The Glute Manifesto (part 1) – Your glutes aren’t firing!

Whats it to you?

Yeah, thats right, I’ve only gotten to 10 blog posts so far and already I’ve decided that my ideas are too big to be constrained by a single post. To make this a trilogy would probably be the classical way to go, but seems a bit cliche. A tetralogy is such a cool word, maybe I’ll go that route, for now I’m keeping the total number of parts under wraps (basically because I don’t know how much one can really write about your arse).

Trouble with sequels aside, second vault session in 8 months completed today, not quite enough to begin to refer to myself as a pole vaulter again yet, but enough to see light at the end of the tunnel. As I sit here, I am not in excruciating agony from ANY part of my body, this is unheard of, and maybe a sign of changing times.

My Training and My Glute

Trainings generally going great! But even when its going great, theres always some little niggle restricting some part of training. I almost think its the bodies way of self-regulating, it knows that it doesn’t want to really do ALL of the training, so as soon as you hit 100% and do every component for a couple of sessions, it just likes to remind you that you’re human and gives you another little niggle to think about. Either that or theres a heirarchy within the body, and it only makes you aware of the worstest (yes its a word, look it up) issue you have, and as soon as you get that fixed, it then makes you aware of the next most problematic area. So you already have about 20 niggles queueing up in your body, but their just waiting for their turn to manifest.

I bring this up because currently my problematic area is my left hip. My take-off leg, a problem I would normally put down to the extra stress of jumping off it when pole vaulting, only as I mentioned, 2 sessions in 8 months probably isn’t that problematic! A bit of tightness causing restriction of movement and making it more difficult to recruit the glute on that side. This is why glutes are on my mind. In fact, they’re actually always on my mind, they’re a common theme which run throughout my coaching, but its just probably more so at the moment.

I think every single athlete/sports person over the last 10 years (wow, 10 years, that makes me feel old!) has at some point, had an injury, gone to the physio and come out with the diagnosis that your “glutes aren’t firing”. Not to say this is the specific diagnosis every time, but this is what the athlete will generally boil it down to. I’ve seen this diagnosis for everyone from weekend warrior office workers, to a full-time hammer thrower who only days earlier I saw deadlifting 200kgs for reps. Is this even possible if your “glutes aren’t firing”?

Inside Your Butt

The Gluteals (to give them their longer name) are actually a group of three muscles, glute maximus, glute medius and glute minimus. Glute min actually resides right underneath glute med and has a very similar action, so for the purposes of simplification, whenever I say glute med from now on, that includes min as well.

Are his glutes firing correctly?
Are his glutes firing correctly?

When we thing about the power production at the hip, we are talking glute max. This is the one that is primarily used for hip extension, so super important in pretty much any big weight lifting exercise and all running, anything in the saggital plane really. When people talk about the glutes being the powerhouse of the body, they’re talking about glute max.

Although glute med doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of “the max” it actually has a very important supporting role, so important that if it doesn’t perform its role, then glute max can’t do its job. Like that saying “Behind every great man, there stands a great woman”, this is the kind of relationship that goes on with glute max and glute med.

The role of the glute med primarily is to control the hip and pelvis in the frontal plane when we stand on one leg. It performs this role in conjunction with the adductor and also the contralateral quadratus lumborum muscle. For this post, I’m going to focus on the glutes but for more info on the relationship of this all functioning together then check out this awesome article (but maybe ignore the “Lateral sub-system” terminology).

So which is more important?

Personally, I think good glute med function allows glute max to do its primary role. Then good glute max function will protect you from most hamstring and lower back problems. But I don’t think lack of strength in the glute med is usually the problem (within an athletic population), when you see glute med circuits consisting of single leg standing exercises and hip abduction, most of the time this is just adding strength to the dysfunction thats already there.

Every running stride taken, the glute med is performing a maximal muscle contraction in a shortened position (in conjunction with TFL) to not just stabilise the pelvis but to provide pre-stretch to the ITB and allow us to store energy in the frontal plane (see Frans Bosch’s Extension Reflex work, or see one of my future blogs). The glute med is working maximally over a very short range of motion. If you performed maximal effort bicep work over only the top half of the range would you expect them to become short and tight? I think you get my point.

Amazing x-ray lycra
Amazing x-ray lycra

So far in my personal quest for the holy grail of keeping glute med in one piece I haven’t found an exercise that does. Full range hip adduction exercises help, Dan Pfaff style sideways walking exercises help, but nothing completely stops this bad boy tightening up.

So whats the solution?

Get a hockey ball deep into your glute med and keep it there! Serious. This takes the muscle out of a constant state of spasm, a state where a lot of the muscle fibres are in a constant state of contraction, if they’re already contracted how can you fire them to create pelvic control?

This is something that I’ve been working on with Welsh Athletics. Nowadays everyone has a foam roller and/or a hockey ball, I think I even saw a pink one the other day, they’re basically fashion accessories for everyone at a sports event who already has all the latest Nike kit. But does anyone really know how to use these things properly? I’m actually running the second session of my “Mobility and Self-Maintenance” course with Welsh Athletes on the National Development Programme focussing specifically on this stuff.

Remember an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, therefore 5 minutes on the hockey ball is worth an hour and twenty minutes of rehab. Mathematical fact!

Most of the athletes I see as a massage therapist will initially only come in when they’re really broken. But once they see the benefits of the treatments and work out that by spending 5 minutes on a hockey ball every couple of days they can keep on top of most of their issues themselves, everyone becomes much happier. They’ll just see me every now and then for a check-up and re-assessment. They’re happy because they spend far less money, and I’m happy because I’m not so tired for my training.

Most people will also find that theres a continuum of this running from rehabilitation type work, getting the glute med working so you can function as a human being, runs all the way through to keeping it functioning, allowing your hips to generate more power in the frontal plane and you get performance improvements.

Glute Max to the Max

So now that you’ve got your med out of spasm and strengthened up appropriately, this means your glute max can now stop performing wussy partial contractions to try and stabilise the hips because med wasn’t doing his job properly and focus on his main role. Power generation!

Now how to achieve this in all activities is definitely the job of an entirely new post.

TL;DR

Put a hockey ball in your gluteus medius: be better!

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