In sports and in the weightroom, all muscles need to be strong and powerful. The body works in a series of kinetic chains to produce forceful, powerful, and coordinated movement. Nevertheless, some muscles are more important than others. And in the weightroom, prioritization is needed to make sure the lifter puts the majority of his or her efforts into the methods that deliver the biggest return.
What’s the Most Important Muscle for Total Athleticism?
If I had to choose one muscle, I’d say that the glutes are the most important muscle for total athleticism. After all, they’re heavily responsible for hip extension, hip external rotation, hip abduction, and posterior pelvic tilt, which means that they’re highly utilized in sprinting, jumping, landing, climbing, throwing, striking, swinging, turning, cutting from side to side, squatting, bending, lunging, cleaning, and snatching (basically all things athletic).
It’s nice to see that I’m not the only one who feels this way. Researchers from a brand new study on sprinting concluded that:
“It appears that the human gluteus maximus is akin to a multifunction Swiss army knife.”
What’s the Most Important Muscle in Sprinting?
However, I’ve always felt that the hamstrings are the most important muscle for sprinting. Most sprinting researchers feel the same way. The hammies are responsible for hip extension and knee flexion, and both of these functions are needed in sprinting (out of all of the joint actions, hip extension and knee flexion torques increase the most as running velocity increases from moderate to maximal speeds).
That said, it is my current belief that the hamstrings are the most important sprinting muscle in the air, whereas the gluteus maximus is the most important sprinting muscle on the ground. During the swing phase, the iliopsoas is vitally important in swinging the thigh upward, while the hamstrings are vitally important in reversing the movement and swinging the thigh downward. But once the foot hits the ground, the gluteus maximus takes over and becomes the most important hip extensor, absorbing braking and vertical forces and then rapidly producing propulsive forces.
Researchers and Tunnel-Vision
The problem is, many sprint researchers are so hyper-focused on the hamstrings that they fail to properly analyze the glute max’s contribution to sprinting. In fact, in the literature, there are so many amazing hamstring researchers (ex: Chumanov, Thelen, Henderscheit, Schache, Dorn, Pandy, Silder, Askling, Mendiguchia, Brughelli, etc.), but very few amazing glute researchers (ex: Nemeth, Worrell, Blemker, Ward, Neumann – many of these folks no longer study glutes) that there seems to be a frenzy to see who can publish the best hamstring material. Meanwhile, the glutes get the shaft. Allow me to provide two cases in point:
- Muscular strategy shift in human running: dependence of running speed on hip and ankle muscle performance – this is one of my favorite papers on sprinting. This one is a free pdf, so I recommend that you click on the link and download the paper.
- Changes in muscle activity with increasing running speed – this is another excellent paper on sprinting.
By the way, Chris and I reviewed both of these studies in our sprinting page. Please allow me to address each study more in depth below.
Muscular strategy shift in human running: dependence of running speed on hip and ankle muscle performance
- This is a monumental study on sprinting as it showed a muscular strategy shift pertaining to the force-velocity aspects of muscle contraction as speed increases in running, but it has some limitations (all research builds upon itself as time advances)
- Table 2 has all sorts of excellent data, but unfortunately the researchers did not analyze the following data:
- Peak muscle force for the hip extensors during stance (only swing, where hammies have advantage)
- Peak muscle contributions to horizontal GRF (only vertical GRF), and
- Mechanical work for the hip extensors during stance (only swing where hammies have advantage)
- If you take a look at the three images above taken from the article – you’ll notice that:
- Contributions to hip extension torque is way higher for glutes than hams during ground contact (but not swing)
- Contributions to hip acceleration is way higher for glutes than hams during ground contact (but not swing)
- Musculotendinous forces are way higher for glutes than hams during ground contact (but not swing)
- We can conclude based on this paper that hammies are more important for the swing phase, whereas the glutes are more important for the ground contact phase
Changes in muscle activity with increasing running speed
- This is an excellent paper as well, however, it has some limitations too (just like all papers)
- The researchers didn’t normalize the EMG activation to MVC, which is more telling
- Take a look at the image taken from the article
- The data shows milivolts of EMG during MVC, pre-activity, braking, and concentric
- Divide the braking EMG by the MVC data
- You’ll see that the GMax shows the highest EMG during braking when normalized to MVC (193% of MVC) out of all the muscles
- We can conclude based in this paper that the glutes are critical for absorbing braking forces during ground contact
In both of these papers, the researchers glossed over these findings pertaining to the glutes and failed to recognize the significance of their data. At any rate, it is my hope that future research is conducted to model the muscular contributions to horizontal force production during the stance phase of maximum acceleration and maximum speed sprinting. I think it’s obvious that we’ll find that the glutes are major players (the hamstrings would too with their contribution to both hip extension and knee flexion torques).
It would be nice if the Dorn paper was extended to examine the contributors to the swing phase in both hip flexion and hip extension (as they did) in addition to vertical and horizontal force production during the stance phase (they only examined vertical) with both maximum acceleration sprinting and maximum speed sprinting (they looked at varying speeds, topping out at max speed, but did not examine acceleration), examining all of the major players including hams, glutes, adductors, hip flexors, quads, calves, soleus, and tibialis (they didn’t include the rectus femoris or adductors). This would probably need to be split up into a maximum acceleration study and a maximum speed study as the task of data analysis would be insane.
And as I mentioned in THIS article on glute science, I hope that researchers examine the gluteus maximus moment arms and PCSA in sprinters and utilize this data to model their muscle force and hip extension torque potential. Using data on old cadavers will dramatically underestimate their neuromuscular force and power in addition to their contributions to hip extension torque and horizontal force production.