The Glutes Powerhouse: It’s all in the Hips

If you’ve been told you have under active glutes but have no idea how to turn them on, Riley Gould offers a simple approach to firing up this muscle group.

– Article by Riley Gould

If you have ever performed deadlifts or squats during your strength training and it has caused you lower back pain or you have finally reached the inevitable plateau, you may have been told to:

“Increase your glute strength/recruitment.’”

This is usually where the advice ends, with little to no explanation into why it will reduce further pain or how to actually ‘fire up’ your glute complex. Firstly, the gluteal muscle group does play a significant role in both bilateral (double limbed) and unilateral (single limbed) movement patterns. Secondly, sufficient recruitment of the entire gluteal complex (max, med, min) can reduce both pain through increased hip stability and help produce that much needed drive in your major lifts.

[cro_callout text=”E.g. Glute med & min recruitment > increased hip stability > reduced loading of lower back (Quadratus Lumborum), knee or ankle for stability > reduce injury risk/pain.” layout=”1″ color=”1″]

Now, you may be wondering just what exactly are glute maximus, medius and minimus. This is where the breakdown will come in. Essentially, these are the fancy names given to the individual musculature that make up the entire gluteal complex, and as you can guess the name is a pretty obvious give away to its size and its strength (force production).

Gluteal Muscles

The Gluteal Muscle Break Down:

Starting with the gluteus minimus, this little guy is responsible for assisting in hip stability, especially during single leg movements, and helps with adduction of your leg (moving it away from your midline). Think of this guy as the little brother of your glute medius and when there are heavy workloads being put through your body, such as your strength training or high ground reaction forces (jumping, sprinting, decelerating), he helps take the extra load to stabilise your hips.

Next we have gluteus medius, the older brother of glute minimus whose primary role is abduction of your leg, and also stabilising your hips to prevent ‘unlocking’ or ‘dropping’. An example of this guy’s ability to stabilise your hips is during single leg stance. If you try standing with two feet, then slowly lift 1 knee up in front of your body so you’re in a single leg stance, and your hip drops out to the side or you lose balance easily, then glute med is usually underactive (not always the case). Now what can occur when your glute med isn’t ‘firing’, is lower back (Quadratus Lumborum) recruitment to help out and hitch your hip up to provide pelvic stability. So what exactly is the problem with this? Think of it like running your car at high rev’s for a long period of time, it can get the job done from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ however it’s not designed to take that type of stress and eventually will break down. In this case causing a lower back strain during squat or hinge patterns.

Finally, we have gluteus maximus. Exactly like its name implies, it is the largest of the gluteal complex and produces the greatest force during hip extension, and assists with external rotation and abduction (knees out!). It plays part of the power house (glute/ham complex) of any hinge pattern (deadlifts, glute bridges) and is one of the primary movers in a squat pattern.  These guys are vital in any or your single or double leg hinge and squat patterns, to produce enough hip extension when lifting not only body weight but also your heavy squats. They also play a vital role in providing posterior pelvic tilt helping to maintain hip alignment and prevent an over anteriorly tilted pelvis during your big lifts. This will reduce load through your lower back and reduce your changes of lower back strain.

How to ‘Fire Up’ your glutes:

So you’ve been told you have underactive glutes and you have a basic understanding what their role is in your squats or deadlifts, however you have no idea how to turn them on. Switching on your glutes during your warm-up can be a simple and complex exercise at the same time (bare with me).

Firstly, the exercise selection itself can be quite simple. You can try to imitate their primary movement role with the addition of minor resistance, for example; hip abduction, hip extension or external rotation. These exercises may include x-band walks, band resisted body squats, glute bridges or single leg sit backs. Easy enough right?

Secondly, and the most complicated part, you have to perform these without synergist muscle groups taking over the movement. As stated before, it is very easy to perform a movement and have another muscle recruit to take the work load. During x-band walk you may feel your lower back loading (quadratus Lumborum), single leg sit backs may be recruiting piriformis (an external rotator of the hip) for stabilisation rather than glute med or min, or even TFL (tenor fascia latae) being over worked during hip abduction.

Sound complicated enough? Well it can be, however by making some subtle changes to your warm-up you may find a massive difference.

First, when performing glute bridges try and tilt your pelvis posteriorly (tuck your butt), contract your glutes isometrically in this position and hold for 2 seconds before performing the glute bridge.

Pelvic Tilt

Secondly, and probably the most important, use self-myofascial release (rolling) and trigger pointing to prevent tight musculature inhibiting your glutes ability to contract. Try targeting hip flexors, TFL & ITB, and piriformis.

Spending time learning to activate your glutes, not just in isolation but as a whole during dynamic movements will work wonders for anyone suffering from lower back pain or even for someone trying to break their strength plateau. Try a few of these tips and see if you can feel a difference in your warm-up and big lifts.

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