Q: I've been working with a trainer for a few months now and when we do squats she wants me to use my butt more. I only feel it in my quads. Is there something I'm doing wrong? What can I do to get my glutes going?
A: The popular (and vaguely correct) cliché, "lift with your legs!" may be partly to blame for this, but quadricep dominance is an issue that plagues many exercisers -- beginner to elite -- and can be the root of many common injuries surrounding the low back, hips and knees. Of course we want to lift with our legs, but more specifically we want to lift with our glutes and for some of us -- for some reason -- this proves difficult.
Your quadriceps are a group of four muscles located on the front of your thigh that contract in order to straighten (extend) your knee, while the three gluteal muscles that give you that apple bottom are activated in order to cause hip extension. Both muscle groups are closely related because in the real world of lifting, walking, running, pushing and pulling -- hip and knee extension usually occur simultaneously. When you move from sitting to standing, or lift something off the ground, your brain will activate both muscle groups to varying degrees.
The knee is a smaller joint, more susceptible to shear forces because of its lack of muscular and ligamentous stability. The hip, on the other hand, is a joint with an abundance of big, strong muscles and ligaments surrounding and stabilizing it.
Most people tend to perform these movements by activating more quadricep than glute; the cause of the disproportionate amount of activation can be attributed to several possible factors. First, prolonged sitting has been shown to reduce gluteal activation as well as cause hip flexor tightness, which limits the total amount of hip extension possible. Comfortable, cushioned shoes are somewhat associated with decreased muscular activation in our lower extremities as a whole, including our glutes, and finally, poor lifting mechanics in general have emphasized legs over bum.
The Unfortunate Result:
A lack of gluteal strength and activation can lead to many low back, hip and knee issues, while overstress of the knee joint can lead to premature and unneeded wear and tear.
Before implementing squats in your workout, perform glute-bridge and hip-thrust exercises. These simple movements have many variations and we have touched on a few of them in past articles and videos. These can vary from body weight, two-leg or single-leg exercises with your shoulders and feet on the ground, progressing into a heavier-loaded exercise, or with your feet or shoulders elevated. (See video at: wfp.to/Ohi.) After a few weeks of implementing these types of exercises into your program, you should be more effective in your gluteal recruitment.
Once you're comfortable with the glute bridges and thrusts, focus on exercises like dead lifts and split squats rather than just squats. Performed correctly, these exercises will often increase gluteal activation compared to the up/down movement of a standard squat and do not place as much shear or compressive forces on your knees and low back. If you are unsure of proper technique for these more complicated exercises; consult a certified trainer.
Stretching your hamstrings and hip flexors prior to glute training can help. First, stretching your hamstrings (which also act on hip extension) will inhibit their contraction slightly, and force your glutes to do more of the work. Secondly, stretching your hip flexors will allow you more hip-extension range of motion, which also enhances your ability to recruit your glutes.
The "butt-first" subject may not be glamorous, but it may be the fix you need to improve your technique and overcome aches and pains. While these methods may help you get your glutes under control, other more specific corrective testing protocols and exercises exist, so be sure to consult a quality trainer or therapist to see if there is anything else you can be doing to get more clench out of those cheeks.
Tim Shantz is a certified athletic therapist and personal trainer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org