Get Your Glutes On!!


Get Your Glutes On!! 

contributed by VFuel Ambassador Kari Fraser


Some trends develop out of necessity, and glute strengthening in runners--especially endurance runners--seems to be one of them.  I got on the glute-recruiting train about 18 months ago, in a last ditch effort to rehabilitate chronic sciatic nerve inflammation that had plagued me since I started training for ultra-distance running races.  More generally, the running community seems to have hit a critical tipping point of awareness concerning strength training--specifically, that many of the “injuries” that plague endurance runners can be understood as strength deficits, muscle imbalances and dysfunctional neural firing patterns in the hips.  In the past few months alone, Running Times extolled the virtues of healthy hips in preventing injury (, and Active has just completed a four-part Build a Better Runner series ( in which the take-home message of all four parts can be summarized as “train your butt and your core”.

The information on the internet is almost boundless, and I encourage you to dig in deep if you are serious about getting your glutes working for you as a runner.  That being said, this article (and the ones to follow) are designed to help get you started by sharing some personal experience--one runner to another--and pointing out some helpful resources. 



I am not a fitness professional.  However, as a clinical psychologist, I am in the business of changing long-standing patterns.  It turns out that changing motor patterns is not very different from changing psychological and emotional ones. 

Credit where credit is due:

The best resource I know for all things gluteal is Bret Contreras, CSCS (;  Bret is not only freakishly obsessed with the science of gluteal activation and strengthening, he is also clear, direct, thorough and uncomplicated in his explanations.

I have been aided tremendously by physical therapists trained in Gray Cook’s ( exercise philosophy, Functional Movement Systems (  If you are seeking a deeper understanding of the movement patterns in your particular body that impact your running, assessment by a professional trained in Functional Movement Screening could be extremely illuminating and extremely valuable.  It was for me.  


What are the “glutes” anyway?

The gluteal muscles are a group of three muscles that make up one’s back side (aka. rear end, buttocks, derriere, and other colorful terms): the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus.  Some anatomists also include the much smaller tensor fasciae latae muscle (located at the outside of the hips) in the glute complex.  The most important thing to know is that the glutes are the muscles that comprise your butt. 

The gluteus maximus is one of the largest, and physiologically the strongest (1) muscle in the human body.  Most experts agree that it is the most important muscle involved in locomotion.  If you are a runner and don’t believe that the life-blood of your running is generated by your butt, I encourage you to read up until you are convinced.  A little research now, when you are healthy, is a whole lot easier than waiting until you are chronically injured (and/or chronically frustrated with not getting better) to discover that your glutes may be the source of many of your running woes.  

The glutes are big, strong and don’t break easily.  When was the last time you heard a runner complaining about a strained glute? We hear about strained calves, pulled hamstrings, achilles issues, plantar fasciitis, tibialis anterior tears...but sidelined by a broken butt? Rarely happens.  Because the glutes are big, strong and don’t break easily, there is often a big pass-the-buck process along the posterior chain: up to the sacrum and points north (lumbar back pain, anyone?), and down to the knee and ankle (patellar tendonitis? achilles tendonitis?). When there is trouble with the glutes, it is often something else that breaks first.


Lazy Ass Syndrome

The glutes, despite their critical role in all sorts of movement, are opportunistically lazy.  They shut down with only slight provocation--for example, an injury elsewhere in the locomotive chain.  To allow injuries to heal, it is wise for the body to shut down the glutes so that we can’t move too quickly or powerfully or explosively as the injured part is healing (1).  However, whereas injured parts will come back online as they heal, the glutes are inclined to remain offline unless they are actively recruited back to work.  Thus our glutes may remain asleep long after another injury has healed, leaving our body vulnerable to additional, subsequent injuries as our smaller muscles are forced to take over the jobs of locomotion that the glutes have opted out of. 

Just as injury may turn off the glutes, so too will inactivity.  By virtue of automobiles, desk jobs, and lives that include more time on furniture than on our feet, most of us probably have some sort of “trouble with our glutes”. The professionals call this “glute insufficiency” or “glute amnesia” (and occasionally, simply “lazy ass”).  In everyday terms, it means that most of our butts are asleep way more often than they are awake.  Even worse, once they fall asleep, our butts want to stay asleep. 


The Gluteal Wake-Up Call

There are at least two big components to waking up one’s butt once it has developed a tendency to oversleep (or even overnap): glute activation and glute strengthening.  The rest of this article discusses activation.  Though glute strength (to be addressed in an upcoming article) is critical for healthy, efficient running, glute activation must come first. 

Without healthy glute activation, strength training is simply adding load to an already dysfunctional movement pattern.  This is akin to building a house on a cracked foundation: the house may be beautiful, but it will also be fragile.  It will wear out from strain and start falling apart much sooner than it otherwise would have. 

