If you’ve been in the fitness world or have seen a healthcare practitioner for an injury, I am sure you have heard/been told that you need to activate your glutes. But is this really a thing? I’ll explore below.
Firstly, why do we think we need to activate our glutes in the first place? Weak glutes have been implicated in a variety of injuries such as low back pain, hamstring strains, ACL tears, anterior knee pain etc. Basically, any lower extremity injury. Plus, we sit all day so it is assumed that our glutes aren’t “working” because we are sitting on them all day. If you can stand up, walk and not fall over, your glutes are working just fine.
Let’s take a quick detour to talk about neural drive. Neural drive is how many fibers are active and how many are active per second (Gabriel, Kamen, & Frost, 2006). Neural drive is known to decrease with pain and disuse which makes sense. It hurts, let’s use it less or if we are using it less, we don’t need as much activity going to that muscle. So, on the flip side, using it more and being able to produce more force will increase neural drive to the muscle. Generally, it seems that when people use glute (or probably any other muscle) activation in a warm-up, they are trying to increase neural drive to improve performance of the subsequent activity or to be able to feel the muscle better during said activity. But is this what the research says? Let’s find out!
A guy named Nadel in 2013 (disclaimer: this is a master’s thesis and not peer-reviewed) decided to test if glute medius (side butt muscle) activity increased with glute med specific warm-up exercises in athletes. He compared this to a standard dynamic warm-up. He used monster walks with a medium resistance band for 3 sets of 10 reps, a staple in most warm-ups. The pre and post-warm-up test exercises were Cook Hip Lift and Side Lying Hip Abduction. He put EMG electrodes on the glute med to measure its activity. (There are flaws with surface EMG but it’s used often in research). There was no difference in the activity of the glute med between the two groups which means the monster walks didn’t increase activation of the glute med. Hmmm, interesting . . . Let’s see what else is out there.
The above study didn’t use a specific test lift to see if there was an improvement but Parr and colleagues did in 2017 (recent! We like recent research!). Their test lift was a high hang pull that was performed by professional rugby players. Their glute activation exercises included 1 set of 6 reps each of planks with hip extension, side planks with hip extension and a SL squat. These exercises were added to a standard warm-up of biking, inchworm, squat, leg swing, lunge and press up which was the control warm-up. Again, there was no difference between the groups in the performance of the hang high pull. . .
There are four more studies (Cochrane, Harnett & Pinfold, 2017; Barry, Kenny, & Comyns, 2016; Healy & Harrison, 2014; Harrison & McCabe, 2017) performed in rugby players and track athletes that also showed no improvement in sprint times, hip extension force and drop jumps. These guys all used some version of standard glute warm-up exercises like the bridge, donkey kick, hip abduction, fire hydrant, clam, hip airplane, band walks etc . . . the bases were covered. What’s going on here?
Now you may be thinking, my (insert all sorts of healthcare peeps here) told me my glutes weren’t firing and I need to activate them. You mean to tell me that all that stuff I do in my warm-ups is useless? Not necessarily, here’s my take. If you are already strong at big lifts, low levels exercises like the ones mentioned above are probably not going to make much of a dent. If you are sedentary and inactive, they probably will help build some strength initially. With that said, they are good for a low-level warm-up of the hip joint and surrounding muscles so that’s a plus but it doesn’t seem like glute activation exercises will increase glute utilization in subsequent exercise.
But all is not lost for our booties! We can use strength training of the glutes or any other muscle you feel you need to activate to increase their contribution to lifts. Why is this? Here’s my thought based off research from Hug et al. (2015). He was comparing the vastus medialis and lateralis with respect to force generating capacity and neural drive. These guys concluded that the muscle with the greater force generating capacity (in this case, the lateralis) had increased neural drive. So, maybe, we need to increase the force generating capacity of the glutes to increase their recruitment and for most of us, this will not be achieved with banded warm-up exercise but with heavy resistance training of the booty muscles.
A quick aside here. You might be thinking, well at lower weights, it seems like I can activate my booty more but when it gets heavy, I can’t. There’s a reason for this. Recent research by Calatayud et al. (2016) determine with the bench press that if the weight is below 60-80% 1 RM, lifters can preferentially activate their triceps but once the weight gets above 80% 1 RM, this wasn’t possible. At this point, the brain is focusing on the end goal – successfully lifting the weight – so it uses whatever means possible to do so and you don’t have control over which muscles you want activated. While this study was on the bench, I can’t imagine it would be vastly different for other lifts/body parts but maybe.
