by Nick Tumminello
Regardless of your specific training goals, everyone I've encountered can benefit from having stronger, more functional glutes.
Figure Athletes who compete need them because, as any judge would tell you, Figure competitions are won from the backside.
Female sports athletes need strong glutes because they're primarily responsible for the ability to decelerate, change direction, accelerate, and move explosively.
And female fitness enthusiasts need more functional glutes for improved posture and prevention of injury to the low back and the knees.
Besides, having a good-looking rear end is always nice!
When Squats and Deadlifts Aren't Enough
Unfortunately, although the importance of strong glutes is no secret, actually understanding how to achieve this goal can be quite mysterious.
You see, you're always told that if you want to develop strong, functional glutes, you can do so through performing exercises like deep squats, deadlifts, lunges, steps ups, and the like. The problem with this recommendation is that while it isn't wrong, it's not entirely correct, either.
There's a major piece to this puzzle that's most often completely overlooked.
Well, that's all about to change. This article will provide you with that missing piece. It's an aspect of glute training that you may've never seen or heard before, but absolutely need to know.
It's All About Activation
Here's something that may surprise you: the same exact exercises can have drastically different effects on your physique, depending upon your body's ability to recruit the muscles being trained.
In other words, all the squats, deadlifts, and lunges in the world won't do your backside much good if your glutes don't activate well to begin with.
Have you ever wondered why some Figure girls can train and diet harder than anyone else in the gym, get ripped and lean everywhere, but still have soft, flat looking rear ends, while other girls work out half as hard and have tight, perky bottoms?
The answer's simple: Some girls have glutes that activate properly, and others don't.
I can tell you from years of experience that most girls, even elite athletes, lack optimal glute activation.
It's important to understand that during exercises like deadlifts, lunges, and squats, the body compensates for weak, under-active glutes by over-using the supportive muscle groups like the hamstrings and lower back.
Overtime, these overworked muscles become tight and more susceptible to pain and injury. It's no wonder so many fit, health conscious women suffer from knee and back problems!
The good news is that every issue resulting from poor glute activation can be improved or avoided altogether with the right testing and training.
Testing Your Glutes
The first thing you'll need to do is test your glutes to determine how well they're able to activate. Below are two very reliable, user-friendly tests that require no equipment, very little space, and can be successfully performed by anyone without professional supervision.
You'll notice that both of the glute activation tests I've provided are to be performed unilaterally, using just one side of the body at a time.
This is done because we're all naturally dominant on one side, so it's important to avoid bi-lateral tests because the strong side will always compensate for the weak side, making it difficult to discover any weaknesses.
Unilateral tests like these, force out the weakness and make them easy to see and address.
Fundamental Movement Patterns
Before we get to the tests themselves, it's important for you to understand that everyone should be able to do them without a struggle, as they're based on fundamental, bio-motor (human movement) abilities.
This means that if you're unable to successfully perform one or both of the tests, you essentially lack a basic ability that you need for healthy and efficient movement. As I mentioned earlier, it's very common to find these tests difficult to perform, so it's nothing to worry about; you just need to be retrained.
I've provided specific exercise progressions that are designed to retrain your necessary but lost abilities toward the bottom of the article, so don't fret, all of your bases are covered right here!
Glute Activation Test 1: Straight Leg Hip Extension
This test enables us to test the level of glute activation one can achieve in the straight leg position. This same straight leg hip extension occurs on both sides in the gym during exercises like two legged and single legged Romanian deadlifts.
So you've got the foundation of this test and how it relates to fitness training, now let's talk about how it's done.
Begin on your elbows, with one leg fully flexed at the hip and the knee. This leg should be tucked up as far as possible into your body with your thigh in contact with your ribs.
The other leg should be extended straight back behind you and resting on the floor (see photos). The extended leg is the one that's going to be tested.
Performing the Test
To perform this test, lift your extended leg off the ground as high as possible.
Be sure to keep that leg fairly straight and avoid bending it. A slight bend (<15 degrees) is okay, however.
Additionally, do not allow your ribs to loose contact with your thigh on the opposite side.
If you can lift your extended thigh and knee at least one to two inches off the floor without struggling, you pass.
If you cannot lift your rear leg without shifting your body or deviating from the starting position, or you find yourself struggling to do so, you have some work ahead of you.
Glute Activation Test 2: Bent Leg Hip Extension
First off, don't even think of skipping this test just because you either passed or failed the first test. This test was adapted from my good friend and sports physical therapist Gray Cook, and it tests the glutes in a different manner; it's important that you try both.
The bent leg test mimics how the glutes are recruited in sports during a different aspect of locomotive activties (running, skipping, etc.). This is clearly displayed by both legs of the sprinter shown in the photo to the right.
Bent leg hip extension is also required to effectively perform gym exercsies like Bulgarian split squats and lunges.
You're going to need a tennis ball for this one. (Tennis balls are the latest in cutting edge fitness equipment.)
To begin the test, lie on your back with both knees bent and feet on the floor, resembling a traditional sit-up position.
