Why Your Glutes Aren't Working

Kelsey Lensman ATC


     “I don’t feel it in my glutes.”  I said these words for about a year and wondered why with any glute focused exercise I never felt it in my glutes. My hamstrings would be on fire and my low back would be sore as ever the following day, but for some reason never my glutes. I tried to do all the different glute activation exercises, but if I didn’t know how to even isolate my glutes there was no way I could go through these exercises and feel what I was supposed to feel.  I didn’t understand and got frustrated when I could barely squat 95 lb. and didn’t even attempt to deadlift because my low back was not having it at all. But, it all changed when I learned this.


     Your glute provides many different actions, but the main action of the glute is it does hip extension (look at picture below). However, the kicker is two different muscle groups also work together to do hip extension.  These two muscles groups are hamstrings and your back extensors (erector spinae). With normal hip extension your glutes are supposed to fire first, then your hamstring, and then your contralateral back extensors. So, glutes, hamstring, back extensors. That is the pattern. However, your body doesn’t always like to work in normal patterns. In that case someone’s firing pattern could be hamstring, back extensors, glute or back extensors, hamstring, glute. The muscle that is supposed to be the main driver of your entire lower body (glute) may actually be barely firing. What does that sound like a recipe for? Injury. This happens especially if you don’t know how to isolate and activate that glute separately from the other two.

     The test. You can figure out which pattern your body likes to fire in by a single test. It is called the prone hip extension test. Lay down on the ground on your stomach. Have a partner put a finger on your glute, hamstring, and contralateral low back. Extend your hip by raising your leg up toward the sky slowly. While your doing that, your partner is feeling for which of the three muscle groups is firing first, second, and third. Once you get the results think back to any glute or hip extension exercise. Did you feel it in whatever muscle fired first over the glute?


     Before absolutely ANY lower body workout, I lie on my stomach and do 3 sets of 10 and hold for 3 seconds at the top for each leg of what is shown above in the video. That is the simplest form of glute activation. You are not working through any range of motion so the other two muscle groups are less likely to take over. You are just lying there and trying to fire your glute. This looks easy, but it’s not. It took me about three to four months before I could solely fire my glute in this position. Begin with the inside foot of the glute you’re trying to fire on the ground. Then focus and actively think about squeezing your glute alone.  If you have a partner, tell them to put one finger on your glute and one finger on your hamstring. If they feel any type of contraction of the hamstring then you are not solely isolating your glute. It doesn’t have to be a big contraction. It will start out a small contraction and then will increase as you learn to have better motor control of it.  If you can’t do it in a lying position where you’re focusing on it, how are you supposed to do it in a squat or deadlift when there are many more variables that can be taken into account?


     This is huge! Get control of your glutes before anything. It is supposed to be the main driver of the lower body.  If it’s barely getting activated then it sets you up for all types of injuries, pain, issues, etc. You don’t even have to train to see the importance in this. Think about all the times you stand up from a chair, get up out of bed, or get out of a car. That is all hip extension! Focus on the feeling that you get when you isolate your glutes in that position and try to replicate that feeling in every type of hip extension movement. It’s one thing to just do a glute activation exercise, but it’s another thing to actually feel it working during an exercise. Get those glutes firing and let me know if you have any questions!


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