The main difference between average athletes and good athletes is found in the functionality of the feet, as well as the strength, development, and function of the glute musculature. The glutes are mainly responsible for the horsepower factor and what I will talk about in this article.
Too many people have non-existent glutes. From a strength perspective, if you were to consciously go in the weight room and do nothing but attack your glutes like a bodybuilder attacks his biceps, or a bench press specialist attacks the strength his triceps, you wouldn’t be that far off the mark. I don’t believe it’s possible for an athlete to have TOO much glute strength. There are some great athletes that are puny enough they look like they could be toppled by a slight gust of wind. These weak and stringy folk may at glance appear to shoot holes in the whole “You gotta be strong to be explosive argument”, but 9 times out of 10 even these apparently feeble athletes will have very powerful glutes in relationship to their overall size and body musculature.
Due to their natural strength and the leverage advantage they have over your legs, the glutes should always be the primary muscles that drive lower body movement. Not only does this include more ballistic activities like running and jumping, but also walking.
There are 2 main problems that occur with regard to the glutes:
Inhibited glutes: In this situation the glutes are on 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 in sport. This situation has probably been overblown in the sports world, but does exist.
Overshadowed glutes: 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. Your natural body structure will also influence this to an extent. For example, if you have long arms and strong triceps you’ll probably get little chest stimulation out of a bench press. If you have naturally big and strong biceps you may also have a hard time getting much lat stimulation out of pull-ups. Technique will also have a substantial impact on all of this, but one problem many athletes have is they naturally have proportionately more strength and natural muscle cells in muscles other than their glutes, like their thighs.
Look at the athleticism of athletes that tend to easily develop massive quadriceps. They tend not to be very impressive athletes.
Pretty – But (often) Slow and Groundbound
Many gifted athletes turned bodybuilders will tell you that squats make their butts big and they have a more difficult time getting much lower quadriceps development. That glute dominance is a good thing from an athletic perspective.
What happens sometimes is people who don’t naturally have great glute activation patterns and don’t have naturally good muscle balance (ie. Dont have glutes that are naturally stronger than thighs) get in the weightroom and do exercises that SHOULD be strengthening their glutes but they end up strengthening their thighs and their glutes get very little. When you throw them into an athletic environment the body will naturally use the strongest muscles to control movements, so now their quads and other muscles will want to do what the glutes should be doing.
Getting Strong In The Right Places
You need strength but you need it in the right places. As mentioned, a problem many people have is they have imbalanced strength. The majority of the positives that come about due to increased strength in foundational exercises like the squat are due to the effect these exercises have on the glutes. For athletic purposes, exercises like the squat are, and should be, used primarily as glute strengtheners. Yes, other muscles like the quads and hamstrings can be developed, but the glutes should always be dominant. However, it is possible to be relatively strong and be able to move a lot of weight without using your glutes effectively.
Getting Your Body Set Up Properly
The topic of glute activation and the practice of prescribing a ton of glute activation exercises is very popular nowadays but if you create the proper posture and have the right muscle balance you won’t have to use a ton of glute activation exercises because they will naturally activate. The key thing is getting your body working efficiently so that ALL your movements are driven by the correct muscles. A simple way to grasp the concept of footwork and horsepower is think of tieing the feet and the glutes together. Chris Korfist has some interesting takes on this at Wannagetfast.com
You have the main power generator at one end (the glutes), and how well that force gets delivered depends on the functionality on the other end (the feet). When you couple a strong glute dominant activation pattern at one end (the hip), and strong and efficient feet at the other end (the ground), you can’t help but move well.
But anyway, before you can benefit from increased strength or really any type of training you have to make sure your glutes are working properly. Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way first by talking a little about functional anatomy.
The Muscles Controlling The Hip are Key
To have your glute activation patterns maximized you want the muscles that attach your thigh higher up on the hip controlling movement of your thighs rather than muscles that attach lower on your hip. You want the muscles that attach your thigh bone to your hip keeping the head of your femur bone “tight” in the hip socket. When you don’t, you have glute activation issues. The hip flexors catch lot of flack but they too are important and here’s why:
The hip flexors (psoas) are the most important muscle for hip flexion (moving your leg forward). The most important muscle for extending your hip (moving your leg back) is the gluteus maximus. Both of these muscles obviously attach high on the hip and control the femur bone (upper thigh). When they are in balance with the proper mobility you inherently have good glute activation patterns.
