Robert A. Panariello MS, PT, ATC, CSCS
Professional Physical Therapy
Professional Athletic Performance Center
New York, New York
In recent years the gluteal muscle group has received much notoriety in the physical rehabilitation, fitness, and sports performance industries. Bret Contreras is one individual who has certainly carried the “gluteal torch” on his website, in books, and lectures in an attempt to educate sports performance and fitness professionals of the significance of this muscle group. The gluteal muscle group includes the gluteus maximus (one of the most powerful muscles in the body), medius, and minimus, which together make up the buttock. There is also documentation from those who consider the small tensor fasciae latae part of this muscle group as well.
The gluteal muscles are a significant contributor to proper posture, physical esthetics, the rehabilitation of low back, hip, and knee pathology, as well as optimal athletic performance to name a few. This muscle group also contributes to the high force application into the ground surface area for favorable body propulsion, deceleration from high velocities and landings, and change of direction abilities. The gluteal muscle group also safeguards the preservation of the athlete’s posture and contributes to the appropriate vertical hip height during high velocity activities. This commentary will discuss a gluteal testing technique presented to me years ago by my good friend Hall of Fame Strength and Conditioning (S&C) Coach Al Vermeil as taught to him by renowned physical therapist Mark Comerford.
The Gluteal Muscle Group
Many dialogs regarding the gluteal muscle group may include “activation”, force production, and “function” to name a few. One aspect of athletic performance not often discussed during these conversations is the contribution of the gluteal muscles for the maintenance of proper hip height during sprinting and other high velocity athletic activities. This “vertical hip height” lesson was imparted upon me years ago by distinguished sprint coach Charlie Francis at the time Charlie, Al Vermeil and I were all hired by an NFL football team and worked together as consultants with their football players during the off-season. This lesson was also reinforced during recent sprint training discussions with Charlie’s protégé’ and my good friend S&C Coach Derek Hansen.
The gluteus maximus is known as a strong extensor of the hip, however one must not forget that the hamstring muscle group plays a dynamic role in hip extension function as well. During high velocity activities the athlete’s optimal hip height (posture) must be maintained. Weak muscles will result in a decrease in hip height thus effecting the position of the stance foot at the time of ground contact. This decrease in hip height signifies a diminished distance from the hip to the ground surface area, resulting in a foot contact further anterior to the body’s center of mass than desired. Due to this change in foot contact position some significant consequences may transpire. These changes include, but are not limited to the following:
- Increased ground contact times (increased amortization) resulting in less elastic energy available for force output.
- Decreased flight time and distance covered
- An greater amount of energy is required to maintain the body above the center of mass
- A “pawing” vs. a “punching” of the ground surface area ensues. This results in a greater “pull through” by the lower extremity to propel the body forward. This adjustment requires the hamstring muscle group to make a greater contribution as a knee flexor, thus repetitive strides over time set the table for possible hamstring injury.
A Simple Test for the Glutes
The gluteal testing procedure requires a standard treatment table with a plyobox the height of approximately 12 inches lower than the table height placed at the end of the table. The athlete lays supine at the end of the table with their knees flexed to 90 degrees. Their feet are positioned flat upon the plyobox. (Figure 1).
When instructed, the athlete performs a bilateral lower extremity bridge (raises their hips) for a specific number of prescribed repetitions and reports if they feel the muscle activity in the gluteal or hamstring muscle groups (Figure 2a). The test is repeated performing a single leg bridge with each lower extremity (Figure 2b). The athlete once again reports if the muscle activity is felt in the gluteal or the hamstring muscle groups. If the test performance is felt in the hamstring muscle group the gluteal muscles are assumed to be performing sub-optimally and require additional training.
