Rethinking how and why you’re training your glutes

Posted on November 20, 2013

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One of the changes the internet has done to fitness programs is give people a greater focus on training their glutes. It started as, “Need to get faster? Train your glutes!” Then, “Knee pain? Work your glutes!” “Lower back pain? Squeeze those glutes!” There are certainly some merits here, but, now it seems to be at, “You have pain anywhere in your body? Glutes!” “Got cancer? GLUTES!” “Erectile Dysfunction? GLUUUUUUUTES!!!”

(Side note: Breathing seems to be the next iteration of this.)

My remote clients are usually well read. When it comes to the internet fitness world, they’ve been around the block. I always ask what people are currently doing exercise wise. Very often a ton of glute exercises are part of the response. Bridging, squatting, deadlifting, lunging, thrusting, you name it. The irony here is these people are enlisting my help because of some dysfunction they have, yet they’re training the ever loving shit out of their butt muscles. All the glute work isn’t getting the job done.

This post is going to cover why training your glutes often fails. And, by the end of this, you should be able to see why training your glutes, in a way, can actually be a bad thing.

Anatomy isn’t that simple

Whether it’s a formal class or reading Wikipedia, pretty much anyone I run into, who knows anatomy, has learned: Muscle X starts here and ends there; Muscle X moves body here from there.

Our bodies aren’t quite that remedial.

Most anatomy learning resources are telling you what the body does when it starts from a neutral position. Our neutral position being the anatomical position. For our purposes we can be fancy and call this “Standing.”

Anatomical-Position

Credit: Mananatomy

So, while standing, “Muscle starts here and ends there; muscle moves body here from there.” Our bodies don’t do everything from a standing, neutral position though. What happens when we change our starting point? Or when we change our ending point? The muscles don’t always perform the same action.

The only muscle I remember going over this with in my earlier anatomy days was the pectoralis major. My first anatomy textbook stated:

  • “Pectoralis Major: Flexes, adducts and medially rotates humerus, as in hugging or climbing.”

Pectoralis major 2

Looking at the muscle this seemed to make sense. The line of pull is pretty much up and in (flexion, adduction and medial rotation):

Pectoralis major line of pull 1

Eventually I came across a more thorough anatomy text. I remember having to read a few times, “Pec major extends the humerus…Pec major flexes the humerus.” I was like, “Wait, the muscle can do two, opposing actions?” Then I took a close, better look at the muscle:

Pec Major

It made sense. Based on where you’re starting, and which part of the muscle you’re referencing, the action of pec major changes. We can see the lines of pull of pec major don’t all point in the same direction, which is why a more thorough anatomy text will discern between a “Clavicular,” “Sternal” and “Costal” head.

Pec Major with lines of pull

If the arm is starting from flexion -your arm is elevated in front of you; pec major can pull the arm down (extension). If the arm is starting from neutral, or an extended position -your arm is at your side or behind you; pec major can flex the humerus.

Shoulder flexion and extension

Humeral flexion and extension with pec major text

At the time, this was revelatory for me. I distinctly remember thinking, “Man, I bet a whole lot of other muscles behave like this.” That was really the only one I came across, and it wouldn’t be something I’d delve into again for a while.

The other muscle which impacted my thoughts on this topic was the psoas. One day I read “The psoas is the only hip flexor active above 90 degrees.” Again, with some thought, this makes sense. If we look at the hip flexors we can see the psoas is the only one which starts above the hip. That is, above 90 degrees of hip flexion.

hip flexors

Therefore, the psoas is the only hip flexor which can pull the hip above 90 degrees.

Be careful how you pick your exercises

You’re reading around, seeing over and over how you need to train your glutes, so you naturally think, “Ok, what’s the best glute exercise I can do?” You come across something like bridges / thrusting:

glute_bridge

The reason you decide this is you’ve read this exercise has the highest glute activity of all glute exercises. Easy. Highest EMG activity = best exercise = you doing it. Except, as I went over a couple years ago in my post on Best exercises for the subscapularispicking what exercise to do based on EMG activity of one muscle can be a poor, if not very poor, method of selection. You need to consider what other muscles are working, and how much they’re working, especially when we’re trying to iron out imbalances between those muscles.

