Inspired by Kim Kardashian’s controversial photo shoot with legendary French photographer Jean-Paul Goude, this week’s news item is a guide to the gluteal muscles, what they are, how to determine if they’re weak or inhibited and why, the impact of weak or inhibited gluteals on the functioning of the body, and how to improve their strength and ability to activate.
What are the gluteal muscles?
The gluteals comprise three muscles which make up the buttocks: gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and the gluteus minimus.
The function of the gluteal muscles:
• the gluteus maximus extends and rotates the thigh laterally
• the gluteus medius and minimus abduct and rotate the thigh medially
How to tell if the gluteal muscles are weak or inhibited
An inhibited muscle means the muscle is not firing properly (the neural signal is not reaching the muscle) and a weak muscle indicates the muscle is firing normally (not inhibited) but is lacking strength.
One way to determine if the gluteal muscles are inhibited is to ask your physio or a fully qualified Pilates teacher or fitness instructor to perform a prone hip extension test. This involves lying on a table face down and, keeping the leg straight, lifting it up off the table. If on lifting the leg the knee significantly flexes, or if a “dipping” is noted in the lumbar spine, indicating lumbar extension, the gluteal muscles are inhibited.
Similarly, if a lack of coordination is seen when walking backwards (when sober!), this indicates the gluteus maximus is weak.
The cause of weak or inhibited gluteal muscles
If you spend long periods of time sitting in a chair then the front of the hips, the hip flexors and psoas, become short and tight, while the back of the hips, the gluteal muscles, become long and weak. In time the body forgets how to use the gluteal muscles because it will divert the neural signal intended for them to a stronger muscle close by in order for this to work instead. If the neural system is now asking less powerful muscles to perform the task that requires the potential power of the gluteal muscles, this is likely to lead to injury.
The impact of weak or inhibited gluteal muscles
Weak or inhibited gluteal muscles can result in overactive hamstrings, low back pain, tight iliotibial bands (ITB syndrome) and patello-femoral pain (runner’s knee).
Without a strong gluteus medius to align the femur, knee and ankle, you are likely to over pronate your feet, which can lead to plantar fasciitis (heel pain), achilles tendinitis and shin splints.
The gluteus medius holds the pelvis upright as we stand. When it is weak the piriformis has to compensate and as a result the piriformis gets bigger and tighter, which may cause piriformis syndrome.
How to get the gluteal muscles to function correctly
The following Pilates exercises will help activate and strengthen the gluteals:
• Spine curl
• Side lift
• Double leg kick back
• Flipper, sometimes called Bottom Burning Beats (!)