Place a tennis ball below your bottom rib, then bring your knee up and use your hip flexors to squeeze the tennis ball between your thigh and bottom rib, as shown in the photo to the right.
Performing the Test
Without deviating from your starting postion or losing the tennis ball, lift your hips as high as possible off of the floor.
In order to pass this test, you must be able to perform ten consectutive repetitions at a controlled tempo, without losing the pressure on the tennis ball or having it roll away altogether.
You also must be able to bridge high enough that your hip, knee, and underarm form a straight line (see photo).
If you're successful at maintaining the tennis ball but fail to reach this hip height, you need some additional help from the specialized exercise progressions laid out below.
There Are Two Sides to Every Story
This should go without saying, but I'm going to say it just in case you need to hear it: Don't forget to test both sides of your body. Just because one side's working well doesn't mean that the opposite will, too.
With that said, if neither one of your glutes is working well, just give each side some extra attention with the corrective training exercises provided here. However, if one side's working great and the other isn't, you'll have to make some programming adjustments.
In that, performing bi-lateral exercises like squats and deadlifts will create unnecessary and possibly dangerous torque forces within your body as one side pulls harder than the other.
Imagine what would happen if you bent over and someone came along and forcefully twisted you to one side. If you have an imbalance, a similar action is happening every time that you deadlift, or squat.
If this describes you, then in addition to performing your corrective training as laid out below, I suggest you start learning to love unilateral exercises like single leg squats and single leg Romanian deadlifts — these will be much safer and more effective with imbalance conditions.
For Those Who Passed With Flying Colors
If you're one of those rare finds who's able to successfully pass both tests equally on both sides, congrats; you aren't a charter member of the weak glutes club.
Now, start incorporating those testing movements as part of your warm up and/or cool down to maintain a high level of strength and function. Doing so will ensure that you get the most glute activation every time you perform your lower body exercises.
For Those Who Had Trouble With the Tests
While both of the tests outlined work beautifully as exercises, they won't do you much good if you're unable to perform them.
This is precisely why I've provided you with some specialized exercise progressions below. These movements will retrain your body and develop the strength and glute activation needed to successfully pass the tests.
I recommend incorporating these exercises into your regular training program; they'll help you get more out of every lower body workout.
Building and Rebuilding Straight Leg Hip Extension
For the sake of easy communication, I'm going to refer to the straight leg tests above as level 3.
This is the advanced level.
Here is how you would go about performing level 2, or the intermediate level.
Level 2: Straight Leg Hip Extension for the Intermediate Trainee
Begin in the same position as the straight leg hip extension test described above, but instead of lifting the entire leg as in the testing protocol, simply lift your knee off the floor so that your heel, ankle, knee, and hip form a straight line (see photo to the right).
Hold this potion for 5-10 seconds before resting. Repeat this movement 5-10 times.
Perform 2-3 times per week for 1-2 weeks and then have another go at level 3 (the testing level).
If you're still unsuccessful, work on this for another week, then re-test.
If you're completely unable to perform this exercise, try out the level 1 version of it as described below.
Level 1: Straight Leg Hip Extension for the Beginner
If level 2 was a bit more than you could handle, work on the beginner version of it for a few weeks before moving up to level 2, and finally to level 3.
You'll need a bench for this one. To begin, get into the same position as described above, except do so on top of a bench (see photo to the right).
Once in this position, lift the rear leg as high as possible, in similar fashion to the above tests without deviating from the starting position or bending the rear knee.
Hold in top position for 5-10 seconds. Repeat 5-10 times before switching sides.
Use this protocol 2-3 times per week for 1-3 weeks before trying your hand at level 2.
Building and Rebuilding Bent Leg Hip Extension
Let's classify this progression in the same way we classified the straight leg hip extension. So, the test you tried above is the advanced level.
Below, I'm going to show you how to perform an easier version, which we'll consider the intermediate-beginner level.
I'm grouping these classifications together because unlike the above progression, there's only one other variation to this exercise.
As in the test, you'll need a tennis ball.
This version is performed in the exact manner as the test described above, except for one major difference: You "hug" your bent knee, holding it tightly against your upper body, as shown to the right.
By doing so, you won't require as much core muscle and hip flexor strength to succefully perform the exercise; it's like a self-spotting technique.
You then perform the hip bridge as described earlier without letting go of your hugged knee.
Stick with this exercise for 2-3 weeks, doing it 2-3 times per week.
Perform 5-10 second holds for 5-10 repetitions. Do so for 1-2 sets per side.
After 1-3 weeks, have a go at the testing protocol.
Still having trouble?
If after a few weeks of performing the above beginner movements, you're still unable to do the more advanced variations, try stretching your hip flexors as much as possible — both throughout the day and before performing the exercsies described.
Your hip flexors essentially perform an action that's the opposite of that of your glutes; they may prevent your glutes from properly activating by being tight. Due to the fact that we all sit too much, hip flexor tightness is a very common occurance.
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