

One of the main reasons our butts are slow to respond is because we have a habit of sitting on them all day. When we spend the majority of our time with our hips at 90 degrees, the flexors in the front of the hip respond by shortening. Over time, they adapt to this shortened position, pulling your pelvis forward even when you’re not sitting anymore. This is problematic because it leaves your glutes in an awkward position.

Now, when you pop up after sitting all day and decide to throw some weight on your squat, go for a run or hammer out some intervals on the bike (a position which places your pelvis even further into a forward tilt), your butt still has this gluteal amnesia and your body searches for a new way to get the job done.

If your low back, SI joint, neck, knee, calves, hamstrings, shoulders, achilles, groin, elbows, hips or feet (to name a few) hurt or feel tight and restricted, this could be the result of underworking, inhibited glutes.

This is why it’s always important to play detective and locate the cause of the pain. You could rub your low back all day and foam roll the calves religiously, but if your glutes aren’t functioning correctly, the calves and low back will continue to tighten up no matter how much soft tissue work you do. Your body has determined that tightening up another place gives you the necessary stability elsewhere. Remember, your body’s job is to protect you from predators, not PR on your back squat!

anatomy trains lateral line
Your glutes are connected to everything!

Actions of the Glute Max

When it comes to producing force in the body, the glutes are your quarter back. When we start trying to produce force in other places, we get into trouble and this can lead to disc issues and muscle strains (high hamstring pull, anyone?) as well as consequences at the knees and ankles. The gluteus maximus is responsible for moving the hips in nearly every direction, but mainly in extension (something we don’t do a lot of when we’re sitting all day at a desk or driving).

The glutes are responsible for:

  • Extending the hip
  • Hip thrusting
  • Hip abduction and adduction (moving your leg out to the side and back in)
  • Tipping the pelvis back (posterior pelvic tilt), an important counter balance to the anterior (or forward) tilt sitting places the pelvis in.

How can you tell if your butt is working?

It’s important to remember that even if your butt is strong, it may not be functioning properly in all of the movement patterns listed above. So we’re not testing the glutes for strength, we’re testing for motor control and sequencing. Is your butt getting the signal to participate when it needs to and is it firing in the correct order during activation?

The best way to tell if your glutes are working in all planes of motion and to prescribe a treatment protocol tailored to you, is to get assessed by a professional.

But there are a few basic tests you can perform to bring increased awareness to the glutes and get a better sense of a potential issue.

Glute Activation Tests

The glute max isn’t very active in a sitting position, but you can get a sense of if it’s firing by performing this simple test:

  1. Sit in a chair with your feet resting on the floor.
  2. Now, squeeze your butt, one side at a time
  3. What happened? Did your back tighten up? Did the same side quad jump up or did your stomach brace? These are all common glute compensations, meaning other muscles that stepped in to pick up the slack of the inhibited glute.
  4. Ideally we want the glute max be the only thing actively firing/contracting in this assessment exercise. In real life, it works together with a serious of muscles in movement patterns, but, for now, we’re just trying to isolate the glute.
  5. Focus on what it takes to squeeze just the glute max. Mentally picture the glute contracting or lightly massage it a bit first.
  6. Repeat the exercise until the glute, and only the glute, is contracting.

Another glute activation/ sequencing test:

Since the glute functions at many different angles, it’s good to test it in different positions.

  1. Lie on your stomach, forehead resting on the tops of your hands.
  2. Lift one leg into extension toward the ceiling.
  3. Did you feel your glute max fire first? Or did your back or hamstring tense up? If you can’t tell, have someone place their hand on your butt and another on the hamstring or lower back to feel which one contracts first.

Glute Max Exercises: How to activate your glutes

One of the easiest ways to invite your glutes to the party is to practice using them every time you stand up to get out of a chair. The repetition of this exercise is wonderful and I’d prefer that a client did this exercise throughout the day as opposed to only going to the gym three times a week and banging out weighted squats. Why? Because it activates the glutes and encourages them to stay on with more regularity.

The nervous system much prefers this gentle, frequent nudge to the sledgehammer-like blow of a few, intense workouts. Get your butt firing first and then you can follow up with weighted work. First, the glutes need constant little nagging reminders to do their job.

  1. When you’re ready to stand up from a chair, scoot your butt forward, so it’s resting on the edge.
  2. Line up your heels so they’re under your knees or slightly behind them.
  3. Think “squeezing your butt”, not leaning forward to use your quads.
  4. Squeeze your butt, drive your heels into the ground and push to a standing position. This should be surprisingly difficult if you’re doing it correctly.

You can also perform a Single Leg Glute Bridge to isolate the Glute Max. This teaches you how to activate your glutes in extension.

Then slowly progress the seated glute max activation into a squat. This video provides the form considerations and cues to properly perform a squat:

Another important piece to keeping a balanced pelvis is to work on the front of the pelvis as well, keeping the hip flexors from shortening. Notice, I didn’t say that the hip flexors are too strong because they can feel tight, but actually be weak.

Which brings us to the next piece of the puzzle.

More to come. Stay tuned…

Confused by this or have any follow-up questions? Post ’em below!

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