The Active Insufficiency of a Muscle Group
The length-tension position of a muscle fiber will affect the ability of the muscle fiber to produce force. The gluteal test described is founded upon the principal of “active insufficiency” which based on the body positioning of this test, will have a specific effect on the hamstring muscles ability to produce force. The active insufficiency concept of a muscle transpires when a two joint (biarticular) muscle is shortened at one end while a muscle contraction is initiated at the second joint. Due to the close proximately of the muscle attachments, the muscle is placed at a low point on the length tension curve resulting in a diminished capacity to produce force. Therefore biarticular muscles placed in a position of active insufficiency will consequently produce a weaker muscle contraction.
The hamstrings are a biarticular muscle group with attachments at both the hip (pelvis) and the knee. At the initiation of testing, the hip joint is positioned in an extended position while the knees are simultaneously flexed to 90 degrees resulting in a hamstring position of active insufficiency. This shortened position the hamstrings results in a decreased ability to produce ideal tension (force), thus the emphasis of the hip extension performance is now placed upon the gluteal muscles. During the test performance if a significant exercise performance contribution were felt in the hamstring muscle group, due to the limited ability for this muscle group to produce force, the tester would conclude the gluteal muscles were not performing optimally.
This test is an effective component of the evaluation process of both the patients we rehabilitate as well as the athletes we train at our facilities. Hopefully it will be a consideration as a component of your evaluation as well.
I already do this test but I just do it on the floor with a regular glute bridge. Is there a reason doing it on the table like this is better?
Yeah that’s what I was wondering.
A normal glute bridge on the floor will shorten the hamstrings (especially with feet closer to the butt) but the hip with be slightly flexed, so there will be more length than in this variation. I think the slightly flexed position seen in the normal glute bridge is not wanted and maximal “shortness” of the hammies is wanted?
I could be wrong but that is my thought.
I was wondering the same thing – but that’s a great point, Michael!
Previous study (see below) on prone hip extension with knee flexed vs extended showed significantly more glute activation with knee flexed. This is because in that study the hamstrings are shortened distally placing them in a position of active insufficiency. Rob’s test does the same thing by shortening the hamstrings at their proximal attachment.
Gluteus maximus and semitendinosus activation during active prone hip extension exercises. Sakamoto 2009
You are correct. A flexed hip will lengthen the hamstring proximally. In attempting to achieve an optimal position of active insufficiency we extend the hip to neutral so the hamstrings are shortened proximally, while flexing the knees shorten them at their distal attachment.
Thanks for your post.
Do you have plans to validate this test with EMG? It’d also be interesting to see if it has predictive power for glute use in other tasks, like squatting and sprinting.
I’ll add this to the list of things I need to do in time!
I would of thought this test, while it may have it’s uses, would have poor correlation with Gluteal function in sprint mechanics. Surely an isolated concentric contraction of the Glutes where gravity is directed posteriorly has little to do with a dynamic eccentric – concentric contraction of Glutes in response to ground reaction force and gravity directed inferiorly?
Hi Andrew, great question. I don’t know the answer. On the one hand, the activities are indeed very different. On the other hand, lifters and sprinters should be able to use their glutes well in all types of patterns, and many report improved glute sensation during sprinting when they focus on glute training in the weightroom. And the glutes have have multiple responsibilities in sprinting…absorbing braking forces and vertical forces, stabilizing the pelvis, and producing horizontal propulsive forces (this is debated), but you probably already know that.
“And the glutes have multiple responsibilities in sprinting…absorbing braking forces and vertical forces.”
Wouldn’t the absorbtion of braking forces ie (landing way in front of CoG) & vertical forces (lean angle/use of gravity) be taken care of primarily through bettering running technique/mechanics?.
If anything is going to absorb braking forces it would be the Achilles tendons, if functioning optimally (elastic in nature/compliance), work in the same way as the suspensions on a car. I would imagine it’s an very elite club of only the very best sprinters/jumpers who ever reach this superior elastic potential.
“Producing horizontal propulsive force”.
The glute muscles collectively must still impart a significant vertical propulsive force to sprinting due to fiber direction.