Occassionally, people will have weak hip flexors, thus, when they flex their hip, the muscles that attach lower down on the hip and thigh (such as the tensor fascia lata and rectus femoris), end up doing what the hip flexors should be doing. This also often leads to a posterior pelvic posture (flat-assed posture) that negates good glute and hip flexor activation in favor of hamstring and TFL activation and allows the head of the femur to slide slightly out of the socket, often causing hip pain.
Excessively tight hip flexors with an anterior rotated pelvis, or a posture where the butt sticks, out can also inhibit glute function, but in my experience the majority of athletes with tight hip flexors DON’T tend to have glute activation issues near to the extent as someone with weak hip flexors and a swayback posture. In fact, a slight degree of anterior tilt may put the glutes at a slight leverage advantage. This is corroborated by Shirley Sahrmann in her book, “Movement Impairment Syndromes” and can also be corroborated by taking a quick look at the posture of top athletes in speed and power based sports like track and field and American football. People with tight hip flexors may have issues with hamstring strains and back pain, due to the excessive curve in the lower back, but from a glute activation standpoint it’s definitely better to have tight hip flexors than weak hip flexors and it’s rather simple to correct the tightness issue.
For an example of how hip posture can influence gluteal recruitment and development check out the difference between the primitive Kalahari Bushman and typical western male:
Now it’s time to evaluate your ability to engage your glutes as well as evaluating the muscles best enabling you to do so. First of all, assess your ability to activate your glutes in isolation. Lie face down on your stomach with your legs straight. Have someone either observe or actually place one hand on your hamstring and the other hand on your glute. Lift your leg up and see which muscle tenses up first.
Here is a video of the movement:
Prone Hip Extension
If your hamstrings fire first you might have problems. You need to re-teach the body how to fire the glutes. A simple way to do that is to actively squeeze your abs as you extend your hip.
Next, ask yourself where you get sore when you do squats? If it’s primarily the glutes you’re on track. If it’s ONLY the quads you may have a problem. I will discuss squatting later in this article.
Next, evaluate your pelvic tilt.
Your Pelvic Tilt:
The natural position your hips determines leverages of the muscles that control the hip. This is trainable. The hip flexors pull down on your pelvis while the lower back pulls up. The Abs pull up while the glutes pull down.
What we want to do is optimize your pelvic tilt so that your glutes are put at a leverage advantage. Ideally you want a neutral posture. The first thing we have to do is determine whether you have more of an anterior (butt sticking out), posterior (butt sucking in), or neutral posture.
Anterior pelvic tilt means that the top of the pelvis is tilted forward, and the lower back is arched. Posterior pelvic tilt means that the top of the pelvis is tipped back, and the pelvis is tucked under the body.
Regardless of your hip posture, another KEY is to have abs that are strong enough to stabilize your spine and maintain optimal position of the hips as the hip flexors and glutes work. To assess your ab strength do the flat back leg lowering drill.
Leg Lowering Test
Lie on your back and raise your legs over your hips, with your knees slightly bent. Press the small of your back into the floor to eliminate the arch in your lower back. Try to keep your back glued to the floor as you take 3 to 5 seconds to lower your legs to the floor. Stop the test as soon as your back arches up off the ground. You should be able to get all the way to the floor. This test assesses the strength of your abs to resist the natural pull into an arched back posture. Here is a description of the test with pics and rankings:
Leg Lowering Test
If you test weak, perform the leg-lowering drill 3 days a week, going down as far as you can until your back begins to arch off the ground. Perform 2-3 sets of six to 10 repetitions, resting for 30 seconds between sets.
You’ll also want to test your basic core stability.
PERFORM A PLANK: Get into a pushup position, then rest your forearms on the floor. Your body should form a straight line from your head to your feet (don’t let your hips sag). Hold the position as long as you can. You pass if you can hold it for two minutes or longer.
You fail if you collapse before the two-minute mark, or if your hips dip at any point within that time frame.
PERFORM A SIDE PLANK: Turn onto your side and, keeping your body in a straight line (just as in the plank described above), rest your weight on your forearm. Hold the position as long as you can, then repeat on the other side.
A Word On Testing
Note also that it is possible to pass all these tests with flying colors and still have substantial imbalances. The tests will identify EXTREME weaknesses or imbalances, but often imbalances are relative. Thus, you may appear to have decent glute activation, ab strength, and hip flexor length when tested on an isolated test, but you may find that one more more aren’t quite as strong as the others. If in doubt seek a qualified professional for a full evaluation.