People love to talk about training the glutes. Whether it is discussing helping low backs, developing great power for running and jumping, or just looking better, people like training their glutes! You would think that with all that excitement around training the glutes that we would have really smart training programs. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.
When it comes to training a complex muscle group like the glutes, we often use the same strategy that we would for our biceps or even calf training. Meaning that people go to GREAT lengths to isolate the muscle. The irony in trying to do so is that you go COMPLETELY against how this muscle is designed to function and perform.
How do I mean? After all you probably feel your glutes on fire when you isolate them in many of the exercises you see on social media. Listen, I am not going to claim that isolating a muscle can’t make it grow. However, if I can get a muscle to grow AND make it help your low back, help you be more powerful, isn’t that better?
With a group of muscles that have such a close connection to so many different parts of the body, the goal of isolating them seems to fly in the face of how they would like to function!
Hopefully you said yes and I thought the best way to describe how we can train the glutes so much smarter was showing where we often go wrong in our glute training and effort to achieve better results.
Glutes and Low Back Pain
One of the reasons that training the glutes is so popular is that there is a connection to helping low back issues by making the glutes function better. Ah, notice I said function better, not just grow or be stronger. What’s the difference? World renown spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill was one of the first to coin the term “gluteal amnesia”.
What people ran with in fitness when they heard Dr. McGill use this term was “we gotta make the glutes stronger”. That was NOT actually what Dr. McGill was referring to in his work. According to Dr. McGill…
“For example, people with troubled backs use their backs more. Generally, they walk, sit, stand and lift using mechanics that increase back loads. Many of them have stronger backs but are less endurable than matched asymptomatic controls (McGill et al, 2003). They tend to have more motion in their backs and less motion and load in their hips. A common aberrant motor pattern is known as “gluteal amnesia” (McGill, 2007) which may be both a common consequence of back troubles and probably a cause of them as well. Obviously for this category of client, exercises to enhance the integration of the gluteal muscles will help their backs, and also their knees. Optimal back exercise therapy results from the identification of these patients with perturbed patterns followed by specific corrective exercise – this precedes all other exercise therapy.”
What you see Dr. McGill speaking about was not individual strength of the glutes, but rather how they were used by the body and making sure they worked in proper timing and sequence of a movement. Motor control and hypertrophy don’t necessarily correlate to one another. Meaning, that just because you can make an individual muscle stronger, if we isolate it especially it doesn’t mean that strength will translate to functional tasks. That is why in DVRT we don’t look to isolate the glutes to improve our function, but we actually look to integrate them in the proper movement patterns.
DVRT Master, Cory Cripe shows the difference in trying to build integration vs. isolation of the glutes.
A great example is the Posterior Oblique Sling (POS) we often discuss in DVRT. That is a chain that has the glutes working with the core muscles to connect to the opposing lats. This system is designed to keep us stable during complex motions like walking and running. So, if we aren’t making these connections we actually aren’t helping low back issues by training the glutes. This system also stabilizes our sacroiliac joint (SI) that goes a long way in helping many instances of low back pain.
These types of concepts are discussed in our 2 hour Top 5 Functional Training Mistakes webinar HERE
In fact, by not integrating them we run a risk of creating further dysfunction in creating altered patterns in which these muscles are used. Science SHOULD open our eyes to how to train all muscles better, especially important ones like our glutes.
That takes us to the fact that when we speak about glutes we are actually referring to the 3 muscles on both sides of our hips. Most people say glutes and they are only referring to glute maximus and ignore greatly minimus and medius. That is HUGE because a lot of low back dysfunction comes in an inability to RESIST lateral motion during activity. The two smaller muscles of the glutes actually are designed for this very purpose and is why Dr. McGill recommends side planks as one of his “Big 3” core stability exercises (in DVRT we take the idea of side planks and build to more sophisticated strength as you see below).
There is way more to the glutes than just hip extension!
As you see, just “working the glutes” doesn’t make them better!
Glutes and Real World Strength & Performance
One thing I learned over my almost 15 years teaching continuing education is that ideas can be emotional. No one likes to think they were doing the “wrong” thing. All of us almost get defensive when someone challenges the idea that what we are doing in our training is anything BUT the best. So, I’ve learned to take away any biases you may think I have and share the research as we have it today.
