June 21, 2017
There’s an obvious giveaway about the importance of the gluteal muscles in our bottoms; they are very big! If we have developed a big, powerful set of muscles somewhere on our bodies, then you can be fairly sure that, through our evolution, there has been a necessity for power and strength in that area.
I’m often telling my patient’s to ‘use their big bits’. If the body is to work efficiently, it makes sense for it to recruit strength from its larger, more powerful areas; with the bum being the largest of them all. If we don’t use these big muscles appropriately, the smaller muscles in other areas will be asked to do more and may end up failing.
The importance of the glutes is understood by practitioners and trainers all over the world. You may well have been told at one time or another that “your glutes aren’t firing”! A common problem for many of us! Unfortunately, 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 glutes are often referred to like a faulty fuse board, which can be rectified with the simple flick of a switch. It would be rather convenient if the glutes had simply decided to switch off but it’s a little more complicated than that I’m afraid. So, why do so many of us underuse our glutes and how do you actually get them to work harder for you?
Evolution lesson #1 – use it or lose it!
The often pedalled cliché of inactive and lazy glutes should be delivered with the caveat that it is, for the vast majority, a completely normal bi-product of modern life. It is not an unfair affliction; you should not curse your glutes for giving up on you when everyone else’s seem to be working just fine!
If you look at the images below of the Capuchin monkey and the Springbok, you should be able to easily spot their big bits and, therefore, have some idea of what activities they do regularly. The Capuchin’s tail suggests that he spends a lot of time hanging and swinging by his tail, which has evolved to become strong and powerful. The Springbok famously spends a lot of time jumping as a means of escape but also as a demonstration of physical prowess, and has the hind legs to prove it! These powerful areas have evolved through continued use, and their continued power and success is dependent on that usage continuing.
This is where the problems for humans arise. We are far more sedentary now than at any time during our evolution. The continued demands required to maintain the strength and power of our big muscles has reduced. Our anatomy has been fine tuned to cope with regular, unpredictable, multi-directional movement. By sitting and moving less, we are no longer putting these demands on our bodies.
The big muscles in our bottoms 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 understand what the gluteal muscles do in real life human movement. Why are they so big?
The glutes are designed to slow down and control our hip movements, both from the ground up and the top down. The hips are our strongest joints and they act as an important hinge during the majority of our daily movements. 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, the glutes recruit elastic energy from the movement. 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 in order to replicate this process.
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 turn the damn things on. 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. The Capuchin doesn’t train his tail by lifting rocks with it; he trains it by using it for its true function.
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.