Activation is the process by which the neurons in and around our muscles fire and make our muscles move.  Activation activities--such as glute activation exercises--are sequences of movement which “wake up” or “bring online” our muscles in particular ways by evoking particular neuronal firing patterns.  They are a way we re-program our nervous system to move our body more safely and efficiently.  If our glutes have fallen asleep, we need to remind our body of its most optimal firing patterns.  We need to re-teach our glutes how to do their job and re-teach the rest of our bodies how to let the glutes do their job.

Activation is NOT strength training (remember: that comes next, not first).  Though activation drills may be kinesthetically challenging and confusing, especially at first, they are not effective if they are physically taxing.  Their purpose is to “groove” specific movement patterns into our brain and body, not to make us stronger or tire us out.  The most important aspect of activation exercises is developing and maintaining perfect form.  Fatigue--even mild fatigue--inhibits perfect form.  

There is a rule of thumb in psychology that to establish a new habit, a person has to do the new behavior every day for at least a month.  In my experience, the same holds true for changing motoric firing patterns.  Activation activities are most helpful to me when I do them every single day for at least a month.  Sometimes a month is not sufficient, but by the end of a month my body is far along toward figuring out the “new” way to move.  

There are loads of glute activation drills.  In the interest of keeping things simple--and therefore much more do-able--I suggest starting with two movements that are fundamental to hip-driven power and locomotion.  As such, they are also critical to master before proceeding with glute-specific loading/strengthening. 


1.  The Hip Hinge

 What is the Hip Hinge?

I think the easiest way to recognize a hip hinge is to watch someone do it.  Here is a very simple, straightforward illustration of a good hip hinge.  As you are watching, it may be helpful to notice (and remember) that in a Hip Hinge:


• Your feet do not move; they stay fully planted, especially the heels

• Your lower legs do not move (or barely move).  The shins are straight up and down throughout the movement.  Put differently, the shins maintain a 90 degree angle (perpendicular) to the floor throughout the movement.

• The butt leads all the movement.  The torso and thighs incline themselves toward parallel (with the floor) only because they are being pulled there by your butt.

• The central motion is the butt moving backwards

 Just watch the first 1:10 of this video and then come back here.



How do I do a Hip Hinge?

For me, one of the easiest ways to learn how to do a good Hip Hinge is through the Wall Hip Hinge drill.  The rest of the Bloom to Fit video includes clear instructions for doing a Wall Hip Hinge.  The following are a few body cues that I find especially helpful with the Wall Hip Hinge:

• Place the sides of each of your open hands against the crease of the hip flexors and push back gently to encourage the hinging motion.  He does this in the video.

• One way to keep your neck/head in neutral is to hold the neck of your tee shirt in your teeth (vs. looking up or looking ahead, which is many peoples’ habit).  Keeping the cervical spine neutral becomes very important in heavily weighted hip hinge movements such as  heavy deadlifts and heavy kettlebell swings, so it is helpful to groove a good head/neck position along with the hinging movement. 

In addition to the Wall Hip Hinge, there are a handful of other activation drills for grooving the hip-hinge movement.  Here is Jen Sinkler, of Girls Gone Strong (, explaining a few other variations.  Don’t be deterred by the fact that the article is about deadlifting.  The video is about the Hip Hinge.  A trekking pole works well as a substitute for a broomstick or pole.  Jen’s teaching videos are consistently excellent.

 Notice that Jen refers to “squeezing your butt” as you return to standing upright after hinging.  This is a critical part of glute activation that is specifically relevant to the running stride.  The more you “groove” a strong butt squeeze while you are grooving the hip hinge, the easier time you will have translating hinging glute activation to running glute activation.  Once you get skilled at it, you will notice two things about the squeeze: it is a contraction of your glutes toward each other, as if you were crushing something between your cheeks, and this cheek squeezing brings your pelvis into a slight posterior tilt, as if your tailbone was being pulled slightly between your legs from the front of you.  This multi-dimensional glute contraction is also a critical component of the next fundamental movement pattern:


2. The Glute Bridge

 What is a Glute Bridge?

Like the Hip Hinge, the Glute Bridge is a simple, glute-centric movement pattern.  Also, like the Hip Hinge, it is a movement that is very easy to do incorrectly.   I searched long and hard for a demonstration video of someone doing just a basic Glute Bridge correctly...and I could not find one.  Instead, I found quite a few examples of the “if some is good, more must be better” genre of movement.  In the case of the Glute Bridge, the “more” that seduces people is raising the hips higher than the point of maximal glute activation.

This is a Glute Bridge:


Notice that her frontal core muscles (her abs) form a flat plank all the way to her hips.  Notice also that her spine is straight, especially in the lumbar region.  She has strong glutes, which give her a round butt that “pops” out below her lumbar spine, but her lumbar spine is straight in this photo.  If she had an even stronger glute contraction, we might see her low abs concave a tiny bit, as her glutes pulled her pelvis into a slight posterior tilt at the top position of the movement.  Remember from the Hip Hinge: a forceful glute contraction not only squeezes the cheeks together, it also generates a slight posterior pelvic tilt.  

