Your Glutes Are Always Firing

In the fitness space, the term ‘glutes firing’ has become as prevalent as a cheat day. Whether it’s a certain movement or a stim machine, there are countless of suggestions out there to tell whether your glutes are or aren’t firing/turned off or weak. You move, you stretch, you lift, everything seems to be working in your glute area or at least you don’t feel one bum cheek acting differently than the other one. So what exactly does it mean when people say get your glutes firing or that you have a weak glute? Let’s discuss.


Musculature of the Glute Region

Glutes are composed of several muscles and connect to several more. The muscles of the gluteal region can be broadly divided into two groups. The first group are superficial abductors and extenders and include the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus and tensor fascia lata. This group of muscles help abduct and extend the femur. To break it down a bit more, the function of the gluteus maximus is the main extensor of the thigh and assists with lateral rotation. It is only used when you run or walk or climb, get up from sitting. The gluteus medialis abducts and medially rotates the lower limb. During locomotion, it secures the pelvis. The gluteus minimus abducts and medially rotates the lower limb. During locomotion, it secures the pelvis, preventing pelvic drop of the opposite limb.


The second group of the gluteal region includes the deep lateral rotators. This group are smaller muscles that mainly act to laterally rotate the femur. This group includes the quadratus femoris, piriformis, gemellus superior, gemellus inferior and obturator internus. And below the glutes are the hamstring muscles and above are the erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, obliques.


There is also a synergistic relation between muscles. The gluteus maximus and hamstring muscles are synergists (work together) for hip extension. Gluteus medius and lateral thigh muscles work together for leg abduction. No one specific muscle is working in isolation.


How Do You Know Your Glutes are Firing?

There have been research studies conducted to figure out which muscles are acting when for example, doing a squat executed from various positions – quarter, parallel, full squat, front squat, back squat, low back squat. The studies have concluded that muscles such as the quads, hamstrings, glutes, back, core, calves all work together to help during the eccentric and concentric part of the squat movement. It is also agreed that all these muscles, while they work together to help execute the movement, at certain positions, one muscle group might be more active than another but they are all constantly activated. It’s also a scientific consensus that to be able to determine the musculature activation pattern, electrodes are usually inserted into specific muscles to be able to record and see their activation. It isn’t as simple as looking superficially to see which specific, individual muscles are activated and to what degree.

Going back to the question – how do you know your glutes are firing? The wonderous nature of our bodies is that a lot of what we do, to run, walk, breathe, doesn’t require us thinking about it to turn on those processes – it all happens automatically! As indicated before, the function of the glute muscles is to help move the leg while we stand, run, walk, jump, squat – so if we are doing any of those activities, glute muscles are activated automatically without needing an off/on switch. If there is an observable, significant size difference in your glutes, this might indicate there is a more serious issue than just a weak glute and would recommend you getting that checked out by your medical professional.


Then Do You Have Weak Glutes?

A research study was conducted to determine the muscle activity pattern during a prone leg extension and the validity of using PLE as an evaluation tool for lumbopelvis function. The lumbopelvis includes back, glute and hamstring muscles. Individuals that used the PLE, theorized that a delay in gluteus maximus recruitment was some sort of disfunction causing instability of the pelvis during gait and thus hindering the body’s mechanical efficiency. In other words, those individuals theorized, weak glutes caused the hip extension to be achieved by hamstring muscle engagement, resulting in a forward pelvic tilt and hyperlordosis of the lumbar spine. And when the hamstrings are dominant because of inhibition of the gluteus maximus, there will be an anterior shear of the trochanter observed during the prone leg extension. Therefore, poor gluteus maximus strength and activation is postulated to decrease the efficiency of gait. This isn’t what the research found.


What the research study concluded was that in healthy individuals, there wasn’t a consistent muscle activation sequence. Therefore, this type of testing tool wasn’t an appropriate evaluation tool to determine whether muscles such as the glute muscles are weak. The study also found that the gluteus muscles were consistently recruited last. Back muscles and hamstrings were recruited before the gluteus muscle. These results questioned that a delayed gluteus maximus firing is abnormal in healthy individuals.


In another study, it indicated that gluteus maximus function is testable in the clinical setting by having a patient tighten their buttocks as much as possible while in the prone position with legs straight. During this procedure, the medical professional palpates the gluteus maximus and feels for contraction. When a gluteus dysfunction is found, gluteus maximus dysfunction is most likely due to inferior gluteal nerve dysfunction. This inferior gluteal nerve dysfunction causes difficulty in rising from a seated position, climbing upstairs, and loss of hip extension and it is commonly caused by hip dislocation.


While, we as fitness professionals, don’t have the sophisticated scientific methodology to conduct research on our clients, nor do we have authority to conduct medical tests, we do know that when developing a strength program, setting benchmarks to determine where you’re starting and tracking and testing your progress is a best practice when determining strength progress. We can objectively look at this data to determine whether someone has increased strength. What we can’t do, as untrained and unlicensed medical professionals or scientists, is make any diagnosis nor determine whether there is a specific, singular deficient muscle like a single glute muscle. If you can’t do a push up, this tells us your upper body is weak. If you can’t do a squat or a single leg RDL, this tells us your lower body is weak. If we test your chest press or your squat using weights, we can quantifiably determine how strong or not you are relative to your body weight. However, because you couldn’t squat your body weight, or your knees are caving in or out, this doesn’t pinpoint a weak glute. Executing a squat or a leg extension involves many muscles that help each other execute a movement. All the muscles involved should be strengthened.


Glutes Firing or Not

It is incorrect to make the statement that your glutes aren’t firing. Muscles are always working, just at various degrees. Just standing requires muscles from your head to your toes to engage, they aren’t working at the same intensity, but they are still actively firing and working. By saying that your glutes truly aren’t firing would mean you have a diagnosed neurological disorder – such as an inferior gluteal nerve dysfunction – made by a medical professional. There are multiple medical tests that a medical professional would need to run to make that diagnosis.


It is also incorrect to say they are weak without having a reference point. Glute muscles are muscles, so they can become weak just like another muscle due to injury like hip dislocation or prolonged inactivity that leads to muscle atrophy. But to determine that only your glute muscle is weak would require medically invasive procedures to test that – just looking at your lower body wouldn’t tell us anything conclusive or reliable. To rotate your leg, the biceps femoris, sartorius, and gluteus medius and minimus are used, so which one would it be that’s weak? Conversely, when are your glutes strong? What is the benchmark for comparison and is it quantifiable?


As knowledgeable and experienced training professionals, we can recognize when movement patterns deviate from typical movement and which musculature groups are involved in executing particular movements. However, any diagnosing or medical testing would only be appropriate for your medical professional to do.  What we can do is ensure that your training program addresses any muscle imbalances, minimizes injuries and ultimately, helps you have a good quality of life. We would follow your medical professional guidance if there is an injury or diagnosis. Your training program would work towards your specific goals, start where you are and build you up, it would track your workouts, test your progress and help you create a sustainable, lifelong workout routine.


To learn more about our training services or to schedule an assessment, establish your benchmarks and see your progress week after week – call us at 512-348-7113.