Before heading out on your next run, ask yourself one question: “How’s my butt?”
The answer matters. “The gluteal [butt] muscles are the strongest and most powerful muscles in the entire body,” Ashley Fluger, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, tells SELF. “The gluteal muscles include the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus, and [they all work together to] help stabilize your pelvis and keep your hips and knees aligned.” Those jobs become even more important when you’re running.
“The gluteals are responsible for maintaining neutral pelvic alignment, especially during single-leg stance, and absorbing and transmitting forces from the impact of landing and pushing off with each stride,” David Reavy, P.T., a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy and founder of React Physical Therapy in Chicago, tells SELF.
There are three main muscles in your butt, and all play a role in supporting your hips as you run.
The gluteus maximus is the largest of the three and primarily works to extend the hips. It’s that extension that drives the foot into the ground and powers your running strides, Reavy says. Meanwhile, the medius and minimus, which form the side butt, are tasked with stabilizing the hips as they extend, although they do play a small part in extension. The medius and minimus work together to perform hip abduction (moving the leg away from the center of the body) as well as external rotation (think: man-spreading), Fluger explains. Together, these two movements keep the femur, or thigh bone, situated in the pelvis at the right angle for the gluteus maximus to do its thing.
So, how’s your butt? Chances are, it’s too busy snoozing to answer.
If you spend the majority of your day sitting, your glutes are largely inactive, Kimbre V. Zahn, M.D., a sports medicine physician with Indiana University Health, tells SELF. Think about it: You have no need to contract them when you’re just sitting there not moving.
Sitting also puts your hip flexors in a shortened, tight position. This causes the glutes, an opposing muscle group (meaning they’re on the opposite side of the hip joint), to become lengthened. Over time, this lengthening (and lack of contraction) can mess with the way the muscles activate. Basically, the glutes become desensitized and ultimately unable to recruit as many muscle fibers and generate enough force when you do try to engage them.
It’s likely that when you lace up your sneakers and take off running, these crucial muscles won’t automatically switch back on, full speed ahead.
This is especially true for the gluteus mediuses and minimuses, which tend to be underdeveloped in most runners anyway. (It’s common for your big and powerful gluteus maximus to take over in traditional butt exercises, resulting in less training for the smaller muscles.) And, since your body relies on them the most during lateral, side-to-side movements, running straight forward won’t always be enough of a stimulus to rouse them from their slumber.
And this lack of activation can cause issues throughout your entire body. “When the glutes are not firing properly, your body does a good job of compensating, which translates to other muscle groups being forced to worker harder than intended,” Reavy says. “This can subsequently lead to poor alignment in the pelvis. Lack of gluteal activation causes muscle imbalances and can lead to excessive forces at the back, knee, foot, and ankle.” All of this can lead to a typical overuse injury like knee pain, achilles tendinitis, IT band syndrome, and more.
The best way to wake up your glutes is with what trainers call “activation” exercises.
Performed as part of a pre-run warm-up, activation exercises are low-intensity movements that accomplish a few things. First, they gently work a given muscle, in this case, the gluteus medius, increasing blood flow, temperature, and priming the neurological pathways by which motor neurons (muscles’ control centers) tell their attached muscle fibers to stop resting and start doing their job. (But they do it gently enough that they don’t actually fatigue the muscle.) They do all this while largely isolating the muscle, or at least greatly reducing how much other muscles are able to chip in, Fluger says.
In the end, the idea is that after performing glute activation exercises, you’re able to start your run with glutes that actually fire like they need to for optimal performance and injury prevention.
Try these four exercises before your next run to activate your glutes.
The below is a sampling of various glute activation exercises that you can incorporate into your pre-run routine, but the exact ones you use—as well as the number of reps and sets you perform—ultimately depends on what feels right for your body, Reavy says. The goal with these is to feel your glutes working (you can even poke them with your finger to tell!), but without exhausting them.
And while these exercises are a great way to wake up your backside before a run, “I’d emphasize that the runner should be performing these exercises consistently,” Zhan says. Work up to performing them daily, using them to break up long sitting stretches.