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Why do glutes shut off?

glute activation glute amnesia hip flexors the pain free athlete Nov 04, 2014
Photo of Glutes

Have you ever been told your glutes don’t work? I have! When I started my posture therapy program, I couldn’t activate my left glutes at all. It’s like they had amnesia, which they did. In other words, my muscles had forgotten how to work. To illustrate, Dr. Stuart McGill often finds what he terms “gluteal amnesia” in his back pain patients. Basically, when the glutes don’t fire during hip extension and the back compensates. And, consequently, the spine compresses. Ouch!

Let me explain. Three main factors cause the glutes to shut off.

  • First, pain
  • Second, position
  • Third, lack of use

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Pain

So, how does pain create this issue? According to Mark Heller, DC in his article, Changing Inhibition Patterns: Breaking The Pain - Inhibition - Instability Cycle, “Any pain that lasts more than 48 hours begins to alter function. That means trigger points begin to develop, the pain spreads up and down the chain, and key stability muscles shut down.” If you look at his image to the right, you can see the cyclical relationship between pain, inhibition and instability. In other words, pain inhibits muscles. This, in turn, leaves joints unstable. Finally, this causes greater pain.

Actually, I speak from experience. I had pain in my left hip, which caused my glutes to turn off. And, this caused greater instability in my hip and more pain. Fabulous!

To further explain, this cycle describes a neurological imbalance between the brain and the muscles. The Feldenkrais Method (which many refer to as a somatic educational system) increases your awareness of movement. Through this method, you would use slow, gentle exercises in order to rewire correct movement patterns. When I attended my first Feldenkrais class a couple years ago, the differences in my right and left sides astounded me. Clearly, I could not move my left side in the same fluid, easy manner as the right. As a result, I felt oh-so-uncoordinated on my left. Before taking the class, I never would have guessed the pain in my hip had such a profound effect on my body communication systems and movement abilities. Shocking!

Position

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The gluteal complex of muscles - gluteus maximus, medius and minimus - span from the pelvis to the femur (thigh bone). The alignment of the pelvis and femur, therefore, affects the position, length and tension of your gluteal muscles. If these muscles are not in an ideal posture, their function will be compromised--sometimes to the point that the muscles cannot contract.

If you look to the image on the left, you will see an anterior pelvic tilt. This is an example of such a postural misalignment. When you are in this position, the pelvis tilts too far forward. This will cause the gluteal muscles to over stretch. Consequently, they become weak.  Dr. Vladimir Janda discovered a connection between this posture and muscle function called the Lower Crossed Syndrome, shown right. The hip flexors and back extensors are short and tight, while the abdominals and glutes are lengthened and weak.

The glutes on the back of the body extend the hip and work in opposition to the hip flexors located on the front of the body. These actions cannot be performed simultaneously. When the body wants to flex the hip, an excitatory signal is sent to the hip flexors to contract, while an inhibitory signal is sent to the glutes to relax and lengthen. This is called reciprocal inhibition. A problem can occur when the excitatory signal is sent to the glutes and an inhibitory signal is sent to the hip flexors. If the hip flexors are excessively tight, they may block the message from ever reaching the glutes leaving them inactive.

My clients often struggle with gluteal activation, especially when the hip is in a flexed position. Doing a hip flexor lengthening exercise prior to the glute squeeze usually increases their ability to find and fire these muscles.

Related Blogs:

5 Exercises to Reduce Anterior Pelvic Tilt

Tame Your Hip Flexors with the Egoscue® Tower

Lack of use

If you have pain or are in a poor position as described above, your glutes may shut down. And if you sit for long periods where your glutes are being overly stretched and underutilized, they may stop working. Additionally, glutes aren’t activated to the same extent as other muscles during daily activities. This leads to muscle substitutions.

When you perform a gluteal function like hip extension, the body recruits the strongest muscle for the job, which may be the hamstring if the glute is weak. For instance, I have seen many clients with hamstring tears and strains that their amnesic glutes caused. Alternatively, the glutes might try to use the lower back instead of the glutes to create hip extension. This clearly causes many cases of back pain. Not good!

Since we still have to move and play even if we have flakey glutes, the body will find another way. Since daily activities require us to use the quads on the front of the leg, we engaged these muscles frequently. For example, even simple actions, such as when we stand up from a seated position or when we climb stairs, activate the quads. Many people are quad dominant, using these muscles primarily when doing strengthening exercises like squats, step-ups and lunges. Hence, you won't be able to rehab your glutes with these exercises.  Instead, you need to isolate the glutes. As a result, you can then retrain them and correct your faulty movement patterns.

Check out my blog on glute activation exercises.

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