Don’t get left behind—strengthen your glutes!
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
What is the single most important muscle for running? Some might say the heart. That’s a good choice, as you certainly can’t run without one. Others might say the diaphragm. That’s another good choice. You need to breathe to run, and you can’t breathe without a diaphragm.
OK, so it is clearly not possible to isolate a single most important muscle for running, as there is more than one muscle without which running is impossible. But what if we limit the discussion to locomotive muscles? What is the single most important prime mover in running? Some might say the calves. Others might say the hamstrings.
Those who do should consider the case of Rudy Garcia-Tolson. He does not even have calf muscles or hamstrings, and yet he runs. Of course, he runs with prosthetic legs, but those technological aids merely provide leverage; they do not substitute for the locomotive capacity of the calves and hamstrings. Garcia-Tolson relies almost entirely on his gluteus maximus muscles in his buttocks to generate the propulsive force that enables him to run.
Not only is it possible for double above-the-knee amputees like Rudy Garcia-Tolson to run using only their glutes as prime movers, but the glutes are also the major generators of propulsive force in runners with whole legs. The glutes, in other words, are the most important locomotive muscles for running.
Have you noticed that sprinters usually have big butts? That’s because the glutes are the hardest-working muscles in all-out sprinting. In athletes who do a lot of full-speed running, the muscle fibers comprising the glutes thicken, and the rear end inflates. The glutes are the hardest-working muscles in distance runners, too, but the relatively low-intensity nature of the training does not stimulate the sort of hypertrophy that results in visible changes to the anatomy.
But is your butt all that it could be? I don’t mean aesthetically, but functionally. The answer is probably not. The glutes are abnormally weak in most people today because of all the sitting we do. When you’re seated in a chair your glutes are stretched and inactive. Over time, this posture leads to the development of a chronic muscle imbalance that compromises the ability of these muscles to do their job during running. According to Darwin Fogt, PT, owner of Evolution Physical Therapy in Newport Beach, Calif., even most of the professional football players and national-class sprinters he works with fail simple tests of gluteus maximus function.
Assuming your glutes work no better than those of the average runner today, what can you do about it? You can make strengthening exercises for the glutes a standard part of your regular strength-training regimen. Start with simple isolation exercises that serve to reactivate the wiring between your brain and your most important running muscle. The supine glute activation is one such exercise. Lie face up and cross your left ankle over your lower right thigh. Fold your hands on your chest. Contract your right buttock and lift your hips until your body forms a straight line from the right knee to the neck. Concentrate on not using your hamstrings to assist this lifting action. Make your glutes do all the work. Now relax and repeat. Complete 10 repetitions and then work your left glute.
Once you’ve fixed the wiring between your brain and your butt you can move on to more advanced, functional exercises that integrate glute activation with activation of other running muscles. The split-stance dumbbell deadlift is one of my favorites. Stand with your left foot half a step behind your right foot and with your right foot flat on the floor beneath your hip and only the toes of your left foot touching the floor. Begin with dumbbells positioned on the floor to either side of your right foot. Bend at the hips and knees as you reach down with full extended arms and grab the dumbbells. Press your right foot into the floor and stand fully upright. Concentrate on contracting your right glutes to achieve this lift. Pause briefly in the “upright and locked” position and then lower the dumbbells back toward the floor, stopping just before they touch the ground. Complete 10 repetitions of this movement and then work the left glute.
Warning: this exercise may have aesthetically appealing side effects.