Glute Activation 101

If you’ve been following me for awhile, you know that I looooove glute training. So much so, that I wrote an entire e-book dedicated to it last year! (get it here). My clients do it, I do it, and I promote it weekly on my instagram page with a new exercise every Wednesday (for humpday…obvi).

The glutes are some of the biggest and most powerful muscles in the body. It’s important to have strong, healthy glutes, and not just for aesthetic reasons.

When clients come to me complaining about low back pain, hip pain, or knee pain, my first thought is always “weak glutes”. Given that I work in corporate fitness, where everyone who comes to my gym spends 8-10 hours a day at a desk, it usually IS an issue with their glutes. Luckily, underactive or weak glutes are simple (read: this does not mean easy) to fix, and my go-to is always glute activation exercises.

Before we go any further, let’s take a look at the anatomy of the glutes:

The glutes are made up of three main muscles:

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Gluteus Maximus

This is the largest of the three muscles.
Main function: upper leg (thigh) extension, external rotation
Origin: posterior line of upper ilium; posterior surface of lower sacrum; side of coccyx
Insertion: the larger portion ends in a tendon that passes through the hip and attaches into the iliotibial band

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Gluteus Medius

Main functions: thigh abduction; thigh internal rotation when hip is flexed; thigh external rotation when hip is extended; leg stabilization in single-support
Origin: outer surface of the posterior ilium
Insertion: greater trochanter (hip joint)

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Gluteus Minimus

Main Functions: thigh abduction; thigh internal rotation when hip is flexed; thigh external rotation when hip is extended; leg stabilization in single-support
Origin: outer surface of the ilium in the front; margin of the greater sciatic notch in the back
Insertion: anterior border of the greater trochanter (hip joint)

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In summary, your glutes originate mainly from the posterior hip and low back area, and attach at the hip joint.

They assist such movements as the squat, the deadlift, hip extension, running, and walking; keep our pelvis from leaning forward or backward; help us balance; and support our back and knees when standing.

So…how do you know if your glutes are weak? If you sit at a desk for most of the day, you likely have weak glutes. Additionally, signs of glute weakness include:

Low back pain: if your glutes are weak, your body will compensate by firing up other muscles to help, especially muscles in the back. Over time, this stresses those muscles to the point of soreness, pain, muscle spasm, and possible injury

Knee pain: the gluteus medius plays a role in stabilizing the knees in walking and running. If the glute is weak, the knees become less stable, thus resulting in knee pain.

Poor balance: as mentioned above, the glutes stabilize the knees and hips. If they are weak, your limbs don’t have a stable base from which to move. This will result in balance issues, which can have dangerous consequences like falling.

This is where glute activation comes in. It involves “activating” or “turning on” the glutes before working out. Not only will this result in stronger glutes over time, but it will help tremendously with any pain in the knees or low back. If the glutes aren’t firing correctly, your body will resort to using other muscles during movements where your glutes should be firing. If you can’t deadlift without back pain, or can’t squat without knee pain….it might be because your glutes aren’t actively working to assist you…aka not doing their job!

There are many exercises that are great for activating the glutes. My favorite glute activation circuit involves 3 exercises and a mini-band. Check it out (click for videos):

Mini-band standing hip-hinge abduction: 10x each leg, 10x both legs
Mini-band lateral walks: 10x each side
Mini-band penguins: 10x each side

I also always make sure to include glute-focused exercises in every training session. Aside from squats and deadlifts, this includes hip thrusts, RDLs, cable pull-through, step-ups, bridges, kickbacks, and more.

If it’s an upper body day, I’ll end my workout with a glute-focused finisher, that includes smaller exercises like frog pumps, clamshells, hip-hinge abductions, monster walks, lateral toe taps, and straight-leg abduction. For these, I’ll either keep it bodyweight or use a mini-band.

Everyone should include some type of glute activation and glute training into their daily routines. Not only will it help with overall strength and power, but it will help decrease your risk of injury, risk of muscle imbalances, and risk of mobility issues.

My FREE e-book includes 50 of my favorite glute exercises, plus workouts putting them together! Get it here

booty book

Don’t skip out on glute activation….your butt (and knees…and back….and hips…) depends on it!!


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