There’s a fairly obvious giveaway about the importance of our gluteal muscles; they are rather big! Having a big, powerful set of muscles such as the glutes should indicate to us that, through our evolution, the body has developed a demand for strength and power in that area.
Human anatomy has evolved to cope as efficiently as possible with the forces exerted upon it. Perhaps the most important force of all is gravity. Every time you take a stride, or step off from a curb, or land from a jump, there is a demand for the body to control this movement. Without our muscular system engaging to catch us, we would collapse like a bag of bones under the force of gravity.
The most powerful hinge in the body, which has evolved to adsorb these forces, is the hip. It makes sense, therefore, that the hip would need a big set of muscles surrounding it in order to absorb these forces and exert the control that is required - hence the big glutes!
Having developed a powerful set of muscles such as the glutes, it would be efficient for the body to regularly recruit their power when performing tasks. If I want to perform a movement efficiently, such as bending down to empty the dishwasher, I would like the powerful parts of my body to control this movement - rather than the smaller and more vulnerable muscles.
If we don’t use the large muscle groups appropriately, then smaller muscles may be asked to do more work and may end up failing.
The importance of the glutes is widely recognised and often discussed in gyms and clinics all over the world. You may have even been told that "your glutes aren't firing" and may be currently trying to rectify this! Unfortunately, however, the glutes are often blamed (and trained) in isolation.
A lack of understanding of how the glutes work, leads to a very limited approach to gluteal training. The important question to ask is; why are the glutes not firing? Only by answering this will you be able to improve your gluteal activation and strength.
So, why do so many of us under use our glutes and how do you actually get them to work harder for you?
Evolution lesson #1 – use it or lose it!
I always feel that any announcement to a patient that "your glutes aren't firing" should be delivered with a caveat. The caveat being that, for most of us, this is simply a bi-product of our modern lifestyles, it is not an unfortunate affliction that you just happen to be unlucky enough to have developed. Don't worry, we're all in the same boat. It's not your fault!
A quick look at the animal kingdom can help to explain this point. Often we identify animals by their anatomical features, without necessarily knowing that we do so. If I asked you to look at the images below of the Capuchin Monkey and the Springbok and tell me where their "big bits" are, then I'm hoping you would say the Capuchin's tail and the Springbok's hind legs.
Even without knowing the habits of these animals, you would probably be able to make a fairly good guess as to what they were good at. The monkey has a powerful tail for climbing and swinging from trees, the Springbok has big hind legs for jumping.
Their anatomy has evolved to be fine tuned for their lifestyles, habitats and activities and their continued success as a species is dependent upon them using these powerful areas to gain advantages in the wild. These animals take maximum advantage of their powerful areas!
This is where the problems for humans arise. We are far more sedentary now than at any time during our evolution. For many of us, the continued demands required to maintain the strength and power of our big muscle groups has significantly reduced. Our anatomy has been fine tuned to cope with regular, unpredictable, multi-directional movement such as jumping, landing, walking on uneven ground, running, sprinting, changing direction. By sitting, moving less and existing in very flat, unchallenging habitats we are no longer putting these demands on our bodies.
The gluteal muscles fire when they are placed under load through movement combined with the forces of body weight and gravity. They respond to three dimensional movement, so not just up and down, but side to side and rotational movements. We, not only, have a habit of being too sedentary but also training and exercising in a very one dimensional fashion. This leaves our glutes fairly underwhelmed.
So, how do we actually get the glutes to fire?
Although there is no literal need to throw out the trappings of modern life and return to an animalistic state in order to rescue our glutes, there may be a figurative one.
The best way to get the muscular system to activate, and to make any long term changes to the firing of muscles, is to make them do authentic movements. It is crucial for us to really understand what the gluteal muscles have evolved to do.
The glutes are designed to slow down and control our hip movements, both from the ground up and the top down.
Every time our foot hits the ground, the forces from above and below place a huge demand on our hips and the large glutes are there to cope with this significant work load. As the hips absorb movements such as landing or squatting (combined with gravity), the glutes fire in order to control this movement and convert these forces into elastic and kinetic energy. This energy is then utilised to fire us off into the next part of the movement, whether it be the next step or a jump from our squat.
If we want to train the glutes, then we need to create authentic movements at the hip. Only then will the nervous system recognise the movement and create the appropriate activation.
Glute bridges don’t cut it.
If you have been told that you have lazy glutes then you may currently be doing regular glute bridges to switch the blasted things back on again. This is where you lay on your back with your knees bent and lift your pelvis towards the ceiling.
Although this will indeed shorten the glute muscles and may cause them to fatigue – it is by no means an authentic movement. A glute bridge is not something that you are really required to do in daily life.
Putting one foot out in front of you, while reaching forward to pick something up is an action you are required to do frequently. Landing on one foot, while rotating your upper body, is a movement that you do every time you walk. By exercising and challenging the hips in these authentic positions, we begin to re-educate the glutes as to their true purpose. Our nervous systems are very plastic; they have the potential to adapt quickly. If we actually encourage the body to move in the way that it is designed to, our nervous systems will soon catch on to what we are asking of the body and begin to adapt and create the appropriate firing of muscles. If we continue to train in a non-authentic way, our nervous systems will remain confused and will seek ways of compensating – often leading to dysfunction.