Lastly, this is what I would really like your opinion on. Considering at top sprint speed, 5-6 times bodyweight is being imposed on the athlete (some sources state as much as 13x), why the need for so much extra glute/leg attention in the gym?. Wouldn’t sprinting alone be suffice (bodyweight) for legs/glutes?, when you consider the forces experienced in sprinting alone & the negative effects of strength training (muscular imbalances/stiffness/poor length/tension relationships/scar tissue deposited in joints) etc…
Just how strong do you need to be? (that is an important question) before the increases in strength start to work against you, ‘potentially’ (more weight to carry/stamina & endurance compromised/less agility/slower acceleration/tendon stiffness) etc.
1. Sure it would. Better technique would help tremendously in this regard. But if an athlete’s glutes aren’t up to par, they’re surely leaving some room on the table.
2. The Achilles tendons help out for sure, but the gastrosoleus complex tops out at around 7m/s in terms of contraction speed due to force velocity properties, so further increases in speed are brought about by greater hip muscle contribution. But I agree completely in that the best jumpers/sprinters have superior and innate elasticity (reactive strength) and rate of force development capabilities.
3. Yep, the fibers vary in direction but collectively run at around a 45 degree angle, so looking at origins/insertions and fiber direction, one could predict that the GMax would stabilize the opposite pelvis, produce some vertical force, and produce hip extension to create horizontal ground reaction force (or absorb forces in each plane).
4. Definitely not. Just looking at forces doesn’t mean much; you must understand the mechanisms of hypertrophy: http://bretcontreras.com/training-for-maximum-muscle-growth-explained/
Does sprinting maximize tension and metabolic stress and optimize damage? In my experience as a trainer, weight training is much better for glute hypertrophy than sprinting. That said, a sprinter could definitely develop nice glutes from sprinting alone especially if they had good genetics. But would sprinting alone be optimal? In my opinion definitely not.
I don’t think that strength training has many negative effects for sprinting as you’ve proposed. In fact, I think it could help with preventing muscular imbalances and increasing stiffness (stiffness is modulated by muscle contraction), and it can alter length tension relationships depending on the type of training (eccentrics and long length training shift the optimum length to greater lengths which can prevent injuries), and I don’t believe it creates scar tissue in the joints. The vast majority of sprinters worldwide lift weights because they’ve found a synergy between sprinting and lifting.
5. How strong is strong enough is a classic question that will never be answered and probably depends on the individual. Should the world’s top elite sprinters work on building their max strength? Maybe, maybe not. Could it backfire on them potentially? Definitely yes. Should most high school and collegiate sprinters prioritize strength development? Probably.
If your goal was to increase sprinting performance and stay healthy, hip thrusts and glute work are a way to further stimulate the glutes as they don’t impose the same sort of whole body stress as squats and even sprinting itself
Would sprinting be better for sprinting? yes.
If you are already sprinting would extra work help? probably.
Would it hurt? probably not
Hi guys. We have just recently incorporated the Janda prone hip extension test into our assessments to test for gluteal activation/firing sequence.
What would be your thoughts on that compared to the above test?
I use both tests in my clinic and both are quite accurate to find deficiencies. What I like better about the bridging test is that the patient is made well aware of how much weaker one glut is than the other, and so he/she is then more motivated to comply with home exercise.
That’s a great point. I’ll have to start experimenting with it.
A lot of assessments, screens, etc. can leave clients wondering what the point of the whole thing was.
Great to give show it to them in a practical way to increase adherence.
That is a very good thought. The purpose of the test is to evaluate gluteal strength, period. In my experiences of training athletes and especially in the rehabilitation of athletes, when a muscle has poor concentric contraction strength, it also has poor eccentric contraction abilities as well. In other words when asked to produce force, the muscle doesn’t perform well in any situation.
When we as coaches train athletes specifically in the weight room, the physical quality of strength movements require heavier loads lifted at low velocities where half the work is performed concentrically and the other half eccentrically. One could also argue in this situation that the eccentric work performed in the weight room is not specific to high velocity movement based on the force velocity curve of a muscle. The greatest tension of a muscle performance that occurs eccentrically is at high velocity, a much higher a velocity than the strength type exercises performed in the weight room. We as coaches cannot duplicate the arm speed of a pitcher or the leg speed of a world class sprinter in the weight room. So why then do we perform these exercises as one could argue that there is no carry over based on slow concentric and especially eccentric exercise muscle performance when compared to skill performance velocity?
