So, I turned up to my PT session at the gym last night…but my glutes didn’t join me.
Or rather, they came along (what choice did they have, they’re part of me), but they were asleep. Fast asleep. And very reluctant to wake up.
That’s what happens when you sit all day. We’ve all been told that sitting for long periods isn’t good for you, but did anyone mention your bum?
For those who aren’t sure of where your gluteus muscles are, they’re effectively the muscles of your backside. Your bum, bottom, buttocks and butt. The main ones are the gluteus maximum, medius and minimus, although there are a number of other muscles which have an important role to play too. These basically start from the lowest part of your spine and the back/side of your pelvis, and insert into the upper leg at the hip.
Together, the glutes are very important for pelvic stability and to help support the back. Lower back, hip, groin and hamstring pain can all be due to imbalanced gluteal muscles, as well as calf, ankle and even shoulder pain (posterior oblique sling).
The gluteus maximus is the most superficial (closest to the surface of the body) and the largest. Its main job is to extend the hip (eg. from sitting to standing) and rotate the leg outwards. The minimus is the smallest muscle and acts with the glute medius in stabilising the hip, especially when walking or running; both internally rotate and abduct the leg (takes it away from your body).
However, most muscles bring a different action on the body depending on the position you’re in. When we sit all day, the glute max acts as an antigravity muscle1, working in opposition to the contracted hip flexors – it only really shows its true force when we’re active: straightening from a bent position, rising from a chair, walking upstairs or up-hill, and running.
If you’ve been sitting for much of the day these muscles switch off – they weaken and deactivate, due to:
Pressure: when you sit, your body weight is concentrated on your backside, putting pressure on the gluteal muscles. This sustained pressure can lead to reduced blood flow to the area, contributing to muscle fatigue and deactivation (as well as lumbar disc compression).
Muscle lengthening: the glutes can become lengthened and stretched when you sit for long periods, extending their natural ‘tone’. This can affect the muscle-tendon unit, reducing the muscle's ability to generate force effectively.
Inactive posture: sitting often involves a static posture, so the glute muscles are not actively engaged. This lack of activity can lead to muscle wasting due to reduced neuromuscular activation. Remember the term ‘use it or lose it’?
Hip flexor tightness: prolonged sitting can cause the hip flexor muscles - the rector femoris (one of your thigh muscles), psoas and iliacus – to shorten and tighten. Tight or short hip flexors can contribute to an anterior pelvic tilt (bottom sticks out/excessive curve in your lower back), which in turn, can affect the activation of the gluteal muscles. And because the glutes attach from the lower spine and pelvis, they can also affect your lower back. So, if you have back pain on rising and/or are unable to straighten up for a few seconds, other areas to consider are your glutes and hip flexors. Remember “the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone…”
Neuromuscular adaptation: after a period of time, we become what we do: the muscles adapt to the posture we develop throughout our daily lives, over the course of our lifetime.
So, if we’re sitting hunched over a desk, slumped on a comfy sofa or driving for prolonged periods of time, can we expect our body to suddenly spring into dynamic action and produce the force and balance we want when we exercise?
Sadly not. My gluteals were effectively snoring.
In the gym, I aim to do a lot of one leg, bosu/wobble board work with free weights and resistance cables, the intention being to improve balance on one leg in order to increase speed and velocity. This is because I want to be able to run faster without breaking down with injuries (I know: I’m 56, but I still have goals). I therefore need my glutes to be fully awake and activated. I normally finish my gym session with explosive hopping in various directions, onto and off various heights.
But not tonight. Tonight, I just wobbled, fell off and fell over.
Joking apart, I really was amazed at how rubbish I was. And all because I’d neglected my rear end for a large part of the day, yet expected to perform like a cross between Kim Kardashian and Linford Christie on speed.
So, if you too want to get the best out of your glutes (not to mention what they look like), here’s a few quick exercises to counteract the negative effects of prolonged sitting, which can easily be incorporated into your day:
When you stand up, do a few seated squats ie. sit down, stand up, sit down, stand up. And when you stand up, ensure your legs are completely straight with thighs tight and bum squeezed tight too.
Stand on one leg when the kettle is boiling (or the ‘bean to cup coffee' machine is working its magic). Again, tighten the thigh and backside on your standing leg. I’d suggest not doing this as you’re pouring any hot water.
Alternatively, do what I call a ballet barre exercise; it’s basically a leg lift behind you. Turn your foot/leg out, keep your leg straight, and lift it on the diagonal behind/to the side of you. You should lift to the point where you feel your glutes on that side tighten, but not go as far as feeling your hip hitching up/compressing your back. Do about 10-20 of these and repeat on the other leg. Hold onto the sideboard for balance if needed.
If you can be bothered to get on the floor, a few reverse bridges can work wonders: legs apart, together, staggered stance or on one leg. You’re basically flattening your lower back, squeezing your backside then lifting it off the floor, and peeling your lower back up off the floor until you make a sort of bridge with your body. Again, don’t overdo it on the back and lift too high – it’s about squeezing the glutes. Slowly lower and repeat. And if you get cramp in the back of your legs, you’re not using your glutes effectively! In this case, move your legs apart and closer to your backside to help switch off the hamstrings.
You can also do this exercise with your shoulders on a sofa or chair (make sure its secured and doesn’t move), and simply lower your backside towards the floor and lift it up again to make a bridge with your torso.
Standing hip thrusts can be very effective too – just don’t do them in public. Remember the post office scene in 'The Full Monty'?
Additionally, stretching exercises for the hip flexors (front of the hip/thigh) and adductors (inside of the leg) can help address imbalances. Adductors tend to compensate by shortening if the glutes aren't working effectively.
Right, having written this blog, I’m off from a brew and to galvanise my glutes into action!
There's more info and progressive exercises on my website here:
1. Elzanie A, Borger J. Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Gluteus Maximus Muscle. [Updated 2023 Apr 1]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538193/