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The muscles in your bottom are the largest in your body, and chances are you spend a good amount of time sitting on them.
You might never have thought much about your rear beyond ‘does my butt look big in this?’, but it’s the key to whole-body firmness.
If your strength training is not having the desired effect, it could be that your glutes are not working fully, meaning other muscles have to pick up the slack. When the glutes start to weaken, compensation occurs elsewhere. The hamstrings and lower back muscles are recruited instead.
This means your entire body does not benefit from your workouts.
The gluteus maximus is roughly 3 times the size of the biceps, and it’s the largest of the 3 gluteal muscles. It begins at the top of the pelvis and wraps around underneath the hip, where it connects to the femur. It extends the femur at the hip and laterally rotates the extended hip.
The gluteus medius is situated on the outside of the hip and the gluteus minimus is directly beneath it. Together they are responsible for abduction and rotation of the femur at the hip. They also assist the gluteus maximus in extension. The gluteus medius muscle contracts, stabilizing the pelvis when standing on one foot. This prevents the pelvis from tilting to the unsupported side during activities such as walking.
Weakness in the hips and glutes is common among those of us who sit all day.
If you spend 8 hours or more a day seated, your glutes atrophy through underuse. When this happens, they cannot activate correctly.
"If a muscle isn’t contracted, the muscle nerve neurons become dormant," says personal trainer David Bergwerf.
"The lower back becomes dominant and the glutes are neglected. This results in bad posture and bad form when you exercise."
The body is an interconnected system. If the muscles do not fire in the right sequence, other muscles compensate, resulting possibly in strain or injury.
Tim Weeks is a former UK Olympian triathlete and top personal trainer. He says, "The glutes are the most important muscles. They are vital for the health and strength of the whole body, especially your back."
David says that it’s the abdominal muscles and the glutes that make up our core.
You can’t have a strong tree without strong roots. It’s impossible to be strong without a strong butt."
Strong glutes and good hip mobility allow us to efficiently use multi-joint exercises, such as lunges, to strengthen the whole body. Multi-joint exercises increase strength and size far more effectively than isolation exercises like leg curls.
Tim recommends a simple test: a tricep dip. This is a standard arm exercise. But does your lower back or thighs start to ache after a few reps? If so, your glutes are not strong enough to hold your pelvis stable, so other muscles have stepped in, making the tricep dip less effective.
Another test is to try a plank.
If your glutes are not firing, your back muscles are recruited to support the pelvis. This means your abs are not working sufficiently to strengthen them, and you’re straining your back, too.
Traditional bottom-firming exercises are of no use if your glutes aren’t activated. Your other muscles will compensate as usual.
Tim’s top recommendation to get your glutes firing is an exercise called the Clam.
To perform it, lie on your side with your legs bent at 90 degrees. Keeping your feet and ankles together, use your buttocks to open your knees like a clam. You should feel this in the glutes, not in the legs.
"Clams and hip extensions activate the muscles and wake the dormant nerves from their slumber," says David.
This YouTube video from trainer Wayne Gordon shows how to do the clam with good form.
Here are useful pointers of the correct way to do hip extensions.
"The exercises that build size and strength are the multi-joint exercises. Do dead lifts, deep squats, lunges and step-ups and make sure your weight is in your heels. If it transfers to your toes, you’re using your quads and lower back, not your glutes," David says.