If you struggle to power up hills or maintain a consistent pace through hard workouts, if you are plagued by knee injuries or shin splints, or if you spend all day at a desk without much movement, you are probably suffering from weakness in one of the most major muscles of the human body. I’m not talking about your core (although core strength is incredibly important for runners), and you don’t need to drop and give me 50 push-ups; your glutes are what needs strengthening.
That’s right, your glutes, which are the muscles colloquially known as your butt. Your glutes are actually composed of three muscles: gluteus maximus (which covers your entire seat), gluteus medius (which radiates from your butt over onto the sides of your pelvis and your hips) and gluteus minimus (which is underneath the other two gluteal muscles). Your gluteus maximus is one of the largest and most dominant muscles in your entire body. It powers almost all your movements, as it connects to your core, quads and hamstrings, and your iliotibial band (IT band) runs along the side of your legs to connect your glutes to your knees.
If the glutes control most of your lower-body movements, especially running, you may wonder why you need to further exercise and strengthen these muscles. Shouldn’t your glutes be strong enough from running and walking alone?
The overall sedentary lifestyle of modern people (especially working from a desk all day) can cause glutes to weaken. This means that your glutes are less likely to activate when you run, which means that you don’t have as much force pushing your forward. This is known as non-firing glutes, since you glutes aren’t activating to their full potential and you are relying then on other smaller muscles to do their work. You’ll fatigue, run slow, and be prone to injuries in your lower back, knees, shins, and ankles.
Even if you don’t suffer from knee pain or running injuries, strong glutes are still essential for strong and healthy running. It’s not your quads or your calves that provide the main push to your stride as you run—it’s your glutes. If you’re stepping up your mileage while training for a half or full marathon, weak glutes will cause you problems and make handling higher mileage more difficult.
So how do you activate non-firing glutes and build strength on your backside? You want to incorporate specific strength training exercises that isolate and target your glutes. Sure, push-ups will work your glutes along with several other muscle groups, but they won’t suffice for strengthening one of your largest muscles. However, there are many simple exercises that will create strong glutes without requiring you to spend hours at the gym. These exercises can be done using your own body weight or with kettlebells, dumbbells, or barbells if you want to make them more difficult.
There’s a couple details to keep in mind for effective glute strengthening. First, you want to make sure that you engage your glutes as you exercise them. This means you want to tighten your glutes as you perform these exercises, just as you would pull in your abs while in plank position. Secondly, you want to plan your glute strengthening exercises around your runs. Add a few moves into your normal strength routine, and avoid doing these exercises the day before a hard running workouts, so you don’t over-fatigue the muscles. I recommend doing these on easy run days or even immediately after a harder run, and you should aim to do them 2-3 times per week.
Single-leg Deadlift: Stand on your right leg, with your left leg behind you and lifted off the ground. Engaging your glutes and keeping your back straight, hinge forward at your hips and reach your arms towards the ground. Your left leg and your torso should create a “T” shape with your right leg. Slowly lower your left leg and stand up. This is one rep; complete all reps on your right leg, and then switch to your left leg.
Bridge: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your spine in a straight line. Engage your core and glutes and lift your hips up in the air, forming a bridge from your knees to your shoulders. Pause, and then slowly lower your back and butt back to the ground. Repeat.
Single-leg Squat: Stand on your right leg, and raise your left leg off the ground in front of you. You want to maintain a strong upright posture and keep your right knee over your right ankle as you lower yourself down and back into a squat. Push into your heel to return to start, and repeat. See this video for visual since proper form is essential for this exercise.
Reverse Lunge to Knee Lift: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and then step back with your right leg into a lunge. You want to maintain an upright posture and keep your front knee over the ankle. Step forward, but instead of placing your right foot on the ground, raise your knee up in front of you. Return to start and complete all the reps for your right leg, then repeat using your left leg.
Standing Leg Lifts: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Shift your weight to your right foot and and engage your glutes. Slowly raise your left leg to the side; pause, and then slowly lower the left leg. Complete on the reps for your left leg and then repeat for your right leg. If you need to, lightly rest your hands on a chair or table to maintain your balance.
Question of the Day:
What’s your favorite glute exercise?
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