Any gym gal worth her Gymshark leggings will likely have some form of glute activation as a precursor to leg day. I myself love a good banded warm-up, but I haven’t actually looked into how effective it is. So, I thought I would investigate the literature to determine whether the Instahuns have led us down the path to glute gains or not.

What is Glute Activation?

Glute activation is carried out to “warm-up” the gluteal muscles, so that they are ready and firing for the lower body lifts that follow. Typically, glute activation consists of 3-5 exercises performed using bodyweight or resistance bands. In the literature, this is typically referred to as “low-load glute activation”.

Spot the Confirmation Bias

It is important when carrying out this through piece of investigative journalism (gimme that Pulitzer) that I declare my current thought process behind my beliefs. This way, it becomes easier to see if I am simply cherry-picking information to support my current practices.

Currently, I carry out 4 exercises for 10 reps using a resistance band around my knees (glute kickbacks, fire hydrants, bodyweight squat and crab walk). My reasoning for it (I’m not saying they’re all good reasons!):

  • I struggle to feel my glutes activate during some lower body lifts.
  • I think it encourages mind-muscle connection.
  • I find it helps me focus and concentrate for the session ahead.
  • I was born with an arse like a plank of wood and I want to do all I can to stimulate the growth of my little soccer player arse.

So, with my preconceptions defined and the possibility of confirmation bias afoot, let’s dive in.

Glutes: What Are They?

The Holy Trinity: Glute Maximus, Medius & Minimus

To activate the glutes effectively, it helps massively to know what they are. The gluteal muscles are threefold: glute maximus, medius and minimus.

Glute maximus is the biggest (questionable in my case) and strongest muscle in the human body. It is one of the primary drivers of hip extension. This makes it an important muscle for all you athletes. Hip extension is what enables us to generate explosive movements (sprinting, jumping etc.)[1]. Glute maximus is also involved in external rotation of the hip (turning your leg outwards).

Glute medius is divided into three parts. It acts to stabilise the femur and is the prime muscle involved in hip abduction. Hip abduction is what allows us to move “laterally” (side to side) and turn. These are important movements for the athlete also. Medius also assists with hip extension and lateral rotation[2]. Glute minimus is the smallest, and acts to flex, abduct and rotate at the hip joint[3].

With this in mind, I hope you can appreciate that the glutes do so much more than get Instagram likes, and are involved in the majority of lower body movements.

Dat Ass(ociation with Injury): Weak Glutes & Their Impact

As we have briefly discussed, the glutes are involved in the majority of movements at the hip joint. The glutes (maximus in particular) are prone to weakness and inhibition[4]. Weak glutes inhibit the athletes’ potential for performance and muscle building. Therefore, for this reason, it is important the athlete can build strength in their glutes to enable to reach their sporting potential. So, where does glute activation fit in?

The Theory Behind Glute Activation

Weak glutes are not the vibe, as evidenced above. With many people struggling to get their glutes to fire and activate, glute activation was suggested as a theory to address this. The thought process behind it is as follows:

1. Warm-up the glutes with activation exercises (Instahun banded crabwalks, kickbacks).

2. Increase the activation of the gluteal muscle fibres.

3. Increased muscle fibre recruitment leads to increased force output[5] (think, more power to push).

4. Sports performance (jumping/springing etc.) improves and Gymshark sponsorship acquired.

This is all sounds logical to me. But unless we test it, all it can be is a well-worded hypothesis. So, let’s see if the literature breaks the hearts of myself and other Instahuns everywhere.

What Are You Activating Your Glutes For?

It was Nietzsche who said, “He who has a why can bear almost any how”. Clearly, this was made in reference to glute activation, which is actually the common theme of all his major works. Regardless, one must call into question the reason for activating glutes. We will discuss it under two main umbrellas: performance and hypertrophy amongst individuals (fancy way of saying getting jacked).

Warm-Up

It is widely accepted in literature that warm-ups are associated with a reduction in lower-limb injury[6]. Warm-ups in general aim to increase the muscle temperature (hence the name), which can increase force output[7], elicit greater motor unit recruitment and electrical activity. However, not all warm-ups are created equal and different protocols have differing effects. A warm-up is always advisable.

Glute Activation & Performance

Low-load glute activation (read: Instahun warm-ups) and its association with sporting performance is questionable within literature. Crow et. al[8] found glute activation exercises (glute kickbacks, clams, glute bridges etc.) enabled trained athletes to generate better explosive force output. One must note that these were elite level male athletes (and not your average gym girlo). This is surely a positive, correct? Yes, but the beauty of science is for a study’s results to be valid, it must be replicable. Several studies have investigated this further, using the glute activation exercises delineated by Crow et al.

Harrison et. al[9] found these glute activation exercises to offer no additional benefit or impairment to sprint and jumping performance. A short cardiovascular warm-up and dynamic stretching routine did improve performance (a more ‘traditional’ warm-up), but adding on glute activation offered no additional benefit. This study again only surveyed trained male individuals, and it was only over a three day period.

Similarly, Barry et. al[10] found these exercises to generally have no impact on sprinting performance. In fact, it had a negative effect on performance when low reps (5-10 reps) were used. However, 15 rep sets did decrease 10 metre sprint times. Therefore, it has a potential benefit for short bursts of activity. Cochrane et. al[11] found glute activation to have no significant effect on hip extension force.

