Are you suffering from tight hip flexors or lower back pain while running or right after a lower body workout?
Do you struggle to feel your glutes ‘turn on’ while warming up with lower body exercises before going on a run?
Or have you recently started noticing a host of issues such as knee pain, low back pain, balancing issues but aren’t sure what you’re doing wrong?
It’s probably inactive gluteal muscles causing all these problems!
In this article, you’ll learn how to activate your glutes, along with my favorite glute activation exercises as a certified running coach and personal trainer!
What is Glute Activation?
Glute activation can be defined as a series of warm-up movements and exercises to properly ‘activate’ or ‘fire up’ the muscles in your butt.
For many individuals, and runners, our glutes remain ‘inactive’, or you could say ‘switched off’ throughout our daily activities. In turn, inactive glutes can lead to a host of problems
Reasons for Inactive Glutes
It’s not our fault, it’s our lifestyle. Hours of sitting for work cause our glutes to slowly stop firing due to the reduced oxygen and tightened hip flexors.
For runners, the result is less powerful running, less efficient running and faster fatigue.
But most of us don’t even know we’ve gone radio silent.
I mean, I can still see my ass…it’s still there and I feel it, so what do you mean my glute is not active??
Issues with Poor Glute Activation:
- Over-reliance on hamstrings, less power in the stride and quicker to fatigue
- Less control over internal rotation of legs, leading to knee injuries
- Increased lower back pain
Signs You Have Weak Glutes
Some signs that you have weak or inactive glutes are:
- Glutes and hips feel tight
- Lower back pain while running
- Knee or hip pain
- Poor posture and form
- Plantar Fasciitis
- Balance issues, example is the inability to maintain a level pelvis when standing on one leg
Two Main Problems Associated with Glutes
As explained by Kelly Bagget, sought-after performance and physique coach, there are 2 main problems that occur with regard to the glutes:
In this situation, the glutes are in permanent shutdown mode. For a variety of reasons, they don’t contract in your daily life when you walk, stand, get up off the pot, or when you move during sport.
This situation has probably been overblown in the sports world, but does exist.
Here the glutes DO fire correctly but are not as strong as other lower body muscles (like the quadriceps), thus the body will use other muscles to do what the glutes SHOULD be doing, resulting in inefficient performance and often some type of pain or injury over the long haul.
Whenever you perform a movement such as a squat, lunge, deadlift, jump, sprint, or any exercise that involves several different muscle groups, the majority of work will tend to be done by the strongest of those muscle groups.
This is what most runners are actually dealing with and our goal is to get the glutes operating at maximum capacity.
What is Your Glute?
When we talk about the gluteal area, it’s not just one large muscle, but 3 different muscles which are:
- Gluteus Maximus (the main and biggest muscle in your butt)
- Gluteus Medius
- Gluteus Minimus
So, when we mention glutes, we are referring to all three of these muscles. Your gluteus maximus also happens to be the largest muscle in your body.
Your gluteus maximus is what you would referred to as your butt. The other small glute muscles are located on the side of your butt, near and slightly above your hip joint.
Strengthening different muscles in your glutes brings different benefits to the way you run and your overall form. For example, strengthening your glute medius will also improve your hip’s stability as well as help you run faster and change direction more quickly.
Why You Should Activate Your Glutes Before a Run
Having inactive or weak glutes is never good when it comes to running or performing any other sport.
When we run, our glutes’ main job is to
- hold our pelvis level and steady
- good hip extension
- power in your stride
- providing stability to the knees and pelvis
- keeping our legs, pelvis and upper body aligned as we jump from leg to leg
The more power in your stride, the faster you can run.
If you have strong glutes, you’ll become a more efficient runner since your energy is directed forward and your side-to-side movement will be limited. In other words, you’ll be able to run faster at the same effort level.
Even though your glutes include some of the largest muscles in your body, other muscles in your lower body such as our hamstrings and quads can sometimes overpower the glute muscles.
If that happens, your hamstrings and quads might start overcompensating for your glutes during a run. Not only can this lead to muscular imbalances, but also injuries such as lower back pain or issues with the knee.
Activating your glutes can only take a few minutes before a run but can bring big long-term benefits by preventing injury and improving your running form.
Just one more reason I talk about doing a dynamic warm up all the time!
How to Activate Your Glutes
You can active your glutes by including a number of glute strengthening exercises in your workouts. As with every single physical therapy move I share the key is to work these into your existing running routine.
If you include a couple as part of every dynamic warm-up then you’re consistently activating the glutes, rather than trying to remember to add a new set of lower body exercises to your workout routine and schedule.
For all of the glute strengthening exercises mentioned in this article for runners, you can add a resistance band to increase the intensity.
Resistance bands are excellent for glute activation since exercises that use these bands can isolate and target the smaller glute muscles, aka the glute minimus and glute medius. This in turn activates them.
The more you incorporate the moves, the more you’ll need to find little changes to continually progress and challenge the glutes.
Tired of trying to figure this out on your own?
✅Checkout our 30 Day Core Challenge course with daily videos that take 10 minutes as part of your warm up to work your core, hips and glutes.
You’ll have complete guidance to get your glutes working without a ton of time.
Glute Activation Test
Not sure if your glutes are firing or taking a nap?
You can try these two quick glute activation tests to find out what’s firing and what needs some extra work! Of course you’ll always learn more from going to a PT, but these are things you can do at home.
Both of these tests are demonstrated in the video below along with the glute strengthening moves (starting at 28 seconds).
