The muscles of the legs, including the gluteus maximus, span across three joints: those of the hips, knees and ankles. The large muscles of the legs have the primary role of supporting the hips and core— including the pelvis region and muscles of the lower back, some of the most susceptible to aches and pains.
Strong glutes also allow for movements such as bending over, squatting down, standing up straight, pushing off the ground (such as to run) and for maintaining other aspects related to proper posture. A 2005 report published in the Journal of Experimental Biology states that “The human gluteus maximus is a distinctive muscle in terms of size, anatomy and function compared to apes and other non-human primates …. Enlargement of the gluteus maximus was likely important in the evolution of hominid running capabilities.” (1)
If your lower body is feeling weak or tight, perhaps placing too much stress on your back when you’re trying to exercise, regularly doing hip and butt exercises and strengthen your glutes. A dynamic workout that targets all muscles of the legs will improve range of motion and and increase stability, helping to prevent compensations and injuries.
What Is the Gluteus Maximus?
The gluteus maximus is one of three muscles of the glutes, and one of the largest muscles in the whole body. While many people think of the the “glutes” as one muscle (i.e, the butt muscle), they are actually a group of three muscles: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles. The gluteus maximus is the biggest of the gluteals and supports the other two glute muscles in various ways.
In people who are fairly active, the glutes are usually one of the strongest muscle groups in the entire body, due to the need to support the sacrum and femur, areas of the lower and mid body where the glute muscles attach to. Together the glute muscles help with exercises or activities such as: lifting and lowering when sitting, thrusting, climbing stairs, jumping, and balancing the lower body. For the overall most functional lower body strength, the glutes are exercised in proportion to other muscles of the legs, including the quadriceps and calves.
What Do the Glutes Do?
The primary role of the glutes (gluteus maximus) is supporting stability of the pelvis and extending or rotating the hips. They also help the knee extend by lifting the iliotibial tract in the legs, help with lowering and lifting the body towards the ground, support upright posture through the spine, and reduce pressure placed on the lower back.
Some of the benefits of having stable, strong gluteus maximus muscles include:
- Helping with running and other higher intensity activities that involve lift off — Some research has found that while the gluteus maximus supports lower levels of activity (like walking uphill or on an even surface) in certain ways, it’s strength is required much more for activities that require speed, such as jumping or running. In fact, some researchers believe that growth of the glutes in humans and other primates is tied to the evolution of running capabilities.
- Stabilizing the pelvis & supporting the hips — In order for weight and force to be properly balanced in the body, moving up from the lower legs to the upper body, the hips must be stable. Strong glutes help prevent muscular compensations and address weak hip muscles that can contribute to injury or poor performance.
- Supporting the muscles of the back — In patients who complain of lower back pain, many experts recommend strengthening the glutes to improve posture and take pressure off of the lower body. Lower back pain is one of the most common complaints among middle-aged and older adults, often tied to lots of sitting, too little movement of the lower body and not enough stretching. (02)
- Stabilizing your femur (thighbone) — Your femur connects to your hip socket, which is supported from the back by your glute muscles. The glute muscles help to rotate the femur, both internally and externally. This helps with movements like lifting your leg out to the side or back.
The Gluteal Region
The glutes, what most people think of as the “butt muscles,” are located behind the pelvis region, attaching to fascia tissue of the lumbar region (the lower back). (3) They sit below the gluteus medius (the top of the buttocks) and above the biceps femoris (the muscles in the back of the thighs). They also connect to the sacrum, sacrotuberous ligament and coccyx bones (the tailbone).
The gluteus maximus attaches to the front of the legs by inserting into the gluteal tuberosity of the femur. Another insertion point is the iliotibial tract connecting to the tibia. The nerve supply that reaches the glutes are called “inferior gluteal nerves” (L5, S1,2).
Common Injuries of the Glutes
The glutes are one of the major muscles in the body that tend to be involved in improper training or injuries due to poor form. The glutes can sometimes contribute to imbalances in the body or overuse injuries when they are engaged and strengthened too much in proportion to other muscles, such as the quads (the muscles in the front of the thighs).
