All my clients know I'm obsessed with their butts (in a totally normal, clinical way). My signature catchphrase in the gym is, "SQUEEZE YOUR BUTT!" or "STICK YOUR BUTT OUT!" or basically anything else involving butts. But I've got a good reason to be obsessed with butts! Your butt muscles are not only SUPER IMPORTANT for your performance as an athlete, but also your ability to function as a human. The buttocks, as we know them, are made up of three different glute muscles: gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, and the gluteus medius. The glamorous glute max gets a lot of attention (and songs written about it), probably since it's the largest muscle in the entire body, but the glute med often sneaks under the radar—and I'm here to change that.
The Glute Medius
What if I told you 5 to 10 minutes of exercises per day could cure your knee pain during distance runs? Or your valgus knee fault (knees tracking inward) while lifting? Or your low-back pain, hamstring strain, ankle injury, or ITBS (iliotibial band syndrome)? You'd probably say, "Christye, you're not a doctor." And you're probably right. No, you're definitely right. I am NOT a doctor. But what I do know to be true, through research and personal experience, is that strengthening (and learning to properly activate) the gluteus medius is an effective way to prevent lower-body pain and injury, treat current lower-body pain and injury, correct faulty movement patterns, and improve your athletic performance. And—BONUS—it's one of the EASIEST muscular problems to fix! You can literally do it while watching commercials, or talking on the phone to your mom (remember to call your mom). So while the glute med may not seem as sexy as its larger counterpart, its ability to help you move correctly certainly is.
Where Is It?
The glute med is located on the upper quadrant of your buttocks, and slightly to the side. If you put your hands on your hip bones and follow them all the way around to your back, that's where your glute meds start. It's important to know where the muscle is located so that when you are performing glute med-specific exercises, you can make sure you're activating the right muscle (as opposed to compensating with your hip flexors). Lie on your side, with your bent knees at 90 degrees, and place your hand on the glute med. Then, without firing the hip flexors at the front of your hip, slowly rotate your top knee up towards the ceiling. You should feel the muscle beneath your hand "firing," or contracting. Practice a couple reps on both sides to make sure you've located the right muscle.
What Does It Do?
The glute med is an absolute miracle of physiology and science. It is a workhorse of a muscle, helping to abduct (move away from the midline) and externally rotate the thigh while standing and stabilize the pelvis while performing any one-footed movement. What does that mean, functionally? It means that whenever you are supporting your body weight with one leg (while walking or running), the glute med in the standing leg is working to keep your pelvis from sagging toward the other side. If the glute med is weak, the pelvis drops to the side, and other muscles are called in to compensate in order to keep your body level. This compensation can result in knee pain, ankle pain, IT-band pain—you name it. And unfortunately, in our forward-moving and chair-sitting culture, our glute meds are often underused, or, when they are used, are much stronger on one side than the other. This is why it is crucial to get to (intimately) know your glute meds, and pay attention to how they fire during exercise. If you can identify which is inhibited or weaker (for most right-handed people it is the left), you can work actively to correct the imbalance, improving your body's overall performance.
How Do I Know If It's Inhibited?
If you're doing the Clamshell exercise from above, and for the life of you cannot feel that muscle firing, it might be inhibited. The human body is so dang smart that sometimes when it gets "out of whack" (technical term) under some type of stress, it will SHUT OFF muscles neurologically, or at least really decrease the neural activity between the muscle and your brain. And if a muscle is shut off, the body compensates with other muscles that can work around said out-of-whackness.
As described to me by a biomechanical specialist, "This is how humans survived saber-toothed tigers." Because, I suppose, if our bodies didn't call on other muscles to help compensate for the inhibited one, we wouldn't be able to function at all—and therefore would have been all eaten up by saber-tooth tigers. Science. Anyway, inhibiting muscles is your body's way of jerry-rigging a bigger structural problem. Just like the illustration above, a dysfunctional glute med causes your body's natural gait to change, which just LOOKS painful. If your glute meds are inhibited, you can bet your boots your body is using other muscles to compensate—which can cause bigger, nastier problems down the road (ACL tears, anyone?). So, let's get them firing again!
HOW CAN I MAKE IT STRONGER?
If you're following a Volt training program, good news! Our CSCS-certified experts program in plenty of glute med exercises in order to optimize your performance as an athlete. But if you're working from a deficit glute med-wise, here are the 3 best exercises for getting your glute med up to speed and fully functioning.
1. Lying Hip Abduction
Lie on your side near a wall with your head supported on a pillow or your arm, bottom knee bent at 90 degrees. Keep your top leg straight, and flex your foot (opposite of pointing your toe). Push your heel backward against the wall and slowly raise the leg until you reach the limit of controlled ROM. Pushing the heel backward is the secret to activating the glute med, and NOT the muscles of your anterior thigh and hip flexors. Complete 3 sets of 20 reps, 3x/week.
2. Pelvic Drop
If your glute meds are especially weak, you might want to start with a low step for this one. (When I was recovering from a knee injury, I used a 5-inch-thick Anatomy & Physiology textbook as my step.) Standing with one foot on the step, keeping your core muscles tight, slowly lower your other leg toward the floor, just until you reach the end of your controlled ROM. Then, using the muscles of your core and hip, pick your pelvis back up. Complete 3 sets of 20 reps, 3x/week.
3. Lateral Band Walk
This one is my all-time favorite glute med exercise. I even got my mom her very own set of exercise bands for her birthday this year. Anyway, to perform this one you'll need a stretchy band or rope, one that's strong enough to provide your glutes some nice resistance. You may have a circular one already, or you can make your own by tying the ends of a regular resistance band. Slip the band either around your ankles, or just below or above the knee (NOT on the knee joint itself). Stand up tall, engage your core, and sit your hips back a bit to engage your glutes. Then walk sideways, taking care to keep your pelvis level the whole time (it tends to want to bob up-and-down). Think of your pelvis as a bowl containing water, and don't spill that water! The gal in this photo is using my favorite set of circular bands from Perform Better, but you can get them from any sporting goods store worth its salt. Find a hallway or a long stretch (10 yds) of space, and complete 3 sets of lateral walks BOTH directions (gotta keep both cheeks even!)
How will all this Anatomy and Physiology mumbo-jumbo help you on game day? Simple: in order to PERFORM your best, you've got to PREPARE your best. If you're training with Volt, you've already got an incredible head-start—but you can't half-ass your training (quite literally, in this context!). By educating yourself or your athletes on how to develop body awareness on a micro level (e.g. learning to activate your glute meds), you're bringing your brain into the weight room and THAT is what makes the biggest difference in athletic performance.
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Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye