Even though the gluteus maximus is the biggest muscle in the body, in fitness training, we haven’t always focused on the buttocks. In the 1970s, the rage was to train the quads and the hamstring muscles, often with leg extension exercises on Nautilus machines. In the 1980s, the focus turned to the abdominal muscles that Jane Fonda had and showed others how to achieve. Exercise classes and videos started with Jazzercise leading the way.
By the 1990s, abs were no longer enough and the core was discovered, although most people couldn’t figure out where it was. The muscles around the abs had to be strengthened to support the back and reduce the middle age back pain that was sweeping the nation. In the 2000s, CrossFit arrived and the trunk was discovered, to connect to the rest of the body. Fitness was defined as 10 components of exercise and agility.
Now we’ve moved on. This decade, 2010-19, is the age of the butt. What physical therapists and trainers alike have noticed is that people can have strong quads and hamstrings, even strong abs, but still be quite weak in the gluteal muscles of the butt. When they are weak, the spine and pelvis are not supported properly and poor mechanics result in back, hip and knee pain.
Here’s something I hear a lot: “But doctor, I go to pilates, spin class and ride my bike for hours. How can I not be strong enough?” Here’s how I answer: The glutes (made up of the gluteus medius and maximus muscles) are the muscles that are attached to your pelvis and your femur (the thighbone) and are the primary stabilizers of the ball-in-socket joint at the hip.
The glutes allow your hip to extend backward, rotate outward and go out to the side. Together, these movements control your ability to stabilize your body as your leg hits the ground and your body moves above. Glutes are active in all weight-bearing sports and activities.
While the abdominals are a key part of the core, they don’t have any control over the thighbone, so even if you have a strong set of abdominals, without strong glutes you’re vulnerable to a weak hip. Weak glutes can also lead to poor balance, which puts the knees and back at risk during sports. For instance, there is a strong correlation between ACL ruptures and a weak gluteus medius in soccer players involved in noncontact ACL injuries.
To train the glutes, try challenging the hips in all directions. Just doing front-to-back exercises isn’t enough. It’s the side-to-side and hip-rotation exercises that strengthen the gluteus medius, the primary hip stabilizer. Add side planks with a side leg lift, and advanced balance training like single-leg standing on the Bosu ball while doing arm exercises to optimize the workout.
When the glutes are strong, an athlete gains a truly solid core that can handle the load and impact that comes from sporting activities, and there is significantly less stress in the knees and ankles with running and jumping.
So, notice those hard butts of the Olympians (and any other athlete) over the next few weeks and figure out how you are going to get yours.
Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco. He pioneers advanced orthopedic surgical and rehabilitation techniques to repair, regenerate and replace damaged cartilage and ligaments. For more info, visit www.stoneclinic.com.