Parr et. al[12] found glute activation to have no difference on power or performance outcome. However, it did increase the activation of hamstring and glutes, and gluteal muscle excitability. This shows that activation does not equate to improved outcome.

A general conclusion from evaluation of literature seems to suggest that glute activation does not improve force output, or performance.

Training for Specificity

The cornerstone of any good training programme is specificity. To be good at squatting, you must squat. If your goal is improving a certain lift, you gotta lift it. Given that glute activation doesn’t appear to directly positively affect muscular output, you may be better off swapping your resistance bands for a more movement specific warm-up. Unless of course, you are training for the “pump” – in that case band up sis.

When it comes to hypertrophy, we return again to Nietzche and ask what our motivations are for doing what we do. What are you training for? Assuming you are training for something other than a nice Instagram photo, it is unlikely that glute activation is the key to unlocking your untapped muscle-building potential.

The Caveat: Mind-Muscle Connection & Coaching Cues

As I scramble desperately for a reason to keep my glute activation routine on the go, it hits me: the mind-muscle connection. The mind-muscle connection is documented in literature as an effective means of improving muscular development[13],[14]. Now, this is where science stops, and anecdotal evidence begins. I would hypothesise that by using low-load glute activation exercises where one can “feel the burn”, it strengthens the mind-glute connection. This can potentially improve movement quality (though NOT performance) by reinforcing certain coaching cues (drive through the heels to feel the movement in your glutes etc.)

Furthermore, I think it may encourage trainees to “get in the zone” by focusing from the outset on muscular contraction and control. For myself, the second the band is on, it is go time, and I find it helps set me up nicely for a lower body session.

Conclusion

Yet again, I have been fooled by Instagram. It is unlikely that glute activation is the elixir of glute growth, nor the key to improved performance. Whilst it certainly doesn’t hurt, glute activation is likely to be more mentally (getting you in the zone) than physically beneficial. I will be keeping my glute activation in my routine, but I will be a lot sadder carrying out my glute kickbacks knowing that it isn’t doing much beyond giving me a booty pump.

References

  1. Elzaine, A., Borger, J. (2020) ‘Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Gluteus Maximus Muscle’, Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538193/.
  2. Reiman, M.P., Bolgla, L.A., Loudon, J.K. (2011) ‘A literature review of studies evaluating gluteus maximus and medius activation during rehabilitation exercises’, Physiotherapy Theory and Practice. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51728472_A_literature_review_of_studies_evaluating_gluteus_maximus_and_gluteus_medius_activation_during_rehabilitation_exercises.
  3. Beck, M., Sledge, J.B., Gautier, E., Dora, C.F., Ganz, R. (2000) ‘The anatomy and function of the gluteus minimus muscle’, The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. Available at: https://online.boneandjoint.org.uk/doi/abs/10.1302/0301-620x.82b3.0820358.
  4. Buckthorpe, M., Stride, M., Della Villa, F. (2019) ‘Assessing and treating gluteus maximus weakness – a clinical commentary’, International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6670060/.
  5. Kirkpatrick, J. (2019) The Science Behind Glute Activation. Available at: https://www.relentlessathleticsllc.com/education/2019/03/the-truth-about-glutes-and-glute-activation.
  6. Herman, K., Barton, C., Malliaras, P., Morrissey, D. (2012) ‘The effectiveness of neuromuscular warm-up strategies, that require no additional equipment, for preventing lower limb injuries during sports participation: a systematic review’, BMC Medicine. Available at: https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1741-7015-10-75.
  7. Racinais, S., Oksa, J. (2010) ‘Temperature and neuromuscular function’, Scandanavian Journal of Medical Science in Sports. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21029186/.
  8. Crow, J.F., Buttifant, D., Kearny, S.G., Hyrsomallis, C. (2012) ‘Low Load Exercises Targeting the Gluteal Muscle Group Acutely Enhance Explosive Power Output in Elite Athletes’, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Available at: https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2012/02000/Low_Load_Exercises_Targeting_the_Gluteal_Muscle.16.aspx.
  9. Harrison, A., McCabe, C. (2015) ‘The effect of a gluteal activation protocol on sprint and drop jump performance’, The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283792286_The_effect_of_a_gluteal_activation_protocol_on_sprint_and_drop_jump_performance.
  10. 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. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5187959/.
  11. Cochrane, D.J., Harnett, M.C., Pinfold, S.C. (2017) ‘Does short-term gluteal activation enhance muscle performance?’, Research in Sports Medicine. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15438627.2017.1282358?scroll=top&needAccess=true.
  12. Parr, M., Price, P.D., Cleather, D.J. (2017) ‘Effect of a gluteal activation warm-up on explosive exercise performance’, BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine. Available at: https://bmjopensem.bmj.com/content/3/1/e000245?cpetoc=&trendmd-shared=1&utm_source=trendmd&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=bmjosem&utm_content=consumer&utm_term=1-B&int_source=trendmd&int_medium=trendmd&int_campaign=trendmd.
  13. Schoenfeld, B.J., Contreras, B. (2016) ‘Attentional Focus for Maximising Muscle Development The Mind Muscle Connection’, Strength and Conditioning Journal. Available at: https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Abstract/2016/02000/Attentional_Focus_for_Maximizing_Muscle.4.aspx.
  14. Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M., Sundstrup, E., Brandt, M., Jay, K., Colado, J.C., Andersen, L.L. (2016) ‘Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training’, European Journal of Applied Physiology. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00421-015-3305-7?platform=hootsuite.

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