If you don’t feel like reading that whole piece, here’s the short version: In the shoulder, the subscapularis, latissimus dorsi, and pec major all internally rotate the humerus. It’s very common for the lats and pec major to become dominant over the subscapularis. The pec major and lats will work way more than we want them to, and way more than the subscapularis. So, when training the subscap, we want to pick exercises which elicit a high subscap activity BUT a low pec major and lat activity. If we pick exercises where all the muscles are equally as active we’re not ironing out our imbalance. You have to get imbalanced to get balanced.

The glutes actually bring us back to my early anatomy days. Because with them it’s not just you need to be aware of what other muscles are doing (you always need to worry about that), with the glutes, much like pec major, you need to be aware of what other parts of the glutes are doing.

The hip and knee pain

I’m going to quickly cover how the glutes impact knee pain. Basically, why people are always talking about them with knee issues. They certainly impact other joints, but we’ll only use the knee for the sake of brevity.

A common cause of knee issues, say, when squatting, is the knee(s) turn in:

Cause of knee pain

Let’s go over what people typically learn when discussing glute anatomy:

  • The glutes start at the back of the hip and connect at the femur.
  • The glutes extend, abduct and laterally rotate the femur.

Gluteus Maximus

We’re only talking about gluteus maximus; we’ll come back to the others.

Because the knees cave / turn in during a squat, causing knee issues, and the glutes do the opposite motion -turn the knees out – the glutes can help alleviate the knee issue. Hence, “train your glutes.” Off to your bridging and deadlifting you go.

However, the glutes, much like pec major, can perform different actions based on where the body is and based on which part of the muscle we’re referencing.

The glutes aren’t as straight forward as we like to think

If you know some anatomy -and if you’re reading this you probably do- your first thought here is likely, “Yeah, yeah, I know. We have different glute muscles. A glute medius, glute minimus, and glute maximus. BORING.” Fair enough. But that’s not the point of this.

Let’s first talk about glute medius.

Gluteus Medius

I’ve written about this muscle before, here. I’ve talked about how when training the glute medius you need to discern between the anterior and posterior portions of the muscle.

Anterior gluteus medius:

  • Abducts, internally rotates and flexes femur

Posterior gluteus medius:

  • Abducts, externally rotates and extends femur

Gluteus Medius with lines

After abduction, these two sections of the muscle perform opposite movements. Even though we call it the “glute medius,” you really can think of this as two separate muscles. Keep in mind, our understanding of anatomy is simply where some dudes many years ago decided to say, “I think that’s a muscle. And that’s another one.” As Tom Myers has illustrated, we’ve learned our anatomy by where people have dissected. However, if you change how you dissect, you change your perception of our anatomy. With the glutes, if you go based on how the muscles function, you change your perception of where one glute starts and where one ends.

Why is this distinction important?

Let’s say you want to train your glute medius. Invariably, you start incorporating something like this:

side lying leg lift

You go with the “abduction” side of the equation. After all, this works the glute medius.

Moving back to our common cause of knee pain: The knee turns in too much. Part of this is the femur is adducting:

Hip abduction adduction

But part of this is the femur is turning inward:

internal-and-external-hip-rotation

knee pain causes

That side lying leg lift is working the abduction, but what about the rotation? What if you’re doing your Jane Fonda’s with your knee like this:

Side Lying Leg Lift Knee Turning in during abduction

Side Lying Leg Lift Knee Turning in during abduction with lines

Well, you’re actually giving in to your dysfunction. You’re making your body better at what’s causing you pain! (You’re working the anterior gluteus medius, amongst other things.) You need to iron out your form. Something more like this:

Side Lying Leg Lift Good Abduction

Side Lying Leg Lift Good Abduction with lines

Moving on to the big boys

While the glute medius gets some love, we all know the glute maximus is where people are spending their time. Due to all the Glute Professionals (TM) popping up, it’s rare I don’t have people telling me how much they’re thrusting their ass up and down like a porn star.

The glute maximus:

  • Abducts, extends and laterally rotates the femur

It’s similar to the posterior gluteus medius. Or so it seems. Enter the study: Variations of rotation moment arms with hip flexion.

This study made a model of the hip.

Hip model schematic screen shot

Using this model, the researchers were looking to understand how muscles which rotate the hip changed as the hip was flexed. For example, we know the psoas muscle flexes the hip. But can the psoas muscle play any role in rotating the hip? If so, does this role change as the hip moves? Does the psoas become a stronger rotator? Does it stop having any rotation ability? These were the types of questions looking to be answered.

