Bodyweight Training Zone!

Glute Activation: Optimizing the Function of the Posterior Power Center

by Fraser Quelch, NCSA, CSCS - Director of Programming and Education, Fitness Anywhere, Inc.

Years ago I had the wonderful experience of leading nature walks in the Canadian Rockies. One of the games we would teach the kids (much to their parents dismay) to help them remember the name of one of the common trees (the trembling aspen) was to ask them loudly "How's your aspen?" to which they would shout back with the glee of knowing they were saying something their parents would disapprove of…"TREMBLIN"

One of the hottest topics of discussion in the fitness industry recently has been centered on how to optimize glute function. As we begin to recognize the massive roll that this muscle group plays in most movement, it is no wonder that it is one of the largest muscle groups in the human body. The glutes are heavily involved in movements like the golf swing, throwing and striking actions along with running, jumping and direction changes. This huge posterior power center is in many ways the key to producing smooth and powerful movement.

Before we look at how to optimize their function we must first understand how they act in normal movement if they are contributing properly. If we were to look into any anatomy text we would be sure to find the following:

Muscle Name

Origin

Insertion

Joint

Concentric Action(s)

Gluteus Maximus

Ilium (posterior crest)
Sacrum (posterior)
Lumbar Fascia

Femur (gluteal line)
Tibia (lateral condyle)

Hip

extension
external rotation
abduction
transverse abduction

Gluteus Medius

Ilium
(external process below crest)

Femur
(greater trochanter)

Hip

abduction
transverse abduction
internal rotation
external rotation (during abduction)

Gluteus Minimus

Ilium
(below gluteus medius)

Femur
(greater trochanter)

Hip

abduction
transverse abduction
internal rotation (during abduction)


On the surface this chart seems to sum up the glutes as a group. It covers where they start and finish, what joint they cross and what they do. The reality is that this is only the beginning of the true picture and in many ways is somewhat misleading as to how the glutes actual function. While they certainly can perform all of the actions described above, a more important piece of information is what they actually do in day to day function and how do they do it? From which position do they move from? Do they act in a primarily eccentric or concentric way and what actions do the glutes use to load in order to truly explode? It is this final point that potentially has the most bearing on our approach to activate them so that they are truly firing at full capacity. One of the most important characteristics to understand about every muscle is that they have to load in all three planes of motion before they can unload maximally. The human body has evolved in such a way as to capitalize on the unwavering affect of gravity to assist it in this function. This is especially true for the glutes and we need only look as far as a simple step for proof.

While our anatomy chart provides us an excellent overview of how the glutes act concentrically, it fails to take into consideration that one of the primary functions of the group is to eccentrically decelerate the forces generated by gravity and ground reaction. The following is an example of how the body is designed to load the glutes in 3 planes of motion.

• As the foot strikes the ground, the impact force causes the calcaneous to roll inward into eversion setting off a chain reaction that goes all the way up the leg.
• The talus that sits on top of the calcaneous has no choice but to fall down and in.
• This causes the tibia (that sits on top of it) to internally rotate.
• This movement drives the femur into even greater internal rotation very quickly.
• This chain reaction of shock absorption continues up through the body but we will stop for now at the hip.

The strong and fast internal rotation of the femur must be decelerated eccentrically by the function of the glute. As this is happening, the hip is also going through adduction and flexion, both of which further load the glutes, demanding them to decelerate these actions. At this point it is safe to say that the glutes have been stretched and loaded eccentrically in all three planes of motion and should be in a very excited state and ready to fire.

So what if they don't?

A common approach is to lie down and using a focused and cognitive isolation method, work the glutes through all of their concentric actions. While this will certainly fire the glutes it will not necessarily translate into normal function in a standing position as "everything changes when your feet hit the ground." This means that while an exercise may be effective for increasing strength and causing a burn, it does not necessarily equate to increased coordinative function and timing that the body uses in natural movement. So how can we train this functionally?

Our strategy is seeded in our understanding of how the glutes load naturally and capitalizing on this natural reaction by emphasizing one or more of these elements. We know that in gait the glutes load eccentrically in 3 planes of motion.

1. Internal rotation of the hip in the transverse plane.
2. Flexion of the hip in the sagittal plane.
3. Adduction of the hip in the frontal plane.

It is important to note that all of these actions occur in a closed kinetic chain environment with the foot on the ground.

So how can we accentuate these actions to increase the natural loading? By using other parts of our body to drive us further into these positions.