If you are using isolation techniques to improve performance of the glutes, there doesn’t seem to be much science to validate that idea. In fact, several studies (including this one HERE) show that doing barbell hip thrusts have no impact upon jumping ability or speed improvements.
There could be a number of factors involved, but I believe one of the biggest is the fact we don’t create high ground reaction forces. WHAT!? What we know is that exercises like power cleans, for example, do help our sprinting and jumping because we create a lot of force into the ground. These forces are what helps our ability to generate more power in actions like running and jumping. Hip thrusts don’t create those high ground reaction forces so that could be a reason we aren’t seeing a lot of transfer to real world actions like running and jumping.
This is why strength coaches for decades have favored exercises where we are standing and learning to create high force into the ground. While most people focus on what one lifts, smarter coaches know it is actually all about how much force we create into the ground!
Glutes and Looking Good!
Ok, the reality is that most people like to train the glutes because they want to have a certain appearance. That’s cool, we all want to feel like our hard work in the gym also results in us looking like we desire. As I began this post, isolation could definitely help glutes look more pronounced. However, when people make an argument for isolation work, they insinuate that integrated movements won’t have the same effect.
I’m sorry to say that looking at the back sides of powerful athletes that tend to focus far more on integration makes that argument hard to validate. Athletes that train to be powerful rarely have used glute exercises like bridges for much more than warm-up. In fact, legendary strength coach, Kim Goss, stated the following…
“I’ll mention that the term hip thrust was first used to describe a lower body sled popular with football players. In physical therapy, hip thrusts belong to a class of exercises called pelvic bridges often used in lower back rehab protocols. Don Chu, Ph.D., a jumps coach known for his work in plyometrics, introduced me to this exercise during a physical education class I took from him in 1982.”
But Josh, I’ve seen all these articles with EMG studies about barbell hip thrusts, doesn’t that mean we really work those gluteal muscles? Well, glad you asked, Coach Goss addressed that as well…
“We can track much of the initial hype over the hip thrust to studies using electromyography (EMG) machines, which measure the electrical activity of muscles. This information is especially important in the medical field for identifying neuromuscular diseases. That said, we have to question the value of EMGs for determining how useful an exercise is for improving athletic performance. Just ask sports scientist William Sands, Ph.D.
Sands did his dissertation on EMGs, saying these machines could determine which muscles are active and when they’re active. “However, after that it gets a little dicey. There is a nice linear relationship between magnitude of EMG and muscle force, but the relationship is only valid for isometric tension.” Since most athletes want to demonstrate strength at fast speeds, EMG results have limited real-world application to athletics. There is also the issue of how EMG testing is administered.
The most accurate EMG tests involve inserting needles into the muscles and performing maximal muscle contractions. Besides the challenge of finding volunteers to perform squats with needles stuck in their glutes, this practice can cause nerve damage. Further, the results of any hip thrust study can be misleading because participants perform exercises on the floor to lessen interference from other muscles. Sports coach and therapist James Jowsey addressed this issue when he said that, as the pelvis lifts during this exercise, “the only neurological drive goes to the glutes, hence the high EMG reading for the bridge.”
One well-publicized EMG personal experiment on hip thrusts was conducted by a fitness trainer who used less accurate surface EMGs to compare the hip thrust with other exercises for glute activation. He found that the highest reading for the gluteus maximus was not with the hip thrust. In fact, the single-leg reverse hyper produced double the EMG measurement, and the reverse hyper was also nearly double. He followed it with another study in which the hip thrust produced a slightly higher EMG reading than the reverse hyper. This second study, though, was rather pointless because he used a maximal load on the hip thrust and a submaximal load on the reverse hyper.”
So you can see it isn’t quite what people have made it out to be. What is the moral of the story when it comes to training the glutes smarter?
-Keep exercises like bridging predominately for warm-up/activation unless trying to help re-educate someone with chronic low back pain and then these bridges make better connections as physical therapist, Jessica Bento shows.
-Work the glutes in standing and at the beginning just up and down. However, over time train the glutes in patterns where they have to produce and resist force at the same time as DVRT UK Master, Greg Perlaki shows…
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-Use power methods to help build glutes that help our body function at a higher level. You will see some great progressions in the post below the drills like the clean and press build tremendous overall body strength!
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