Even with higher speed exercises as the Olympic lifts, although there is significant eccentric work being performed during the “catch” at the conclusion of the lift, the emphasis of the exercise performance is placed upon the high speed concentric portion of the lift to generate force quickly into the ground surface area as well as enhance the muscles rate of force production. Why do we perform these strength and power exercises? The answer is because there is carry over to the skill to be performed as we utilize the same nervous system of the body.
Charlie Francis would have his sprinters Olympic lift much more in the cold Canadian winter months than in the warmer weather months because they couldn’t sprint as much in the cold weather months. This was his way of keeping the athlete’s nervous system “stimulated” when they couldn’t sprint.
All of the physical qualities of strength work together, so to speak, to transfer to the specific desired skill through the repetitive practice of that skill over time via the nervous system. A deficit in one physical quality will have an affect upon the whole, just a weak concentric contraction will likely be associated with a weak eccentric contraction or the inability of the muscle to produce optimum force period. A weak muscle group will affect skill performance. I’m quite confident that I haven’t expressed anything you didn’t already know.
Just my opinion and thank you for your post Andrew
“This was his way of keeping the athlete’s nervous system “stimulated” when they couldn’t sprint.”
Over stimualting the CNS can sometimes become counter-productive in sprinting, similiar to a car ‘spinning it’s wheels’. All flash, no substance.
If there is anything to learn from Usain Bolt it’s how smooth he is.
Sure, but Usain Bolt lifts weights regularly. He performs power cleans, quadruped hip extensions, squats, leg extensions, cable hip flexion, incline press, sled drags, lunges, etc. There’s definitely a balance and Usain has mastered it for his body (obviously with the help of Glen Mills).
“Over stimualting the CNS can sometimes become counter-productive in sprinting…”
I agree as overstimulation of the CNS may result in excessive fatigue. How do we avoid this? Well isn’t that the art of coaching? I assure you JXD that Charlie Francis was an elite level coach.
Bret and Rob,
Maybe a dumb question here, but what exactly does this mean: “….feel the muscle activity in the gluteal or hamstring muscle groups”? I cleared off my dining table and performed this test on myself, because I’ve been following Bret’s great blog just long enough to realize how important the glutes are. I’ve been trying to feel the glute squeeze whenever I do any exercises now. I did 50 of these things to find where I might feel it most. Maybe I’m activating both hamstrings and glutes, but I just didn’t get any magical message. Can you help? Thanks!
Very nice article! How are you accounting/modifying for the patient/ client with increased anterior pelvic tilt in the test position?
This is a good test! And it raised alot of questions about sprinting. CNS, strength etc.
My 2 cents via Charlie Francis and alot (over 20 years) of sprint training and weight lifting, I was kinda fast once.
Charlie Francis wanted to stimulate the CNS and gave adequate rest between CNS running workouts and weight lifting. Flying 30 is CNS, Cleans-CNS etc.
Now Charlie did not have the hip thrust which can solve the glute activation that he wanted without draining the CNS. I used the old squat/deadlift program, but it takes away from running fast. Using the hip thrust enables use to run a bit more. Its a complicated process to add it in, but in the end it has been a great tool for my sprinting.
Thanks for the great content! Been a fan since first reading your glute articles on T Nation. I’m using this article as a reference and will link to it in an upcoming post.
Hi Bret, I’ve tried those test, and found while bilater had no problem using (and maxing) just glutes, single leg I use about equaly also hams and adductors. And when tried maxing out single leg, adductors fails first (but still have good pump in glutes and hams). Is this sign of ok, or should I focus more on single leg glute strenght?
Great info. How about which exercises are best to start with and progress to for decreased glut firing?