I’m sure many cyclists, triathletes, and sports people generally have been told by someone – physiotherapists, coaches, massage therapists, osteopaths, or chiropractors that they have weak glutes. Despite the gluteal complex being critical for cycling, running, and sporting performance, ‘gluteal weakness’ seems to be in epidemic proportions. Oh, add abdominal weakness and ‘poor core strength’ to that too, but that’s a blog for another day. Are we all inherently weak in these muscles, or is something else going on?
Gluteal weakness has been linked with a bunch of sports medical problems, such as ITB syndrome in runners (1), patellofemoral pain in female athletes (2), and even lower back pain (3). I could go on.
The remedy for weak glutes is usually strengthening. Exercises like crab walks, single leg bridges, hip extension drills, and deep squat have been (over) prescribed to get these weak muscles strong. However, despite best efforts and great exercises, many people feel frustrated that they can never get their glutes strong enough.
Part of the issue is differentiating muscle inhibition from muscle weakness, however the two can co-exist. Muscle inhibition is where the muscle doesn’t activate well – an analogy I often draw is that you have a V8 engine running on only 2 cylinders. Once the glutes have been inhibited for long enough, they can then lose bulk and strength.
So how and why do the glutes get inhibited? A recent study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (4) sheds some light on the area. The study recruited 23 college athletes and primarily assessed how muscles (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and biceps femoris) fired during kettle bell swing exercises.
Image: Kettle Bell Swings
What they found during the study was that there was a positive correlation between hip flexor length and the muscular activation of the hip extensors. Put simply, the tighter your hip flexors – the worse your glutes fired. Tight hip flexors often cause an anterior pelvic tilt, which puts the glutes into a biomechanically inefficient position.
Image: Anterior Pelvic Tilt
Sitting has been getting a bad wrap at the moment (and justly so), with too much sitting being linked (5) to heart disease, diabetes, and premature death! Prolonged sitting also leads to tight hip flexors – including time on the bike.
Now this is an over-simplification, but;
Here’s some take home messages;
Sit as little possible
Stretch your hip flexors regularly
Work on your pelvic posture (a health professional can help)
Start gluteal strengthening when the above three have been addressed
Treat the cause, not the symptoms.
Fredericson, Michael, et al. "Hip abductor weakness in distance runners with iliotibial band syndrome." Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 10.3 (2000): 169-175.
Presswood, Laura, et al. "Gluteus medius: applied anatomy, dysfunction, assessment, and progressive strengthening." Strength & Conditioning Journal 30.5 (2008): 41-53.
Nadler, Scott F., et al. "Hip muscle imbalance and low back pain in athletes: influence of core strengthening." Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 34.1 (2002): 9-16.
Van Gelder, Leonard H., et al. "EMG Analysis and Sagittal Plane Kinematics of the Two‐Handed and Single‐Handed Kettlebell Swing: A Descriptive Study." International journal of sports physical therapy 10.6 (2015): 811.
Hamilton, Marc T., Deborah G. Hamilton, and Theodore W. Zderic. "Role of low energy expenditure and sitting in obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease." Diabetes 56.11 (2007): 2655-2667.
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