Glutes are arguably the most important muscle group for runners. Unfortunately, they are also the most neglected in terms of maintenance and strength. Studies link glute weakness to achilles tendinitis, runner’s knee, iliotibial (IT) band syndrome and other common injuries.
If you glutes are so important and their weakness contributes to many injuries, why are they neglected. Simply put, most athletes of all ages are unaware of the role their glutes play in their running performance. The goal of this article is to create a better awareness of the function of glutes for runners, what causes glute weakness or imbalance, how to identify if you have a problem and how to stretch & strengthen your glutes.
Your gluteus maximus is your butt, the two smaller, glute muscles (called glutes) are located on the side of your butt, near and slightly above your hip joint. When we run, the glutes’ job is to hold our pelvis level and steady. The gluteus maximus is responsible for hip extension, or raising your leg behind your thigh and knee behind you after pushing off with your foot. Good hip extension creates the energy of that leg swing into forward motion.
The problem is, without good hip extension you won’t have a powerful stride, which means your speed will be limited. The other key role of glutes for runners is providing stability for the pelvis and knees and keep our legs, pelvis and torso aligned. If you have strong glutes, side-to-side motion will be limited and you will be a more efficient runner because your energy is directed forward. Basically you can faster at the same effort level.
Also, when the glutes aren’t working properly, some of the impact forces are transmitted elsewhere down the legs. It’s common for many runners to have strong abs and back muscles but weak glutes.
How does this Glute dysfunction occur?
It’s common for the gluteal muscles to become inhibited which will prevent them from properly engaging and being able to perform their role.
Part of the problem is that glutes aren’t as active as other running muscles during routine activities. This leads to your hamstrings, quads, and calves becoming disproportionately stronger (also called an imbalance).
This imbalance limits the effectiveness of the glutes. The end result is that if we aren’t aware of this imbalance and subsequently correct it, typical movement and habits will place increased emphasis on the stronger muscle groups such as the Quads, rather than allowing the glutes to contribute properly within the running motion.
This kind of strength imbalance can cause injury problems over time as the body learns not to use the glutes as it tries to favor the stronger quads. If not properly identified, a glute weakness/imbalance typically doesn’t get corrected on it’s own because most runners don’t perform strength training exercises that isolate and strengthen the glutes. Exercises you can complete to fix this problem are listed below.
Additionally, excessive sitting can cause tight muscles, in particular the hip flexors, which will then inhibit the glutes, making them weak and ultimately pulling your pelvis out of alignment.
Bottomline, you need to work the smaller glutes to stay injury-free. The following video helps to explain the issue.
Glute Strength Tests
To see if you have weak glutes, you’ll need to perform the following glute strength tests.
Stand with your hands over your head, palms together. Lift your right foot off the ground and balance. Watch the left side of your hips to see if it dips down. If it does, it’s a sign of glute weakness.
In these photos, I’ve inserted a YELLOW HORIZONTAL LINE, to help identify whether or not my hips are dipping. You can have a friend take a photo while performing this test or you can complete the test while in front of a mirror to observe results yourself.
I recommend the photo, so you can look at the results more closely.
Try it on the other side, too. Next, do this: While in the same position, lean to the right of your body, checking to see if your left side dips. Move your hands to the left of your body and see if your right side dips. If your hips dip, it’s a sign that your glutes need work. Try this test also after a long or hard run to see how your glutes perform when fatigued.
Glute strengthening and stretching exercises
For each exercise start with 10 reps the first week and then progress to 15 reps (switch legs), rest for 30 seconds and complete 3 total sets.
Watch this video for a modified lunge stretch using a chair:
Tight hip flexors can inhibit the firing of your glutes. Complete this stretch after every workout (crossfit/conditioning or run)
Step forward and lower your back knee. Keep your knee over your ankle. Hold for 30 seconds on each side.
Glute & Hip Strengthening Exercises
This video shows some exercises that are completed with a stretch cord. Stretch cords may be available at your gym. If you don’t have access to a stretch cord, you can complete the exercises below (see photos and descriptions).
Kick Backs – This exercise engages the middle-butt and low back.
Start on all “4s” by placing your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips.
Extend your right knee and hip to even your right leg with your torso. Be sure your foot is flexed and your neck is neutral by looking down towards the ground. Hold momentarily. Return to starting position.
This exercise is a variation of kick backs. While your elbows and right knee are on the ground, lift your left leg until it is parallel with the ground. This is your starting position. Lift your left leg up about 6-12 inches while keeping it straight and then return to your starting position.
This exercise strengthens the gluteus medius and minimus (smaller muscles in the butt).
Start on all “4s.” Next, make a 90 degree angle with your right leg and then lift your right leg up 6-12 inches while keeping your knee bent. Hold momentarily, then return to starting position.
Lie flat on the ground with your hands by your sides and your knees bent. Pushing up mainly with your heels, keep your back straight and raise your hips up off of the floor. Hold there at the top for a few seconds and then go back to where you started and repeat. For an added bonus, try this exercise with only one foot on the ground at a time!
Single Leg Squat:
Stand on your left leg. Lift your right out in front of you. Stand tall (don’t round your shoulders), and keep your left knee over your ankle as you lower down into a squat. Your hands can extend out for balance.
Modified Single Leg Squat:
Stand on edge of curb as shown in image. Raise right leg slightly and squat slightly with left leg (note how right foot is higher in 1st photo, side view). Start with 8-10 squats/leg and after completing this exercise 3 times/week for 2 weeks, increase to 15 squats/leg.