Why This Matters:
Not getting the results you want from glute exercises? Here’s why, along with form tips to get you on track for a better butt.
[Read time: about 8 minutes]
In this era of big butts that don’t lie, there’s a problem. Your butt maybe isn’t responding to your faithful ministrations of thrusts, squats, pulls, and deads.
There most certainly is a reason, because you most certainly were born with gluteus muscles, whether or not they are destined for Beyonce greatness. One of the main reasons lies in whether you are positioning yourself properly to USE the butt. The body uses muscles based on movement.
What’s moving the load on these targeted exercises? Clearly not your glutes (or other desired muscle if you wanted to make this a “big picture” moment). Or maybe the butt is just helping as opposed to being the prime mover (the stress of the load goes primarily to that muscle)! Additionally for a muscle to work at its full potential, it requires stabilizers, posture and the right balance of stability/mobility in the joints used.
A common complaint I see (and the inspiration for the title) is that someone’s glutes feel tight and non-responsive to growth while the quads are overdeveloped, and the front of the hips and top of the butt feel sore and strained. Another classic is that the hamstrings are overdeveloped, but the glutes are not. Someone might complain that glute exercises are felt in the hamstrings and they can’t seem to get their butt to feel it too. A lot of times I find this is due to positioning and basic misinterpretation of technique, and how it ties into overall lumbo-pelvic control and stability.
I considered the most common errors I see in performing lower body and glute specific exercises, and I listed them below. I use all of these exercises with my clients and repeatedly see familiar (sometimes relatively minor) errors that, when addressed, make the movement feel different and help clients “get it” faster. I will be categorizing by exercise and offering simple fixes; but first, let’s get the background information over with for context, so the practical stuff will make sense.
What I want to talk about today is called line of pull and how it relates to your glutes through your joints. The biomechanical definition of line of pull is:
A description of the direction of force exerted by a muscle, depending on the orientation of its fibers, its skeletal attachments, the disposition of its tendons, and the axis of movement of any joints affected.
Read my lips: “DIRECTION OF FORCE EXERTED BY A MUSCLE.” This means you gotta “line” the joints up to make the right muscles exert the force according to their line of pull! This is what is meant by “form”.
The picture below is from “Kinesiology of the Hip” by Donald Neumann. This picture excites me. While it looks awfully confusing at first, it really isn’t (and for a math-challenged person like myself, that is saying a lot). So imagine you are staring at someone’s butt from behind, but the muscles are see-through and all you can see is the true hip joint, the femur in the socket. That’s what you are looking at below. All the arrows are showing the line of pull for each particular muscle. Look at Piriformis and Glute max on the upper left. Piriformis pulls the femur head more laterally and inward to the socket (can you understand why it’s a “rotator cuff” muscle?), while glute max has a different line of pull – more upward and less laterally, a bit straighter, but not as straight as the hamstring biceps femoris (can you find its line?). Can you visualize how you could adjust your leg to use one more than the other (again this is JUST an example). If not, stand up for a second. Bend your leg and stand on one foot. Rotate your knee and hip out in a figure 4; glute med is firing more? Get your knee straight and lift your leg up and back like you are back kicking someone (without arching the back); glute max is firing. That is line of pull 101 and EXTREMELY simplified (those muscles clearly weren’t the only ones firing).
Every muscle has an origin and an insertion. Through those attachments, muscles act on the joints. This is how we move.
I love the above pic so much, too! Can you picture why you want to squeeze your butt hard at the end of a deadlift? See the arrow for Glute max? It leads toward the femur. Full hip extension with posterior tilt of the pelvis would allow for full glute activation. Translated into a cue for a deadlift, we get something like “hump the bar at the end to lockout” or “bring your hips forward and press your thighs to the bar and squeeze your butt hard.” For example:
We use words like adduction, abduction, flexion, extension, rotation, etc., to describe how a muscle is acting on a joint, which moves a limb or our body in different directions or planes of motion. “I am extending my hips,” aka squeezing my butt.
Look also how the direction of fibers run in your butt muscles. Glute max fibers are directed obliquely downward and lateral. Glute med and min have a slightly different line of pull, which is why abduction of the leg more to the side would hit them better (like in cable abduction or clamshells!).
A – Gluteus Medius
B – Gluteus Maximus
C – Gluteus Minimus
Those little ones under C are the “rotator cuffs of the hips.” They pull the head of the femur into the socket, and are often blamed for being “tight” and problematic when in reality they might just be having to do more than their fair share of moving work for being tiny fellows (and stabilizing) compared to glute max.
- Superior Gemelli
- Obdurator Internus
- Inferior Gemelli
You need to find the best way to put YOUR joints in position to hit the muscle you want to work optimally. This has the good side effect of:
- Preventing unwanted joint stress.
- Allowing the greatest work load to go to the muscle/s targeted = hypertrophy! strength! shapeliness!
- Allowing for the safe and beneficial application of speed and power in programming.
For example: You are doing your hip thrusts faithfully, but perhaps because of the position of your femur (thigh bone) in your hip socket, in relation to your ankles and feet (which push off the floor), the glute max actually isn’t doing the majority of the work! Maybe your stance is too wide or narrow, maybe your femurs roll in or out as you thrust because you lack stability.