All muscles of the legs are more likely to become overused when repetitive movements are performed; this can be one behavior tied to overtraining, especially without proper rest or when not enough stretching is performed between workouts. Injuries of the gluteus maximus are most commonly due to repetitive movements of the legs that require motion in only one direction or plane.
On the other hand, the gluteus maximus (and other muscles of the glutes) can also become weak and unstable when someone doesn’t get enough physical activity, for example if they sit for many hours per day at a desk and live a mostly sedentary lifestyle. Some experts call this phenomenon “gluteal amnesia,” which occurs when the muscles near the buttocks become overstretched and underused, resulting in weakness and stiffness. Some common aches, pains and injuries tied to weak gluteus maximus muscles can include:
- Lower extremity injuries — Some research shows that weak glutes can increase the likeliness of injuring other parts of the legs, due to instability. (4) This can include rolling the ankle or hurting the knees for example.
- Hip pain — The gluteus maximus plays an important role in stabilizing the pelvis, so when the muscle is weak or injured poor balance can develop. This can result in hip tightness or hip flexor pain, especially if you’re also skipping stretching. The hips may not be able to rotate properly, which can compromise proper form in other muscles.
- Decreased stabilization of the pelvis — This can increase the risk for running injuries, lower back pains and aches in the lower legs (such as the hamstrings). One side of the body may become stronger or more balanced than the other, increasing the likelihood of injury.
- Low back pain — The glutes help the body properly perform multiplanar movements that can stress the back, such as bending over or squatting down. By helping the torso, pelvis, hips and legs remain evenly balanced and stable, the body can move in dynamic ways without over-straining or rounding one specific area of the spine due to the pull of gravity. (5)
- Trouble walking, running or doing other activities — Any physical movement that involves stability, flexibility and strength in the legs and hips can be compromised. For example, yoga, dancing, horseback riding, cycling, hiking, burst training, sprinting, plyometrics or tabata workouts, and other activities will be more difficult with underdeveloped glutes.
- Reduced range of motion during normal activities and overall tightness
Best Glute Exercises and Stretches
For the best results, do the glute exercises and stretches listed below about three to four times per week. You can either aim for a specific number of reps (such as 10–20 reps per set, depending on your fitness level) or do the exercises in a circuit, performing each exercise for 45–60 seconds with a 15-second break between. For beginners, perform two sets or two rounds in total. And for advanced exercisers aim, for three to four sets/rounds in total.
Between each round of exercises give your muscles a break by resting for about 1–2 minutes. In order to evenly build strength and prevent overuse, give yourself enough rest throughout the week and also incorporate other exercises for your core, back and upper body.
1. Weighted or Barbell Squats
Standing with your feet hips distance apart, hold a barbell or free weights at shoulder height (either the barbell resting above your shoulder blades on your back, or free weights resting on top of your shoulder muscles held in front of you). Keeping your spine in a neutral position move into the squat by retracting your hips and pulling them backward. Hinging at your hips, bend your knees until your thighs come almost parallel to the ground (knees should be directly over your feet). Then push back up until your back is straight and repeat 5–10 times depending on the weight you’re using.
- There are also many other variations of squats you can try. Squats can be done with weights held in the front of your body or behind your back, using dumbbells or a stability ball, with your arms held overhead or parallel to the floor, using a chair or wall for support if you’re more limited, held in place while you focus on breathing (as is done in yoga during “chair pose”), and in other ways. Pistol squats are also a great workout for the entire legs and hips. Pistols are one-legged squats with one relaxed hamstring and calf and the other leg straight out in front of you as you lower down.
Starting with your spine neutral and head up, place your hands on your hips and step forward with one foot until the thigh is parallel to the ground. Drop your back knee down and balance on your back toes, keeping your back straight so it’s in line with your back thigh and knee. Return to start by pushing off your front foot and stepping the legs together, then repeat.
- Other ways to practice lunges include lateral lunges or step back lunges. For more difficult variations, you can hold free weights in your hands while you lunge or a stability ball.
3. Romanian Deadlifts
Start with hand weights in your hands just outside your thighs, or a barbell on the ground. Keep your feet hip distance apart and your tailbone/hips slightly tucked. Lower the upper body while keeping the chest upright and butt sticking back. Keep your back flat (try not to hunch or round). Drive your back upright and your hips forward so you end up standing up straight, drawing the weights in your hands until they are about the height of your mid-shin or just below the knees. Lower back down as you started and repeat.