On the contrary, this is NOT a Glute Bridge.  It is a back bend:


The difference is subtle, but it is very important.  Notice that her frontal core muscles form a gentle arc, instead of a flat plank, that ends in her hips.  Notice too that even though her booty “pops”, her lumbar spine is also arched.  The lumbar arch in her back is part of the reason she is also arched at the front: bending her lumbar spine makes her front ribs splay open a little bit instead of being knitted together by her upper abs (like they would be if she was in a flat plank).  In short, at the top of the movement, she is in slight anterior pelvic tilt (whereas maximal glute activation will evoke a slight posterior pelvic tilt).  Raising the hips so high that the pelvis tips anteriorly means that the glutes are no longer the primary movers of the movement.  Instead, other muscles are being recruited (try it--you will probably “feel it” in your back).  In a glute activation drill, this is exactly what we do not want to do. 

How do I do a Glute Bridge?

Here is my favorite Queen of All Things Kettlebell, Marianne Kane Fass, providing an excellent demonstration of the Glute Bridge and a related exercise, the Hip Thrust.  If you are not interested in the Hip Thrust, just stop watching at the 2:00 minute mark.



“Curling” up into a Glute Bridge

 It helps me, and perhaps it will help you, to think of gently “curling” my pelvis and spine to get to the top position of the Glute Bridge. Like this:

Start lying on the floor with a neutral spine (or even anterior pelvic tilt, if you want to reinforce the contrast between anterior and posterior pelvic tilts).  Then, “curl” your pelvis into posterior pelvic tilt before anything lifts off the ground.  Put differently, curl the lower edge of your pelvis--down around your perineum--forward/up (which will tip the upper edge of your pelvis back).  This curling/rolling motion will bring your lumbar area into firm contact with the floor.  Then keep going with this curling motion (toward posterior tilt) while you squeeze your butt strongly to raise your hips off the floor.  End at the top of the Bridge position (but not too high a bridge!), with a powerful glute squeeze and--if you can do it--a gentle posterior pelvic tilt.  Then lower back down (“uncurl” or “unroll”) in the reverse sequence. 

 As I am curling, I also think about moving my bellybutton toward my lowest ribs, narrowing the band of space between the two. 


How much is enough?

“Grooving” a movement pattern is teaching our body to do it until it becomes unconscious and automatic--in short, until we don’t have to think about it anymore (or at least not much) in order to do it correctly.  When a movement is sufficiently grooved, it can actually start to seem like...a groove.  Initiating the movement will feel like the beginning of something falling neatly into place; doing the movement incorrectly will feel “wrong”, as if something is not fitting quite right. 

The next time you go for a run, pay attention to the first two running steps you take.  Don’t think about it--just notice your first two steps.  If you end up stopping (to walk, tie your shoe, cross a street), notice again your first two steps as you resume running.  Do this about five times, over the course of however many runs it takes.  Chances are, every single one of your starts and re-starts will be exactly the same.  For me, I take a little half-step hop with my left foot, followed by my first full running step with my right foot.  Every. Single. Time.  This is a groove.  It is such a groove that it is almost impossible for me to start running any other way.  That is the kind of groove to aim for with the Hip Hinge and Glute Bridge.  Ideally, you will pattern the hinging motion and the glute contraction so deeply that you nail it close to every single time without thinking about it--at least at times when you are not fatigued.  (One sure sign of fatigue is that even our “grooved” movement patterns fall apart--that is to be expected.)


Specifics, please!

Adding the universal disclaimer that everybody and every body is different and the only one who will really be able to recognize sufficient grooving is you, I suggest somewhere between 10 and 100 reps of each movement every day for at least a month, in sets of 5 to 20.  Remember, you are aiming for perfect form.  After 20 reps, most people are likely to lose some of their vigilance about perfect form.  If your form deteriorates after 5 reps, then stop there for the time being.  The more you vary sets and reps from day to day, the more your body will have to pay attention to adapt.  The body paying attention is a good thing, so mix it up.  My guess is that consistency is more important than volume.  For example, 10 reps/day is likely to be more helpful than 100 reps once per week.  Further, more volume is not necessarily better than less volume.  It will depend on your body.  Try to notice what combinations seem to generate the strongest sense of “grooving” for you.  Stress, anxiety, and perfectionism about “how many” and “how often” and “how long” will only serve to inhibit grooving, so for best results, find something that works for you with relaxation and ease. 


(1) Contreras, Bret and Kellie Davis.  Strong Curves. Las Vegas, NV: Victory Belt Publishing Inc., 2013

Tags: glute activation, run stronger, running tips, strength training

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