Quick! What’s the largest muscle in your body? If you guessed the gluteus maximus – you’re right! By volume, this muscle that adds shape to your buttocks is the largest in the human body. Being such an important muscle, it deserves attention when you train – and, lately, more focus has shifted to shaping these muscles to get a more defined backside. Strong, firm buttocks are attention worthy not just for aesthetic reasons but for balancing out the hip flexors, a group of four muscles that move the thighs toward the abdomen and flex the knees. Don’t underestimate the importance of strong, healthy hip flexors. Without them, you couldn’t bend over, climb stairs, or even run.
However, hip flexors can become too tight, especially if you sit a lot, as many people do. Tight hip flexors create an imbalance that causes the gluteal muscles to lengthen and relax, allowing the hip flexors to gain dominance. This kind of imbalance can easily lead to back pain or increase your risk of injury. A term for this type of imbalance is reciprocal inhibition. This describes a phenomenon whereby tightness in one muscle group causes the other muscle group to lengthen or relax. If this interplay between two muscle groups persists over time, the muscle can become desensitized to the signal from the nervous system telling the muscle to contract. When this happens, it becomes harder and harder to activate the glutes when you do any type of lower body exercise. This is also referred to as “glute amnesia,” since the glutes “forget” how to respond.
What’s more tight hip flexors impact the whole posterior chain and boost the odds of developing injuries to the knees and ankles as well. Strengthening your glutes helps counteract tight hip flexors and the negative impact of sitting too much. Strong glutes also make you a more powerful athlete and runner as well. So, working those glutes is a must if you want a healthy, balanced, aesthetically pleasing physique.
Glute Amnesia, Are You Really Activating Your Glutes When You Work Out?
How do you know if you have glutes that are asleep? If you sit a lot, you can almost assume you have some degree of glute amnesia and need to fire up those lazy glutes. What’s the best way to do it? It might seem straightforward. Do more exercises that strengthen your glutes and reap the benefits. But we now know, due to reciprocal inhibition from sitting too much, you may not activate glutes when you do exercises that work the gluteus maximus and the smaller muscles, the gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. In other words, the fibers in your glutes may not “turn on” in response to exercises, like deadlifts and squats, that you’re doing for your lower body. So, your glutes fail to get as much of a workout. In fact, they may get very little stimulation when you do exercises like squats.
If your glutes aren’t fully activating when you do squats and deadlifts, what’s the solution? By using good form and squeezing the glutes when you do these exercises, you can increase their activation. Still, squats and deadlifts aren’t always enough to break the cycle of glute amnesia. You need other exercises as well. These include isolation movements such as glute bridges and donkey kicks. The key is to isolate the muscle and hit it hard so that it’s forced to wake up. For turning slumbering glutes back on, one-legged squats are better than standard squats since they isolate the glute muscles better.
Another exercise that effectively targets weak and lazy glutes are hip thrusts. Hip thrusts, especially using a barbell for added resistance, is an ideal exercise for strengthening glutes and building glute size without increasing the size of your thighs. The problem with squats and lunges is they also work the quadriceps and hamstring, so your thighs may grow in size too. If that’s not your goal, exercises that isolate the glutes more, like hip thrusts, donkey kicks, and glute bridges, are a good alternative.
Are there other exercises? Don’t underestimate the power of glute squeezes. They’re an isolation exercise that targets the glutes without hitting the quads or hamstrings. If your glutes have “gone to sleep,” isometric glute squeezes will help wake them up. Best of all, you can do glute squeezes almost anywhere and without any equipment. To do one, place your feet about shoulder-width apart and turn your toes outward slightly. Then, squeeze your glutes as tightly as you can and hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Then release. Do 2 or 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps. Try this exercise while you’re at the sink or stove in the kitchen or any other time you can “squeeze” a few sets in. With glute squeezes, it’s important to focus on the muscles you’re working to maximize nervous system activation of the muscle. That’s what will help you conquer glute amnesia.
Relax the Tight Hip Flexors
Finally, you need to relax the antagonist muscles, the hip flexors, to create more balance. So, add hip flexor stretches to your routine. Also, break the sitting habit as much as possible. Take more breaks during the day to get up and walk around. Take fewer elevators and more steps. When you climb stairs, focus on squeezing your glutes with each step up. Get your glutes in on the action whenever you can.
The Bottom Line
Reciprocal inhibition, or glute amnesia, is a serious problem for those who sit too much – and that’s much of the population. Unfortunately, weak glutes place an added burden on other muscle groups, including muscles in the back and lower body. They have to do some of the work the glutes should be doing. So, correcting this issue is important for avoiding injury. Now, you have a better idea of how to get your glutes working again.
American Council on Exercise. “ACE Lists Best Butt Exercises – Exclusive ACE Research Announces Most Effective Gluteus Maximus Training”
StrengthandConditioningResearch.com. “Gluteus Maximus”
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