Using a block or some type of bench placed in front of you, place one foot forward with the knee bent. Try make sure your chest is upright and your front knee is right over your ankle once bent. Lean forward and step off your front leg, bending your back leg and bringing it near your stomach, or keeping it straight and trying not to use it for thrust. Step back in the same direction and repeat. If you’d like to hold a weight in your hands near your hips as you step, keep them swinging downward to add resistance.
Any type of running will help strengthen your glutes, but sprinting at a very fast speed is even more effective. You can perform sprints as part of a HIIT workout or simply increase your speed while running or briskly walking for a short distance. Start out with about 15–20 minutes of HIIT intervals and work your way up to 25–30 minutes if you’d like. To perform intervals alternate slower running or resting for 1–2 minutes with 30–90 seconds of sprinting as fast as you can. Most experts recommend practicing HIIT workouts 2–3 times per week.
6. Glute Bridges
Laying down on your back, bend your knees and bring them parallel while hip distance apart. Push off the bottom of your feet and drive through with your heels, extending your hips vertically up as you round your back. You should feel your core engaged and weight supported by your glutes, thighs, back and heels. Extend while you keep your chin tucked to your chest and core engaged, then reverse to lower your hips down. You can also increase the difficulty by raising one leg in the air at a time as you hold your hips up, or using a barbell held over your hips.
7. Yoga Postures
Many yoga postures involve variations of squats and lunges. These include the asanas (poses) called: Warrior II, Warrior 2, Chair, Bridge or Wheel Pose. These poses are best performed with a straight pine and tucked tailbone.
8. Glute Stretches
Following a glute workout, try to stretch the the lower body for 5–15 minutes in some of the following ways: (7)
- Forward fold — Standing up with your legs straight or slightly bent, bend over to bring your fingers near your toes and hold for 15–30 seconds.
- Foam rolling — If you experience pain in the butt muscles (a side effect of glute injury) use a foam roll placed directly on the back of the hip while you keep one leg crossed over the other. (8) With your food placed over the opposite, roll back and forth gently on the back of the hip as you apply light pressure for about 30 seconds at a time.
- Cross-legged gluteal stretch — Stand upright with one leg bent and your ankle placed over the opposite knee. Move your hips back as you squat and bring your arms forward to help you balance. Your standing leg should try to come parallel to the floor, and your crossed knee should be bent with your knee moving out to the side to help stretch the hips.
- Hip flexor “crescent” lunge — Kneel down on one knee, with the front knee bent and thigh parallel to the ground. Lift your hands overhead and form a straight line between your head, spine and pelvis. Alternate about five times between straightening your front leg and bringing your hands down to frame the front foot, then bending your front knee again and lifting your arms back up. Hold each position for about 10 seconds at a time.
Precautions When Exercising the Gluteus Maximus
One thing to be careful of when exercising the glutes is to resist clenching the butt during backbends or other movements, since this can aggravate the lower back and sacroiliac (SI) joint. To help activate your glutes, try to squeeze the butt in first (before doing any movements) in order to know that you’re using the right muscles, but then release before moving into other postures. Your spine should remain upright, your core engaged and your tailbone tucked as much as possible during yoga or other exercises. The hips should also not be externally rotated, which is easier if you use a block between your thighs in many poses for assistance. (8)
To help strengthen your body evenly all over, try to include other exercises in your routine that target the quads, hamstrings, calves and core. Keep increasing the number of reps you do, or weight you incorporate, over time to keep building strength in the legs.
Final Thoughts on the Gluteus Maximus
- The gluteus maximus is one of three muscles of the glutes (the buttocks muscles), and one of the largest and strongest muscles in the whole body.
- Roles of the gluteus maximus include helping to stabilize the pelvis, support the hips, protect the low back, and assist with movements like running, thrusting or squatting down. Weak glutes can contribute to injuries in the legs, poor balance, hip pain and low back aches.
- Exercises and stretches to help prevent weak or tight glutes include: all types of squats and lunges, romanian deadlifts, glute bridges, sprints, step-ups and hip flexor stretches.
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