Written by Dr. Quinn Henoch
Glutes are fucking great. They really are. Hip extension and rotation are paramount in many athletic endeavors, as well as functions of daily life. A simple internet search will yield many peer reviewed articles showing a relationship between the strength of this muscle group and athletic performance, as well as low back pain, hip pain, knee pain, etc.
“Glute activation” has become a bit of a buzz term that can be overused or used incorrectly. However, in relatively complex movement patterns like sprints, loaded squats, and deadlift variations, a well timed and effective glute contraction can be hard to come by; especially if you haven’t put some work in an unloaded and less demanding position.
The following are some very simple drills that can be used to attain a solid gluteal contraction, slowly correct some dysfunction (such as restricted hip extension range of motion), while reinforcing proper movement patterns.
1. Sidelying Clam
This one is about as simple as it gets. With so much ground contact, one can really focus on isolated motion at the hip, without having to focus so much on trunk control. In this position, you can hone in on your breath while maintaining a slight abdominal contraction throughout the entire movement. Relaxed breath + stable trunk + plus glute activation = movement pattern training and the beginning of something spectacular. This drill is a great place to start for absolutely anyone, and I really like to progress people to burning out to failure multiple times on each side.
2. Half Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch With Glute Set
I discussed the common faults of the half kneeling hip flexor stretch in a previous article: Mobility Gone Wrong
What I did not discuss was how this stretch can turn into a glute activation drill. Once you’re in a proper half kneeling hip flexor stretch with lengthening occurring across the thigh and hip, simply perform light glutes squeezes or holds of the side that’s down. What you may find is that it is much more difficult to squeeze the glute when the hip is fully extended like that. Do tight hip flexors cause inhibited glutes, or do inhibited glutes lead to restricted hip flexors? Doesn’t matter which came first, we address both here, as well as practicing breath and trunk control in a less stable position than the previous drill.
3. Tall Kneeling Holds
I discussed the utility of the tall kneeling position as an assessment tool in a previous article: The Bottom Position of the Squat: A Defining Characteristic of Your Human Existence
Attaining a proper tall kneeling position is surprisingly difficult for some people, especially those prone to overextending their lumbar spine by going into anterior pelvic tilt. By being down on both knees, you have fully lengthened the anterior hip/thigh musculature. If you have restriction here, it will be a challenge for you to attain a straight line from your shoulder to your hips to your knees. Your hips will feel crouched and will sit slightly behind your knees and shoulders. The key here is to squeeze your glutes and abs to attain a relative posterior pelvic tilt in order to get your hips in alignment with the shoulders and knees. Hold your glute contraction and breathe. It’s simple but surprisingly difficult when done correctly. Once again, we are firing the glutes while achieving length in the front of the hip, and reinforcing a stable trunk. From here, you can hold a weight in your hand, perform a banded upper extremity exercise, etc. As with the tall kneeling position, the activity is secondary to the fact that you can hold your position by using your glutes and abs.
4. Single Leg Balance Progressing to Single Leg Deadlift
The single leg deadlift is a phenomenal exercise. It requires intrinsic stability at major joints that you just don’t get when you have two feet on the ground. Unfortunately, it’s an exercise that is often times performed poorly, and as a result reinforces bad habits. For most, I regress to a static single leg balance in a quarter squat position. Start with two feet on the ground and perform an RDL movement until you feel a stretch in both hamstrings. Very slowly and controlled, shift your weight to one side and balance on that foot, without changing any of your body angles. You should immediately feel the glute of the stance leg kick on. From here you hold that position, while keeping your low back and pelvis level. Once you’ve mastered this, then you add movement, depth, load, etc. Mastering a hip hinge on one leg yields some powerful rewards in the movement game.
This is obviously not an exhaustive list of glute activation drills. There are many great ones out there, and many that I use that were not included here. Activation work does not need to be complicated. The more gimmicky it gets, the less carry over it will have to sport and life. Feel free to post some of your favorite drills in the comments.