Hip model screen shot

The researchers intended on this being applicable to cerebral palsy patients. CP patients tend to walk with their hip excessively flexed and internally rotated.

Cerebral palsy gait

(I’ve trained some with CP and I’ve seen this.)

The idea is then, which muscles contribute to this excessive internal rotation? And which muscles counteract it? Where you can then hopefully go about a course of treatment. It just so happens this excessive hip internal rotation, and to a lesser degree hip flexion, are also common factors in knee pain. The internal rotation is a common factor with hip pain too.

The muscles looked at were:

  • Obturator internus
  • Obturator externus
  • Quadratus femoris
  • Iliopsoas
  • Gluteus minimus
  • Gluteus medius
  • Gluteus maximus

hip rotators

Regarding the glutes, the researchers didn’t measure “Gluteus maximus,” “Gluteus medius” and “Glute minimus.” They separated the GMAX into 6 compartments, GMED into 4 compartments, and GMIN into 3 compartments. As the hip went from 0 to 90 degrees of hip flexion, how did the potential action of these muscles, and their sections, change? I’ve mentioned how you can discern between some of them in terms of internal and external rotation while standing, but what about as the hip moves?

Since I’ve gone over it, let’s first look at the hip at 0 degrees of flexion. For example, when we’re standing upright:

Hip moment arms through hip flexion at 0 degrees

If that chart is confusing, here’s what it’s saying: At zero degrees of hip flexion, a neutral hip positioning,

  • For the gluteus medius:
    • The anterior portion can internally rotate the hip
    • The middle and posterior portions can externally rotate the hip
  • For the gluteus minimus:
    • The anterior portion can internally rotate the hip
    • The middle and posterior portions can externally rotate the hip
  • For the gluteus maximus:
    • The entire muscle can externally rotate the hip

This is what I went over earlier. However, what happens as the hip goes through flexion? For example, when it’s at 90 degrees?

Hip moment arms through hip flexion at 0 and 90

At 90 degrees of hip flexion (I’ve bolded what’s changed since 0 degrees of hip flexion),

  • For the gluteus medius:
    • The anterior portion can internally rotate the hip
    • The middle and posterior portions can internally rotate the hip
  • For the gluteus minimus:
    • The anterior portion can internally rotate the hip
    • The middle and posterior portions can internally rotate the hip
  • For the gluteus maximus:
    • The anterior and middle portions can internally rotate the hip
    • Only the posterior portion can externally rotate the hip

Out of 13 compartments / sections of the glutes, only 2 could externally rotate the hip at 90 degrees of hip flexion. (Two posterior segments of the gluteus maximus.)

Making sense of this

Using regular anatomy pictures of the glutes can make this confusing. I’m going to try and clarify things with my own drawings. Here is the hip at 0 and 90 degrees of hip flexion:

Pelvis drawing pelvis and femur 0 degrees with labelsHip at 90 with pelvis and labelsLet’s add some gluteal lines for the hip at 0 degrees. I’m only going to draw some upper glute max fibers:

Pelvis and femur full with glute lines at 0 degrees 2

This is consistent with our common understanding of glute max. The line of pull is back and a medial to the sacrum. That is, hip extension, abduction and lateral rotation:

Pelvis and femur full with glute lines at 0 degrees 2 and arrow of pull pelvis sacrum and femur anterior drawing with glute lines pelvis sacrum and femur anterior drawing with glute lines and line of pull

When we flex the hip to 90 degrees we can see things change:

pelvis lateral view with glutes lines

We can see the upper portion of the glute maximus now has, if anything, a hip flexion propensity -the study didn’t go over this, and I’ve only seen this mentioned in one other source, but it makes sense- and an internal rotation moment arm, which the study thoroughly went over.

What’s all this mean? (Practical applications)

Back to our understanding of knee pain. During a faulty squat the hip flexes and internally rotates, often called excessive knee valgus. The same thing typically happens with stair ambulation:

Faulty stair ambulation

To get rid of the knee pain we want to eliminate the internal rotation / we want to laterally rotate the femur. Again, based on our common understanding of the glutes -they laterally rotate the femur- we decide to squeeze dat booty all day son.