Contemplate a bit on angles. How might positioning your feet, knees, etc., at certain angles contribute to one muscle working harder? Line of pull again. Now imagine the great variety of skeletons in this world. Hint: 6 billion or so. Hey, that’s why there is no “perfect” form! You are your best critic for shaping your own body. Where do you feel it? What feels better? What does your body respond to? Do you get pain or soreness more in one area or another? What feels tight or overworked? Where do you get a pump? Exercise recommendations come about because we know that certain exercises work certain muscles. But beyond that, examine YOURSELF and your specific needs. You can take 100 people and have them perform a hip thrust. 20 of them might do better with heels closer to the butt. 20 might be better with feet up because they feel it too much in their quads. 20 might do better with toes out a bit.
Oftentimes, it’s the little adjustments that can instantly change the “stress” of the exercise and get you growing in the right areas.
Gray Cook said this about movement:
“The brain often rejects the diet of random movement information provided by conventional exercise. The diet is rich on movement and lean on sensory input. Sure, fat is lost and muscles get firm, but movement quality doesn’t improve. The body must comply with activity, but the brain does not learn to move better because it doesn’t learn to sense and perceive better. When alignment, posture, balance and awareness improve, movement improves.“
Better movement means less aches and pains, better muscle growth and strength, and better ability to do whatever activities we enjoy.
Disclaimer: This is not to say that all movement “problems,” pain, or muscle growth issues can be neatly categorized or solved by only one or another popular training methodologies. There is never ONE answer, as some of my PT and S&C friends and colleagues will be faithful to point out. And rightly so. But this blog post is aimed at providing the initial ideas behind my recommendations for the average exerciser. The specifics of training philosophies are always up for a good debate regarding theory, context, applicability, etc.
With that introduction out of the way, let’s now focus on the booty-specific exercises and little form tweaks to help you get the most out of them.
Problem: Knees track out or in as the movement happens.
Consequence: Knees Out = anterior hip pain, glute med overworked, low back flexion. In= knee stress/valgus, weak glute activation.
Solution: Grip a foam roller between your thighs if you tend to track out. Resist against a band (the little flat resistance ones) if you tend to track in.
Result: Your glutes will have a firm line of pull to work with as you transfer force from the floor through your ankles, calves, and thighs. Play with the position of your knees relative to your feet to feel it where you want it! That means some might feel it more with knees and ankles turned slightly OUT, especially if you tend to feel it in your hamstrings predominantly (because glute fibers run more laterally).
Do isoholds and practice getting all the movement in the hips while keeping the knees and ankles from wobbling around.
Problem: Don’t feel them in my glutes, just hamstrings!
Solution: Bring your feet closer TO YOUR BUTT. Drive through the heels and turn the toes out slightly. Make sure you are extending fully; at the top of the rep, your pubic bone should come into view, aka posterior pelvic tilt. Aim for smooth reps with a hard pause-squeeze at the top. Try isoholds to get this down. See vid below about foot placement.
Hip Thrusts feet up or shoulders up
Problem: Lower back arches on the way down or on the way up.
Consequence: Your lower back takes a lot of stress, and does not allow for full glute activation.
Solution: Try lower placement of the bench on your back (so scoot higher) and HINGE down from there as you come down. Look at your abs as you come down. Everything should move in one piece. Additionally, do breathing exercises to understand “ribs down” and tightening the abs properly. Blowing up balloons slowly with big breaths is good, or watch 90/90 Hip Lift (PLEASE!).
For breathing + hip/pelvis alignment check out:
90/90 Hip Lift
Feet up thrusts = Look at your abs/pubic bone as they come up and as you come down, and aim the end of your ribs (so right above the navel) down to the floor as you come down. Let your core move down in ONE PIECE. Practice with bodyweight first if this is a problem for you. Remember, all you want is for the core to be UNmovable (aka stable) during the movement so all movement is at the hip joint.
Result: Optimal glute activation and no low back stress (very important at heavier weight especially). Deload until you get this right. This is integral to thrusting safely.
Problem: Feet too close to the buttocks or feet too far away.
Consequence: You feel it in your hamstrings, OR you have a hard time “pushing” because the leverage sucks with your feet too far away.
Solution: Line your knees up with your feet so that at the top of the movement, your knee is in a straight line with your ankle. If this is hard to see, do it sideways in the mirror. This will allow you to “push” properly through a straight line of force. Too close, and the knees will come over the toes and you risk arching the low back to get a “stronger” movement (or what feels like one at least). Too far and you are not getting enough leverage to push effectively and may feel it too much in the hamstrings.
Below are some pics from Bret’s video here of training his female clients (who as you can see are all quite “small” despite using impressive weight, just had to throw that in there). Look at those nice leverages and their foot position.
Again, these adjustments might be very small, and it’s all about what allows you to feel it in your glutes BEST.
Bret has addressed all these issues in this video as well! Check it out:
Everything You Need to Know About Hip Thrusts (great line of pull illustrations too!)
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