Cook Hip Lift
I feel like this is a good exercise to do in general as it fires all kinds of muscles.
Laying on your back, place both feet on the floor, knees bent. Pull your right knee in to the chest and place a ball between your calf and thigh. Release your hands from the leg, while your foot on the floor is driving the heel in and the toe up off the floor, try to hold for 2 seconds when you raise up.
The ball will force you to focus on the glutes because going too high starts using your back muscles and the ball will fall. DON’T drop the ball, literally.
Single Leg Activation
There are a couple of different methods of testing via single leg activation, from squatting to balance.
Runner’s World provides this video explanation…I think it’s a decent way to test, but not as good as one’s that allow you to feel whether your glute or hamstring is activating.
Best Glute Activation Exercises
For all of these glute strengthening exercises for runners you can add a resistance band to increase the intensity. The more you incorporate the moves, the more you’ll need to find little changes to continually progress and challenge the glutes.
All movements are shown in the video below!
Banded Clam shells (forward and reverse)
This is another staple activation move that targets your glute medius. Interestingly, it can also be used when during rehabilitation from a hip injury or lower back pain. In this way, it’s also incredible to prevent these problems from occurring in the first place!
Standard clam shell is laying on your side with knees bent at 90 degress, while keeping your ankles together raise the top knee and you should feel the activation in your hips and glutes.
Additionally, do a reverse clam shell where you keep your knees together and raise the foot!! This is often overlooked, but allows you to hit a different muscle head.
**We know from new studies that regular clam shells are not the best move for glute activation. So use them more as a warm up to get in to the other movements.
Band walks, also known as side shuffle or banded lateral walks, are a great way to activate the gluteus medius.
Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your resistance band around the ankles. The feet should be far enough to create some tension. Begin by taking lateral steps to one side, while maintaining tension at all times.
Make sure you keep a slight bend in the hips and maintain a flat black. Take a few steps in one direction, then shuffle by taking a few steps in the other direction.
Single Leg Bridge
The single leg bridge is very similar to the cook hip lift, described below to test your strength .
Instead of keeping your knee bent to the chest, you keep the leg as straight as possible while lowering and lifting.
Again if you start to notice the work coming from your hamstring, go back to the cook hip lift.
Bulgarian Goat Belly Squats
Standing with the kettlebell pressed in to your core, engaging the entire core, bend from the waist and then quickly power back to vertical. This is a unique, but effective way to force your entire core to work together and fire up the glutes.
Prone Leg Lifts
Lying flat on your stomach, focus on raising first one leg at a time. If the knee bends you are using too much hamstring.
Focus on keeping the leg long and raising 1 leg at a time with toes pointed. You can do 1 leg at a time, move up to both legs or using a resistance band. This increases hip extension, you should contract the core, but never feel tension in the back.
Sorry for the initial audio gang, still working through my video equipment! The moves start at 28 seconds.
Additionally, we need to ensure that our hip flexors are not tight because that can deactivate the glutes. Take a look at these stretches and these moves to stabilize your hips, which are also key to getting a hard working ass.
PS – For anyone who cares it should really be glut, but most of us hear it with an e and thus that’s how we most commonly spell it.
Three Bonus Glute Activation Exercises
These moves are not listed in the workout above, but are part of the 30 Day Core Challenge and movements that we give our runners in Virtual Run Club, so I wanted to share them as well.
Start by looping your resistance band around your lower thighs. Plant both your feet hip-width apart. Ensure that your knees remain in line with your toes.
Bend at both the hips and the knees until your upper legs are parallel to the ground. Keep your back between a 45 to 90-degree angle to your hips. This is your starting squat position.
Now while maintaining this squatting position and keeping your right foot on the floor, start by stepping your left foot outwards so that your feet are slightly more than shoulder-width apart.
Next, while maintaining the same squat position, keep your left foot on the ground and step your right foot back inwards to the original starting position. Complete 5 reps on the same side before switching to the other side.
Donkey kickbacks, also known as glute kickbacks, are a great way to activate the glute muscles. Start by looping a resistance band around your upper thighs.
Your starting position should be on all fours on an exercise or yoga mat. Line up your knees to be below your hips, with knees hip-width apart, and your hands should be right in line with your shoulders. Keep your spine in a neutral position.
Now while keeping your knees bent, release and elevate your right leg towards the ceiling until your thigh is in line with your spine. Then lower your leg down to the starting position, ensuring your foot remains flexed the whole time.
Repeat these steps with your left knee.
Monster Walk is similar to Banded Walks but with a slight twist. Start by looping your resistance band around your ankles. Inside of step sideways like in the side shuffle, we are going to take a wide stance and keep it as we walk forward.
In this way, take a large ‘monster’ step forward with your right leg, and then with your left leg while maintaining your wide stance.
Walking forward for 4 steps, then walk backward for 4 steps.
When Should I Do These Exercises?
I recommend using these are part of your pre-run warm-up routine. For runners, glutes and hips are incredibly important as these muscles power your running stride.
Warming them up and activating them will help you run with a better form and reduce risks of injury.
Looking for more resistance band glute exercises?
Checkout this resistance band hip strength workout, it dives deeper in to how and why the bands work, plus provides new moves to help you keep progressing.
And just as important is to ensure you’re warm up fires up those glutes, checkout this elite runner warm up from the pro’s!
Additionally, we need to ensure that our hip flexors are not tight because that can deactivate the glutes.
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