Let's take the common lunge as an example. Traditionally this exercise is done with the torso in as upright a position as possible with hands either on hips, holding dumbbells at sides or holding a bar on shoulders. Regardless of the implement or the load, the torso has most always been coached to stay upright and positioned over the hips. Our goals are simple.

1. Increase internal rotation of the hip.
2. Increase flexion of the hip.
3. Increase lateral flexion of the pelvis.

If we are trying to accentuate glute loading, we can achieve this by adapting the traditional lunge using a bilateral reach with the hands toward the ground as though we were lunging forward to pick something up that is in front of our lunging leg. This reach drives the pelvis to rotate forward and increases hip flexion. This action increases the stretch or loading of the glutes and causes them to forcefully and eccentrically decelerate the movement which also results in a more forceful explosion out of the lunge with reach position. We can increase loading further by adding resistance such as a medicine ball or light dumbbells.

Lunge with Forward Reach

We can apply the same technique using a different arm driver to accentuate the frontal plane load in the lunge. In this case we are trying to increase adduction of the hip of the stepping leg by increasing the lateral flexion of the pelvis. Take a lunge step forward with the right leg. As the foot hits the ground, reach as far to the side with the left arm as possible at hip height. This reach will cause a displacement of the center of gravity which is countered by a lateral flexion of the pelvis. This increases the adduction of the lead leg, putting the glutes under stretch, increasing the demands on them to decelerate the movement and loading them more effectively.

Lunge with Side Reach

We could achieve the same effect by using a leg driver in a crossing balance lunge that is also pictured below.

Crossing Balance Lunge

Increasing internal rotation of the hip using an arm driver can be achieved simply by rotating into the lead leg during the lunge.

Lunge with Rotational Reach

Another strategy is to use an unstable surface during a normal lunge such as an Airex pad which will increase the amplitude and challenge of the initial pronation that is described earlier. This causes an even greater chain reaction up the chain to the internal rotation of the hip above.

We can use similar techniques from a squat stance to help increase the loading of the glutes from this position.

Squat with Rotational Reach

Squat with Side Reach

Below is a simple exercise plan that lists the exercises outlined above and puts them into a basic structure. Be sure to start with a single set and light load before progressing.

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Lunge with Forward Reach

1 to 2

10 to 12

Lunge with Side Reach

1 to 2

10 to 12

Crossing Balance Lunge

1 to 2

10 to 12

Lunge with Rotational Reach

1 to 2

10 to 12

Deep Squat

1 to 2

10 to 12

Squat with Rotational Reach

1 to 2

10 to 12

Squat with Side Reach

1 to 2

10 to 12


Now that we have got the glutes firing to full capacity, our end goal is to bring this neuromuscular learning back to regular function. We can do this by slowly approximating our drivers back until we are getting the same peak activation without the assistance of the drivers. Once we have discovered the amplitude required to fully activate our target muscle successfully, we need to gradually reduce this amplitude over time until we are able to perform the basic actions while still maintaining good glute involvement. We can look at this process of approximation using the Crossing Balance Lunge as an example. If driving the free leg as far to the other side of the ground leg in a deep lunge causing a much exaggerated lateral flexion of the pelvis is on one end of the continuum, driving the free leg straight back which results in very average pelvic lateral flexion is on the other. The key is to start at the one end of the continuum (in this case the lateral leg driver) and slowly work toward the other.

To begin with we might have to drive the foot far to the other side of the ground leg in a deep lunge to feel the kind of activation that we are looking for. As we progress we should slowly use more oblique angles until we are able to get full activation even when driving the leg straight back.

The effectiveness of this type of training is tremendous, not only in activating the target areas but also in increasing range of motion, strength and balance. One thing is certain. Integrate the program above into your training and the next time someone asks you "How's your aspen?" You will be able to tell them and show them… "TREMBLIN'!"



About Fraser Quelch

In his role of Director of Programming and Education for Fitness Anywhere Inc., Fraser Quelch has brought a whole new category of functional training to the fitness industry. His suspension training techniques are being used by professional sports teams and renowned trainers world wide to produce peak results in their clients and athletes.

Fraser is also the founder of the successful personal training and coaching business, Storm Training Systems where he focuses on using a cutting edge approach, to guide his clients and athletes to their goals. He has personally competed successfully in distance running and triathlon, and is one of Canada's top endurance coaches. His athletes consistently post personal best results with many of them qualifying for World Championship events.

Fraser is also a featured fitness author and has presented extensively throughout North America.