The female buttocks have been a symbol of fertility and eroticism since the dawn of creation. While not all cultures emphasize the size and shape of this body part, today, having strong, firm glutes is “in”, and for good reason!
A Brief History
Fashion through the ages has accentuated a shapely rear. For example, during the 18th Century, pocket hoops (paniers), worn under the women’s dress, emphasized the hips. These replaced earlier “bum rolls”, which were literally padded rolls that added bulk and obvious shape, to the backside. Regardless of the device worn under the skirt, it was all about the silhouette, as seen in paintings from that era. Bustle dresses of the 1800’s also emphasized the rear, as did Victorian-era dress.
Songs have been written about this part of the human anatomy, such as “Shake Your Moneymaker”, by Elmore James in 1961 or Black Eyed Peas “My Humps”. Today, many movie stars are known by their backsides (Beyonce for one).
In this day and age, tight jeans with glitzy sparkles on the pockets draw the eye to the rear. It seems that it will always be a prominent feature in society!
Form Or Function?
Now that we have established (didn’t have to work too hard at that) that the buttocks or “glutes”, as they are properly referred to in the fitness world, have played a prominent role in fashion, art, and even music, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of what exactly are the “glutes” and why are they such important muscles from a functional perspective?
Your “glutes” are actually 3 different muscles: gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus (surficial to deep).
Besides sitting on them, stuffing them into tight jeans, or spending endless amounts of time staring in the mirror at them, wishing they looked differently, they are super important muscles for the daily functioning of your body whether you are a couch potato or an athlete, or anywhere in between.
If it weren’t for your glutes, you would have one heck of a time standing up from a seated position. You would also find it difficult to stand upright and balance. Try walking or climbing stairs without glutes!
Your glute maximus, the largest muscle in the human body, has the potential to be one powerful muscle, as you can see by observing pro football players or speed skaters (picture). In fact, it is considered one of the strongest muscles in the body! Because of all of this, it is definitely hugely responsible for shaping the buttocks.
It basically goes from the back of the pelvis, including tailbone, to the femur (thigh bone), thereby connecting the pelvis to the leg. Glute maximus is responsible for moving both your legs and your pelvis. It moves your thigh behind your body (hip extension) and rotates it laterally. It also stabilizes the pelvis and trunk during certain movements. When you lift a heavy object, you need your glutes to stabilize your pelvis as well as provide power for going from a bent knee position to straightening your legs. When you are walking or running, your glute maximus plays a role in stabilizing your trunk as well as in acceleration and forward propulsion.
Your glute medius, a smaller muscle than the maximus, is higher up on the back of your pelvis, deeper than glute maximus, and also attaches to your femur. It moves the leg out to the side (hip abduction) and rotates the thigh bone both medially and laterally. It is an important stabilizer muscle for the pelvis when one foot is off of the ground, such as in walking, or any other activity that requires balance on one leg at a time. When you see someone walking toward you or away from you with a distinct “wiggle” or hip drop, this is generally a sign of weakness in the glute medius, a gait pattern known as the “Trendelenburg gait”. The glute medius is not doing its job of stabilizing the pelvis while walking.
Have you heard of “dead butt” syndrome? It is no fun to be told that you have it, but, It is a common running affliction stemming from weak glutes that cannot fire and resulting inflammation in the glute medius with pain in the knee and hip.
Glute minimus, the deepest of the glutes, also attaches from the pelvis to the femur, and mostly assists glute medius in moving the femur and stabilizing the pelvis.
Fire Them Up
It is common to hear personal trainers, Pilates instructors, and PT’s talk about “activating or firing” the glutes. As Nikki Naab-Levy in her article titled “How to Optimize Glute Strength and Function“, says so perfectly, “If all we do is squeeze our butt throughout exercise, we’re creating a lot of noise in our system, but not functional strength”
Yes, our glutes fire, but not in a way that is going to allow our joints to line up with good leverage and minimal compression.” Often times the glutes are under trained and even “shut off” as far as doing what they are supposed to be doing. With so many of us sitting for hours on end in front of computers, the glutes tend to weaken while the hip flexors in the front of the hip, tend to tighten and shorten. If left unchecked, this common combination can cause low back discomfort, knee, hip, or foot problems from the muscle imbalance and the glutes not doing their job but other muscles taking over their job, such as quads (thigh muscles) or back muscles.
Our bodies are smart and try to figure out ways to compensate for inefficiencies. When the glutes are not working properly, other muscles invariably take over, causing what is often-times, serious, imbalances. That low back discomfort that you feel could very well be related to glute weakness!
Isolation Or Compound Movements?
Isolation type of movements focus on one particular muscle or muscle group and only one joint, such as the knee or hip, in this case. Compound movements combine more than one muscle or group of muscles to produce force, and the resulting movement which involves more than one joint. An example of an isolation glute exercise from our list below is the heel presses. Generally speaking, even though you need to be using your abs and back muscles to keep good form, you are focusing on moving just at one joint, the hip joint, to press the heel towards the ceiling. The squat, or lunge, on the other hand, are compound exercises because they involve more than one joint (hip, knee, and ankle) and several muscles in addition to the glutes.
Isolation movements are used often in rehabilitation settings where the focus is on strengthening a particularly weak muscle due to an injury or surgery, and bringing the body back into balance. Initially, focusing on isolation exercises may be good to teach the body how to turn on the glutes, depending on if they are inhibited or weak.
