Saturday, January 7, 2017

Properly Performing Squats to Recruit Glutes

Gluteal activation seems to still be a mystery. There are new terms like “Dormant butt” syndrome or “Dead butt” syndrome, but the problem is still the same. Our butts aren't working! We perform strengthening exercises but the strength doesn’t translate to running. 

Over the past year, I have been researching the best way to get the glutes recruited while exercising and running (also cycling). 

The first thing I look at in my patients is “Can they isolate their glutes independently?”. This is important because when the foot makes contact with the ground, the glute contracts. Meanwhile, the other glute relaxes to allow the swing leg to move through the air. If the gluteals do not function independently, our body will allow the leg to swing and the stance gluteal will not contract. This is the basis of why we don’t recover from a gluteal strength based injury.

My first exercise seems easy, but requires a lot of focus. It lets me know if my client is able to independently contract the glute and if there is a difference in contraction between the sides. This exercise is a prone single leg glute set.


Lay on your stomach with a foam roller under the ankle. On one side straighten the knee then contract the glute muscle ONLY on that side. Hold it for 10 seconds. Now try the other side. Is there one side that is harder then the other? There usually is! Perform this exercise 10 times each ( no matter which side is weaker) 10 seconds 2-3 times a day. If you don’t have a foam roller, a rolled towel can be used. To make this more challenging put 2-5 lbs ankle weights behind the knee or use a theraband and use the opposite knee to anchor the band.

My next exercise is bridges. People commonly dig their heels into the ground when they lift up to bridge. This engages the hamstrings. Usually my older patients get hamstring cramps when bridging up. To focus on the glutes, shift the weight into the forefoot as you lift your pelvis up.  Perform this exercise with a 10 second hold 10 times. To advance rest ankle weights (or text books) across the abs. To further advance, perform a single leg bridge.

What about the squat? The squat is a basic exercise to strengthen the legs and glutes. We SHOULD feel the exercise in our glutes since they are typically weaker then the quadriceps. However, when I ask my clients which muscles do they feel when squatting, they say quadriceps.  I often have to cue my patients to squeeze their glutes. The quadricep are much stronger then the gluteals, so why is the work felt in the quads? I would like to argue it's mechanics and body positioning. 

The ready position in most sports, such as football, volleyball, tennis, involve being a squat position with weight shifted onto the forefoot. The legs can spring off the forefoot and push forward. With the foot fixed on the ground on the body in a forward lean position, the gluteals are forced contract to extend the leg.

My believe is squat form changed to compensate for preventing our knees from going over our toes. The easy fix is simply instructing people to sit back in the heels. This simple cue to save our knees in the short-term, may have doomed our butts. By shifting our weight into the heels we end up engaging the thighs, the quads and hamstrings. I started performing squats with my weight shifted into my forefoot while keeping my knees behind my toes. As I stand, my focus is to straighten the knee. Voila! I feel my glutes engage NOT my quadriceps.

For the past several months, I have been re-cuing my clients and patients to squat and lunge with their weight shifted forward and straightening their knee to stand up. They have been able to recover from their injuries faster. 

By using the cues to shift weight into the forefoot and focus on knee straightening to stand up, the gluteals will be better isolated. To add a variation I use these cues for a lunge matrix and single leg squat as well as jumping drills. By keeping these cues in mind, you'll be able to recruit the glutes and keep running!

Side note: If shifting weight towards the forefoot to recruit the glutes work, does this make an argument for forefoot (or mid foot) running?