All day son schmidt

From everything I just went through, we now understand the upper gluteus maximus fibers can have an increasing influence on the internal rotation aspect. Can you see why “train your glutes” is an incomplete method? Squatting, hip thrusting, deadlifting, pullthroughs, whatever it is, all work the glutes. Yet, part of the glutes, such as the upper glute max fibers, may very well be overactive, which can be what’s causing the knee pain! Actually, 11 of the 13 glute compartments can be causing the knee valgus.

Say we’re doing a ton of hip thrusting as suggested by our Butt Squeezing Experts (patent pending). The upper glute max fibers will be firing as we expect them to. That is, the entire gluteus maximus is being significantly worked by loading it through hip extension. The idea being we’re hypertrophying the entire glute max.

In relation to the hip internally rotating too much, we’d want to lessen the contribution of the hip internal rotators and increase the contribution of the hip external rotators. More specifically, when flexing the hip, like in a squat, we want to really turn on the hip external rotators to prevent the hip from internally rotating / knee going into valgus. That thrusting isn’t working on this. It’s hypertrophying the entire glute. Some of which turns the knee in, some of which turns the knee out. Unless you’re also working on the rotational aspect of all this, you’re not getting anywhere.

The point here is all that glute work isn’t ironing out a potential imbalance within the glutes. And, the glutes don’t appear to function as commonly said. This is why people are spinning their wheels with all this shit. Yes, you are making your ass bigger. Yes, you are strengthening your glutes. Yes, you now act like an elitist moron because you squat and deadlift and other people don’t. But at the same time you’re not improving how your knee or hip moves. All you end up with is doing the same aberrant movement with a possibly bigger ass.

To stop having knee pain while going up a flight of stairs you don’t have to do 300 pound glute bridges. You need to move your knee from this:

Top view knee caving in

To this:

Top view knee good alignment

In many cases, that’s all you have to do!

Seated knee valgus with lines

Seated knee alignment good with arrows

Stop worrying so much about specific muscles. It’s incredibly hard to memorize every single muscle and their action. Think how hard it is to memorize every single muscle, every single section of the muscle, and every action of the section of each muscle. (Many of which we haven’t researched.) It’s not going to happen. Memorizing every movement? In comparison, that’s pretty easy.

In fact, let me make this even more clear and confusing at the same time. I’ve seen plenty of people who will have great squat form. Their knees are out, there’s no valgus, etc. However, they stand and walk like this (left knee more pronounced than right):

Jeremy front knee lines

Jeremy Knee Close Up with rotational lines

Regarding how they move, they may squat great the 20 or so times they do it during a workout, but if they still stand and walk, which they may do for hours a day, with their knee caving in, well, no wonder their knee still gives them issues.

Regarding their anatomy, while squatting things work well; while standing things don’t. In fact, say this person has read so many times on the internet to “Push your knees out!” when squatting. To the point their knees really go out. If anything, they go out and laterally rotate too far. Then, while standing, their glutes -all of which turn the knee out- aren’t working enough. And, in squatting, their glutes -most of which turn the knee in– may very well also not be working enough! The obsession with squatting and getting their knees out at best, isn’t getting them anywhere, and at worst, is increasing their imbalance. Squatting with their knees out isn’t the solution for getting their knees out while they stand. Changing how they stand is the solution for changing how they stand.

In the discussion the authors of the study I reference go over how their hip model may be wrong due to their inability to exactly attach their model in the same way as human attachments. They also go over how people with certain body structures could change their study’s values.

In some sense, who cares? Move properly and everything turns on when it should, everything that gets strengthened gets strengthened, everything that needs to be stretched gets stretched, however you want to look at it, proper movement takes care of whatever indirect strategy you’re trying to employ.

A less complicated way of saying all this: If you want to relieve your knee pain during a certain activity, change how you do that activity. No, this isn’t always enough. But this should be your starting point, rather than thrusting and squeezing your ass all day. After all, porn is never a long term strategy.

———-

I want to mention this study is from 1999. 14 years ago. I’ve been involved in this type of stuff since then, as well as before then, and I can think of 3 people who have referenced this research. Keep this in mind the next time you see someone state they’re a self-proclaimed expert. For example, for as bad a rap as the psoas gets, the psoas is another muscle which helps externally rotate the knee, something the study also goes over. (It’s not much, but it can.) Meaning the psoas can help with knee and hip issues. Hard to fathom how this muscle has been demonized for well over a decade. 

———-

Here’s the full table from the study if interested: 

Hip moment arms through hip flexion

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