Compound exercises are awesome to add in when the glutes are stronger and your body is demanding more of a challenge. Compound movements are also used to train muscles in a more “functional” manner, simulating real-life activities from sports to activities of daily living (ADL), like going up and down stairs, or even walking.
For weight loss, compound movements burn more calories because they involve more muscle groups, than isolated movement exercises by involving more muscles at one time.
Glute Exercises—Our Top 10 Picks
Below, and in our accompanying video, we have several glute exercises for you to incorporate into your workouts, or start doing, if you don’t currently workout (although, if you are reading this, you are at least interested in working out!). Notice that these exercises vary in position, movement, emphasis, and difficulty. Review the functions of the three gluteal muscles above, and you will understand why we need to come at these guys from different angles or planes of movement.
This list is not exhaustive, by any means, so expect more glute exercise videos from us in the future.
Squats (2 legs)
- Two-legged squat
Start out with a chair or bench behind you, if new to this. We show a progression from a two-legged squat to a staggered stance to a single leg squat.
To perform a proper squat, initiate the movement with your hips by sitting back toward the chair or bench. Keep your chest lifted and keep your knees behind your feet.
- Staggered squat
Placing one foot forward of the other foot, sit back to the chair and stand up. This position will place more demand on one side of your glutes at a time.
- Single leg squat
This is a difficult exercise, but hugely valuable, when performed correctly. If you cannot do this with one foot completely off of the ground, place the front heel on the ground (sort of like a kickstand) to add just a little bit of stability. You want your knee to track in line with the foot on the squatting leg.
Note: In all of the squatting exercises, focus on your glutes more than on your quads (thigh muscles).
Step to the side with one leg, bending that knee and straightening the other leg. Sit back into your rear, and then push off the bent-knee foot to come back. Repeat on the other side. Make sure that you allow your upper body to lean forward just enough that you don’t arch your back, but instead, keep your low back in a neutral position. If you stay too upright, you will likely feel it in your low back.
From a neutral bridge, shift your weight to one foot and while engaging your glute muscles, lift the other foot off the floor. Keep that knee bent. Set that foot back down, and with control and a level pelvis, switch sides. We have added a variation with a “dip” to each march. Focus on the lowest part of your glutes in the bridge exercise, right where the underwear line is.
Heel Presses (quadruped and prone on a pillow)
Lying face-down with a pillow or something comfortable underneath your abdominal/pelvic area, bend one knee and flex your foot to lift it towards the ceiling. Switch sides when done. If you prefer to do this exercise from hands and knees, we show this as well in our video. Keep your low back nice and neutral (no sagging).
Single leg hip hinges
Hinging (or bending) at the hips, lean your torso forward until it is as close to parallel to the floor as you can. You want to keep your hips level and facing forward. If you cannot keep your back neutral (or from rounding), then soften the knee on the standing leg. If balance is challenging, because this is a difficult balance exercise, then, hold a wall or chair.
Front step ups
Easy to do this exercise at home on your stairs, if you don’t have access to a step bench at a gym. Facing the step, step up with one leg, keeping the other leg on the floor. Step back down. Repeat with that one leg for the desired number of repetitions and switch sides.
Side Step ups
This is exactly like the front step ups, only you are facing sideways to the bench or step.
Step behind your body with one leg, while bending the knees. Keep your hips both facing forward as much as you can.
Starting on hands and feet from a plank position, jump one leg forward and back to the starting position, then the other. Keep going. Keep your back nice and neutral, and hips down. If you cannot jump the legs, then try stepping them back and forth.
Leg presses standing (Hip extension with/without external rotation).
For this exercise, you can hold onto a wall or the back of a chair, if you need to for balance. Stand tall and bring one leg off the floor and externally rotated. Pulse it behind your body. Make sure and feel this in your glutes versus up into the low back. Your low back needs to stay in a neutral position and not arch. People try and get their leg up higher by leaning forward, but this is not necessary. A band can be added to the ankles to increase the difficulty.
Watch Our Top 10 Glute Exercises Here
Don’t forget to stretch these muscles. Strength also comes with flexibility. Tight or inflexible hips can also be a result of dysfunctional glutes and a cause of hip, knee, and back pain. We show you three different stretches in our video: figure 4, pigeon stretch, and a cross-hip stretch.
Figure 4: Lying on your back, cross one ankle over the other knee. Reach between your legs and gently pull your legs toward you.
Pigeon: Bringing one leg in front of you with a bent knee, square up your hips so that they both face straight ahead. Settle down into this stretch gently. You can add to the intensity by lying your head down. Figure 4 is very similar to pigeon, and works better for some people with knee or back issues.
Cross-hip: Lying on your back, hug one knee and gently pull it towards you and across your body.
You deserve to have strong and functional glutes, and guess what? They might just look awesome in jeans or a swim suit! This goes for both men and women. While we present 10 exercises for glute strengthening, there are many more, but this is a solid foundation. We look forward to future articles and videos with more great glute exercises.
If you read this article because you have had a nagging back, knee, or hip issue, then we hope that you have gained some insight as to why your glutes are so important. Think about their job, and you just might find yourself sitting on them less and using them more for what they were intended to do!
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By Sue Bream yoursimplehealthylife.com