There’s no need to squeeze your glutes at the top of a deadlift / swing / good morning / hip hinge

Posted on October 9, 2017

4


A hip hinge is leaning over and standing up. Could be a good morning,

good-morning-exercise

Credit: Bodybuilding.com

deadlift,

Heavy deadlift shoulder laxity

or swing exercise,

Quite a few of the bigger names in the fitness industry have pushed this notion of everybody’s glutes are inactive. Therefore, everyone needs to squeeze the shit out of their glutes when they exercise. The hip hinge is the most obvious example. Cruise around videos of people doing variations of it and you see this intentionally violent hip thrust at the top of the movement.

Guy looks like he’s trying to bang a bear. If you have your sound on, you can even hear the exhale every time he does the terminal thrust. That’s actually fairly common. It’s like people are squeezing their ass so hard they push air out of their mouth.

The rationale is something along the lines of “We need to teach people to finish with their glutes.” But here is how you really find people finishing the movement when they do this:

What are we playing limbo here??

By cueing full contraction of the glutes, you cue full hip extension, as the glutes are hip extensors.

Hip extension

Hip Extension.

By doing this you subsequently cue the shoulders to go behind the hips -red lined pictures above- which likely will give lumbar extension. The foot can’t move because it’s on the floor, so the hips are instead pushed in front of the rest of the body to get that extension.

You may be trying to finish the exercise with your glutes, but by trying so hard, by listening to a trainer yelling “GLUTES!!!”, by pushing the hips into their maximal range of extension, you easily go into too much extension. Because the hips have nothing left to give -we only get about 20 degrees of extension out of them- the lower back kicks in. We were trying to finish the movement with the glutes, but we’re actually finishing it with the lower back.

The above is overwhelmingly what happens. But maybe you’re an observant trainer. “I cue my people to squeeze their glutes, but not lean back at the top.” Yet this happens:

niel-posterior-pelvic-tilt-glute-squeezing-hip-hinge

The pelvis has to posteriorly rotate.

Anterior tilt posterior tilt pelvis

The glutes are also posterior pelvic tilters- they pull the back of the pelvis down. If you aren’t going to let them get more hip extension, then they’re going to try to get that motion -they’re going to try to shorten (fully contract)- another way. Hence, they tilt the pelvis. You can even see how this guy’s Adidas stripes are angling back:

niel-posterior-pelvic-tilt-glute-squeezing-hip-hinge-with-more-lines

Anterior pelvic tilt out of neutral means our spine goes into extension; posterior means our spine goes into flexion.

Below, on the right is the difference between anterior and posterior pelvic tilt. On the left, notice Adidas’ spine is flattened. There’s no forward arching, the lower back is more or less a straight line to the floor, the hips are tilted back, all indicating the lower back is flexed:

(Remember, a neutral lower back is some forward curving. Thus, a flat / straight lower back is not in neutral.)

We are now loading our spine into flexion. We are now forbidding the “don’t lift with a rounded back” mantra. Hey, in swings, not that big of a deal. In a deadlift though? Not desirable.

Why would we

  • want our hips to be in maximal extension,
  • our lower back to be in excessive extension,
  • or our lower back in flexion under, at times, significant load?

We wouldn’t!

“But what about glute activation?”

Somewhere along the line it became one’s glutes either activate, or they don’t. If a person has no glute activation, then the muscles would be completely atrophied. How many do you see walking around with zero glute definition? They’re out there -mainly the elderly (where everything is atrophied…)- but they aren’t the majority. The majority do not have inactive glutes.

In those who do have an issue, glute activation is rarely a problem at end range hip extension. It’s an issue when it comes to timing. When going into hip extension, in someone with glute activation issues, the problem is the glutes turning on too late. Not how hard they turn on, not in them generating maximal hip extension, rarely whether they turn on at all. Thus, the majority has no need to focus on this when finishing a movement involving hip extension. You may want to focus on this when starting a movement involving hip extension.

An example: lay someone on their stomach, have them perform hip extension:

You will see some where the glutes don’t turn on until hip extension is nearly complete. The foot is around butt level, then the glute turns on. In that case, it’s worth getting a person to focus on some gentle glute contraction when INITIATING the movement. Not when finishing it.

-> Gentle is an important word. When cueing, telling people to squeeze a muscle ends up causing them to squeeze for dear life. That’s why the excessive extension or posterior pelvic above happens. They take that contraction as far as they can. This is why I overwhelmingly cue clients to avoid a motion, rather than encourage them to contract a given muscle.

Given motion 99% of time => Given muscle activation.

But

Given muscle activation, e.g. tell client to squeeze an area, more often than not does not equal Given motion.

We’ll get to this at the end.

And in those where the glutes aren’t turning on enough, you typically see the leg go flying in the air, lower back dipping into the floor (lumbar extension). That is, the person generates too much hip extension, and because the glutes aren’t helping much initially, the person throws the leg in the air to help get it up. Women love to do this:

They don’t need more hip extension or glute activation; they need different hip extension and glute activation.

In fact, the people with the smallest glutes often stand in hip extension!

Three types of hip extension side by side with hip extension lines

Knee(s) moving behind hip(s) = hip extension.

(You can read why that is in A short muscle doesn’t equal a strong muscle.)

Meaning if someone does have glute issues, whether it be activation or atrophy, focusing on generating maximal hip extension exercise wise is often doubling down on what the person already does! It’s like telling a NBA player “We really need to work on more jumping and ball hogging in our workouts.” They already do those plenty!

There’s also the realism if someone has glute activation issues, practicing this in 1) a heavy deadlift 2) a fast exercise like a swing, is not how you want to go about improving it. Certainly not initially. What new skill do we ask people to learn in the context of “Do it as hard / fast / intensely as you can? “Here son. Learn to ride this bike going downhill at 30 miles per hour.” (On the need for easy, slow, relaxed exercise.)

-> This partially answers the question “What about squeezing the glutes at the initiation of standing up in a hip hinge exercise?” Plus, as we saw, squeezing the glutes can round the lower back. Do we want to be cueing people in a way which can round the lower back at the bottom of a hip hinge exercise? In a body weight version, maybe. In a loaded one? Nooooo buddy.

Lastly, your average person will have a lower back history. Your average person will not have on or off glute activation issues. If one does have activation issues, your average activation issue will not have a history of related pain.

-> In other words, getting someone to squeeze their glute(s) more in a given movement, like the leg raise video above, for most, will not cause a change from painful to less or no pain.

Your average person will have a history of pain related to their lower back, related to leaning over and standing up, related to the back extending or flexing too much.

In any type of hip hinge then, when writing an article aimed at everyday people, the lower back is the focus. Not squeezing the glutes. So when hip hinging we have the worthwhile cue options of,

  1. “Spine never rounds when leaning over”
    1. “Stick your chest out on the way down” can work well too
  2. “Shoulders never behind hips at top”

For those who find me online who have a pretty strong reading background, who’ve been exposed to the old glute testament, I sometimes resort to a third cue of “Dude, just stand up straight.”

Odds are, the glutes will be helping plenty enough with those cues.

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