The gluteus muscles are an unsuspected source of pain when it comes to back, hip and knee pain. In fact, when these muscles aren’t functioning properly (aka. they’re too tight and/or weak), they can even affect your ankles and feet.
However, the most notable effect that misbehaving glutes produce is pain in the lower back.
The three muscles that make up our butt – gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus – are commonly referred to as the “glutes,” and together, they work to move the leg out to the side, rotate it outwards and move the leg backwards. They also stabilize the knee and pelvis, making sure their held in their proper place.
Below is a summary of each muscle:
The glute maximus muscle is one of the strongest muscles in the human body. It is responsible for movement of the hip and thigh, helping us to stand up from a sitting position, climb stairs, and stay in an erect position. When weakened, the body will compromise and utilize muscles stemming from the lower back and knees instead to perform the functions it is normally supposed to.
This muscle is partially covered by the gluteus maximus, and works to provide rotation of the thigh outward from the centre of the body, which allows us to walk steady, and also keep our pelvis level. When this muscle becomes too tight and weak, it fails to support the lumbar spine, leading to back pain.
This muscle is the primary internal rotator of the hip joint, helping with abduction (movement away from the midline of the body) and medial (inward) rotation of the thigh at the hip. It works together closely with the gluteus medius to stabilize the hip and pelvis when the opposite leg is raised from the ground. A tight gluteus minimus will often be mistaken for knee and back problems, or even sciatica or piriformis syndrome.
Weak and Inactive Glutes
When the glutes are weak, under-active or really tight, they can’t really do their job. That is, they do a poor job at stabilizing the knees and pelvis, resulting in knees and hips that move when they aren’t supposed to. What does this lead to? Lower back, hip and knee pain.
Weak, inactive and tight glutes can also lead to tight hip flexors, as a result of compensation. So either your legs are pulled up toward your spine, or your spine is pulled forward toward your legs (1). This creates an arch in the lower back (lordosis), and can very quickly lead to lower back pain.
With this in mind, we can target each muscle in the gluteal area with a proper stretching and strengthening routine. Remember that with stretching, you want to take your time, and breathe deeply. Never push so hard that you feel a sharp pain – this means you’ve gone too far, so pull back until you are just past the range of feeling slightly uncomfortable. That gives the muscle a chance to release.
1. Twisting Glute Stretch
1. Start by sitting on the floor, legs stretched out in front of you.
2. Bend one knee, keeping the other extended.
3. Bring your opposite arm across your bent knee and twist toward it until you feel a stretch in your glute and outer hip.
4. Breathe deeply for 20-30 seconds, and then switch legs.
2. Figure Four Stretch
1. Lie on the floor with the affected leg crossed over the other leg at the knees, both legs bent.
2. Gently pull the lower knee up toward the shoulder on the same side of the body until you feel a stretch in the affected leg.
3. Hold for 30 seconds, and then slowly return to starting position. Repeat on the other side.
3. Supine Cow Stretch
1. Lie on your back and cross your right knee over your left knee. Hug both knees toward your chest, making sure that your back and neck stay neutral.
2. If you don’t feel a stretch, work your hands down your legs, aiming for your ankles. Make sure your head stays down on the floor.
3. Hold here for 30 seconds to one minute, while breathing. Then repeat with your left knee over your right.
4. Seated Leg Cradle
1. Begin sitting cross-legged on the floor.
2. Lift your left leg, hooking your calf over your left arm. Cradle your foot in your hands.
3. Now slowly lift your leg until you feel a deep stretch in your glutes and hip.
4. Hold and breathe for 30 seconds, and then switch legs.
5. Modified (Easy) Pigeon Pose
1. Come into a kneeling position, and rest your weight into the affected hip. Bring the opposite knee back to about 90 degrees, and the affected foot forward, as far as it feels comfortable so there is no pulling.
2. Place your hands on either side of the affected knee, and lift out of the hips to hinge forward, giving a nice stretch into the affected hip.
3. Breathe deeply for 30 seconds, and maintain a nice length in the spine. Do not round the spine, keep it long and tall, and keep yourself propped up with your hands. Eventually, you may be able to come down to your forearms.
6. Glute Bridge
1. Start by laying on your back, knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
2. Keeping your heels on the floor, raise your hips until they are in a straight line with your shoulders and knees.
3. Hold the hips parallel to the ground for a two-second count, and then lower.
4. Repeat for 10-12 repetitions.
7. Deep Squat
1. Stand with your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart, hips stacked over the knees, and knees over the ankles.
2. Roll your shoulders back and down, away from your ears. Your back shoulder be straight and not rounded.
3. Extend your arms out straight so that they are parallel with the ground, palms facing down.
4. Inhale, and bring your hips back as the knees begin to bend (as if you were sitting in a chair).
5. When your butt starts to stick out, make sure your chest and shoulders stay upright, and the back stays straight.
6. Work up to a squat so that your hips eventually sink below the knees (you may need to work up your flexibility to do so).
7. Engage your core, and with your bodyweight in the heels, come back into standing.
8. Do 15 repetitions, for a total of 3 sets.
8. Kettlebell Swings
1. Stand over the kettle bell with feet hip-width apart, chest up, shoulders back and down. Use a kettle bell that is a bit lighter to begin with, so that you can practice form first instead of sacrificing form for strength.
2. Squatting down, grip the kettle bell with palms facing you and thumbs wrapped loosely around the handle.
3. Stand tall, gripping the kettle bell. Keep your arms long and loose, retracting your shoulders blades and engaging your core.
4. Soften the knees, shift your bodyweight into your heels and lower your buttocks down toward the wall behind you.
5. Driving through your heels, explode through the hips to send that weight swinging upwards from your quads. Aim for chest height with arms extended. Your core will naturally contract, and so will your butt cheeks.
6. As the kettle bell descends, let the weight do the work as you ready your body for the next rep.
7. Repeat 10-15 times.
9. Hip Thrusts
1. Start with your shoulder blades against a bench, shallow table or couch (only if it is low enough to the ground), and have your arms spread across it for stability. If your shoulder do not reach the bench, table or couch, your may need to start with your butt a little bit off the floor.
2. Bend your knees to 90 degrees, and make sure your feet are flat on the floor.
3. Take a big breath in, and then blow all the air out, bracing your core.
4. Squeeze your glutes, lift up your hips, and hold for a second or two. Do not hyperextend your lower back at the top, and make sure your neck stays neutral as you lift yourself off the floor (don’t let your head drop back).
5. Repeat 10-12 times.
10. Lateral Band Walks
1. Place a band around both ankles, or around both knees. There should be enough tension that the band is tight when your feet are shoulder width apart.
2. To begin, take short steps forward, alternating your left and right foot.
3. After several steps, do the opposite, and walk backward to where you started. This is one repetition.
4. Do 15 repetitions for a total of 3 sets.