There are other things we can include in the warm-up that can improve performance of the big lifts. Exercises like the McGill Big 3 (bird dog, curl up and side bridge/plank) have been reported to increase core stiffness which McGill and his researchers tested in a variety of studies (Lee & McGill, 2016a; Lee & McGill, 2016b; Lee & McGill, 2015 ). They found that the Big 3 increase the ability of the spine to bear load. This means you can lift more weight and is the same idea as why we brace and wear a belt. Increased core stiffness can also increase the force output of the limbs which, again, translates to bigger lifts. Your brain is not going to let you move heavy weight if the spine doesn’t feel safe. Ever notice that your lifts get WAY easier with the belt on. This is that idea in action. So, one important aspect of the warm-up should be increasing core stiffness with the Big 3 or similar exercises.
I have another thought on a good addition to warm-ups but I am be going out on a limb here but stick with me. Something called postactivation potentiation (PAP) has been used to improve performance in explosive activities like jumps. PAP is when you use a previous muscle contraction to enhance a future one. This is often seen with performing heavy squats, resting a bit then performing a vertical jump. The vertical jump height is supposed to improve. There are a few reasons for this including some biochemical mechanisms which I won’t get into but also preferential recruitment of Type II motor units which control Type II muscle fibers. These are the muscle fibers we want to tap into as powerlifters as they produce the most force. But it’s weird if we did heavy squats followed by jumps because we want the squats to improve not the jumps. You might be thinking “aren’t plyometric exercises (said jumps) used to recruit those same Type II motor units”? If you were, you’d be correct. So what if we did some plyos in the warm-up to help our lifts? 🤔. Sharma and colleagues (2018) did something similar with soccer players. They tested heavy resistance vs plyos for the PAP response in subsequent sprints. The plyos improved sprint time to a greater degree than the heavy squats after a 10 min rest. You may think this is obvious but remember PAP is usually utilized with the heavy resistance exercise improving the plyo so it’s a big deal that the plyo also improved performance.
Now, I know this isn’t a plyo improving a squat but there is potential. Heavy squats/deadlifts need higher motor unit recruitment which are the Type II muscle fibers. Plyos are able to access these and to a MUCH greater degree than banded and bodyweight booty exercises. I would also suspect that some MB ball chest passes would be great prior to bench. Another option would be to do some heavy-ish hip thrusts to get that booty going in a warm-up if that’s your intent. Regardless of which exercises you use, the main goal is Type II fiber recruitment which is accomplished with heavy training, explosive training or even lighter-ish training to near fatigue. Now, don’t do so much that you are gassed for your workout, but enough to feel it and feel ready to go.
In summary, your butt works just fine. Your glute activation exercises are probably a decent muscle and hip joint warm-up but the booty won’t be working better and improve your performance. If there is improvement, you’re probably weaker than you think. If you want to improve the performance of your lifts in the warm-up, explore the McGill Big 3 or other exercises that increase core stiffness (various types of carries, pallof presses, torsion buttress all come to mind). Play around with some heavier hip thrusts, glute bridges or KB swings in the warm-up and maybe toss in some plyos for good measure to make sure your Type II muscle fibers are primed and ready to go.
Barry, L., Kenny, I., & Comyns, T. (2016). Performance effects of repetition specific gluteal activation protocols on acceleration in male rugby union players. Journal of Human Kinetics, 54, 33-42.
Calatayud, J et al. (2016). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 116:3, 527-533.
Cochrane, D. J., Harnett, M. C. & Pinfold, S. C. (2017). Does short term gluteal activation enhance muscle performance? Research in Sports Medicine, 25:2,156-165.
Gabriel, D. A., Kamen, G., & Frost, G. (2006). Neural adaptations to resistive exercise: Mechanisms and recommendations for training practices. Sports Medicine, 36:2, 133-149.
Harrison, A. J., & McCabe, C. (2017). The effect of a gluteal activation protocol on sprint and drop jump performance. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 57:3, 179-88.
Healy, R., & Harrison, A. J. (2014). The effects of a unilateral gluteal activation protocol on single leg drop jump performance. Sports Biomechanics, 13:1, 33-46.
Hug, F., Goupille, C., Baum, D., Raiteri, B. J., Hodges, P. W., & Tucker, K. (2015). Nature of the coupling between neural drive and force-generating capacity in the human quadriceps muscle. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282.
Lee, B. & McGill, S. (2016a). The effect of short-term isometric training on core/torso stiffness. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35:17, 1724-1733.
Lee, B. & McGill, S. (2016b). The effect of core training on distal limb performance during ballistic strike manoeuvres. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35:18, 1768-1780.
Lee, B. C. Y., & McGill, S. M. (2015). Effect of long-term isometric training on core/torso stiffness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29:6, 1515-1526.
Nadel, R. S. (2013). The effects of different warm-up modalities on gluteus medius activation. University of Rhode Island Master’s Thesis.
Parr, M., Price, P. D.B., & Cleather, D. J. (2017). Effect of a gluteal activation warm-up on explosive exercise performance. BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 3.
Sharma, S. K. et al (2018). Postactivation potentiation following acute bouts of plyometric versus heavy-resistance exercise in collegiate soccer players. Biomed Research International, 2018.