“ENGAGE!” As Captain Jean Luc Picard would say before boldly going where no-one has gone before…
Many of us would do well to take his advice – not the exploring bit – but to engage our glutes!
As climbers, we often focus on upper body and core strength; however we also need to have a strong and functioning base to provide support and to prevent injury lower down the chain. The glutes are a key part of this base as they help to stabilise the hips and support movements such as propelling you forward when you walk or stabilising on landing after a jump.
There are three muscles that make up the glutes: gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. Gluteus Maximus (glute max) muscle is the largest single muscle in the body and when properly engaged can initiate powerful movements when climbing upwards and in dynamic moves such as rock-overs. It also extends and laterally rotates the hip – this movement is important for being able to bring our hips close to the wall helping us to reach those tricky holds. It also abducts and adducts the hip.
Gluteus medius- abducts the hip, anterior fibres flex and medially rotate the hip and posterior extend and laterally rotate the hip.
Gluteus minimus- abducts, medially rotates and flexes the hip.
Abduction is the movement away from the body e.g. moving your leg out to a hold as you move across the wall and adduction is the movement across your body e.g. when you step your foot through as an alternative to foot-swapping.
When I was training to be as a soft tissue therapist, one of the things that came up time and again was how connected everything is. For instance, I’ve been treating clients at RCC, and tight hamstrings are a common complaint, amongst both climbers and non-climbers alike. However, hamstrings don’t just get tight for no reason- something else is going on! (That’s one of the reasons when you book an appointment you’ll be asked for a detailed history including what your job and hobbies are- other than climbing of course. Knowing if you work or play on a computer, or drive for long hours is useful to help me to understand what the source of the problem(s) may be).
During lock-down, I’ve been watching Julian Baker’s excellent webinars at Functional Fascia and one of the things he demonstrates is this connection: the fascia of the hamstrings blend directly into glute max.
If you haven’t heard of fascia, it is a sheet of connective tissue found under the skin and throughout the body, and it surrounds and separates our organs, blood vessels, nerves and muscles. It also has fluid flowing through it – click to follow the link- it’s really cool!
So, when a client has tight hamstrings one of the things I assess is functioning of the glutes with active movement. There are a lot of different kinds of assessments but here’s a simple one you can do now….
- Stand in front of a mirror and take a step back into a backwards lunge (keep your body upright) and then repeat on the other side.
- Did you find one side harder than the other? Did you wobble a bit? Yes/No/Maybe?
- Now repeat that backward lunge again on each leg and this time watch what your knees are doing- any wobbling and/or does the back knee drop inward?
If you answered yes to any of these, then the chances are that your glutes may not be engaging properly.
Why is that?
One of the reason for this is if we sit for long periods of time (and most of us have been doing more of that in the last 3 months!) and particularly if you slouch, our glute muscles can lose their activation and start to weaken. Or it may be that the hip flexors are tight and the pelvis is tilted forward and then the glutes may switch off in what’s called reciprocal inhibition. Or perhaps an injury has changed your walking or running gait.
Our bodies are really good at adapting and compensating when a muscle is injured or weak and then other nearby muscles will take on that extra load. So when our glutes don’t activate and engage during activities such as walking or running, the hamstrings and back extensors start to help out. That’s why hamstrings can feel tight and/or you have low back pain as these muscles are working harder than usual. Other compensations and strains can develop and can contribute to knee pain or even ankle or shoulder pain as other muscles up and down the chain start to help out.
Even if you do lots of running and workouts you might still have weak glutes – surprisingly you can do those activities without really engaging them. Try it- repeat the lunges and consciously try to engage your glutes- can you notice a difference?
Want to test your glute max activation?
- Stand up and try squeezing your glutes- both together and then one at a time- did you find that easy?
- Next, lie on the floor face down, bend your right knee so that your foot is in the air at about 90° place your right hand, palm down spreading out your fingers so you can feel your right glute and middle of your lower back. Then lift your knee about 2cm off the floor – can you feel your glute engaging or do you feel it more in your lower back first? Try it again squeezing your glute before you lift your knee- any difference? (Sometimes it helps to squeeze both together first)
- Now repeat on the left side, so left knee bent, foot in the air and left hand on your left glute/ left lower back.
- You can also repeat this test with your hand on your glute and hamstrings and see which engages first.
What did you find?
If you found that one or both of your glutes isn’t activating properly, then repeat the activation test several times until you feel it starting to engage. If you have trouble lifting your knee off the floor, place a small cushion under the knee and try again. Once you get it going, you’ll start to notice how quickly your glute max engages. Please note- it is a small knee lift only.
Rehabilitation usually includes a combination of strengthening exercises targeting glute max and glute med and active stretching using a theraband for the hamstrings and adductors, for example:
- Bridges- (hip raises)
Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Squeeze your glutes and slowly raise your hips of the floor- hold it for 30s and slowly lower. Repeat x3
- Little squeezes for 10-30s before lowering x 3
- Single leg hip raises
- Single Leg Toe Raises
Ensure you engage your glutes- build up to 15-20 on each side
- Hamstring stretches
Lie on your back, legs out straight. Wrap a light theraband around the ball of your right foot, holding an end in each hand. Bring your knee to your chest; straighten your leg – lower until it is fully straight. Point and flex your foot 5 times and keeping your toes pointing up, lower your leg to the floor- repeat 5-10 times on each leg.
- Adductor stretches
Lie on your back, legs out straight. Wrap a light theraband around the ball of your right foot, holding an end in one hand. Turn your leg out slightly and drop your leg out to the right side, hold for a second, bring back to the centre and drop over to the left side- repeat 10 times. Then repeat on the left side.
It’s important to listen to your body, so if you have an injury or experience pain with any of the exercises then stop and please seek advice from your GP or a qualified physical therapist.
I’ve also been exploring and learning more about movement and breath during lockdown. So while you’re doing these exercises remember to breathe. This will help make sure that you’re engaging the right muscles. Even though lockdown is now easing there is still so much uncertainty and anxiety around. This anxiety can affect our breathing, for instance causing us to hold our breath or our shoulders may creep up around our ears!
A simple and easy release is to shrug your shoulders up to your ears, hold for a couple of secs and just let them drop- you’ll notice that you let out a big sigh at the same time- repeat 2 more times- and whenever you feel the need! 🙂
Blog by Caroline Hailstone
Soft Tissue Therapist
References: Trail Guide to the Body by Andrew Biel