The latest trend is glute activation techniques to “get your glutes to fire”
Every 5-10 years or so a revolution pops up in physical fitness and athletic training where all the focus is on one form of training. Working the “core,” stability training, posterior chain training, interval training, and mobility work have all had their day in the sun.
The latest trend is glute activation techniques to “get your glutes to fire” so as to improve posture, athletic performance, and to prevent and resolve back pain. Are promoters of this concept really onto something or is this just another fitness fad?
Before exploring the value of glute activation training, let’s go back a few dozen years to a time when core training was becoming the hottest new concept. Fitness enthusiasts were finding that conventional sit-ups often caused discomfort in their lower back, even when they exercised on a soft surface with their knees bent. As a solution, the physical medicine community advocated crunch exercises, which inspired the creation of ab crunch devices for commercial gyms and home use. Manufacturers of these machines reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, and these machines are still being sold today.
Among the first and most popular machines designed to specifically train the core muscles were those produced by Nautilus founder Arthur Jones. In the 1970s Nautilus-only gyms sprang up across the country, and several of the machines in these gyms targeted the obliques (muscles that are aligned diagonally to the spine and create rotation) and rectus abdominus (a muscle that is aligned vertically to the spine and produces flexion). Many imitators followed Jones, but Jones is credited for seeing the financial potential of such machines.
There is no question that strong abdominals are crucial for an active lifestyle and optimal athletic performance. If the abdominals are relatively weak, this imbalance can create excessive lumbar curvature that can reduce the shock absorbing qualities of the spine. Without such shock absorption, distance runners with their high volume of training would eventually develop lower back issues. Likewise, a muscle imbalance in the obliques can produce excessive rotation in the spine that can eventually result in disk injury.
While many individuals have benefited from core training, the number of athletes and non-athletes suffering from back pain continues to increase. This trend has prompted the physical medicine community to look for other causes, and one is improper functioning of the glutes.
The gluteal muscles are critical to posture and human performance. The many functions of the gluteal muscles (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus) include stabilization of the pelvis during standing, walking, and running. Today, an unfortunate and all-too-common result of excessive sitting is weakness and chronic tightness in the gluteal muscles, and of course, poor posture.
One of the classic textbooks on posture is Muscles: Testing and Function with Posture and Pain by Kendall, McCreary, and Provance. The book describes many common postural problems, one of which is excessive forward rotation of the hips. Physical medicine pioneer Dr. Vladimir Yanda referred to this posture as one of the characteristics of what is now often called “lower cross syndrome.”
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Although weak abdominals could be a cause of lower cross syndrome, so could weak glutes. But some sports medicine practitioners of recent years considered it insufficient to perform glute exercises such as pelvic bridges, reverse hypers, or back extensions. Glute activation techniques, including foam rolling and specific types of massage, were also considered necessary for some individuals to get their glutes “to fire” properly.
The issue with approaching the problem with this terminology is that having glutes that don’t fire is often associated with neurodegenerative disease or perhaps an injury to the spinal cord. Seriously, if your glutes really didn’t fire, you wouldn’t be able to walk – every time you took a step, the glutes would not be able to stabilize the legs and you would collapse. If the glutes are inhibited in their ability to contract, the most likely cause is tight antagonistic muscles (a condition referred to as Sherrington’s law of reciprocal inhibition). Keeping that in mind, let’s look at a scientifically valid approach to glute activation.
The glutes extend the hip, so their antagonists are those muscles that flex the hip, such as the psoas. Further insight comes from John Gibbons, author of The Vital Glutes: Connecting the Gait Cycle of Pain and Dysfunction, an excellent resource that discusses the issue of inhibited glute muscles in detail. Gibbons says that the first order of treatment for someone with inhibited glutes is to stretch the hip flexor muscles. If that doesn’t work, he outlines many specific glute strengthening exercises that will help with glute weakness.
Exercise is an essential component of good health and athletic performance, and in many cases corrective exercises, even for the glutes and abdominals, are needed. But before participating in an extensive program of corrective exercises designed to activate inhibited muscles, start by seeing a Posturologist who can look at what may be the root cause of the problem.
As it happens, many glute issues fall within the domain of posture. The traditional corrective exercise approach to postural issues is to strengthen muscles that are tight and strengthen those that are weak, and there is no doubt that such an approach has value and has helped countless individuals function optimally. But there is another technique that may be more effective and offer a permanent solution. It’s called Postural Recalibration.
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