Activating the Glutes

You’ve just finished mile 26, the finish line is in sight, and you decide it’s time to start that finishing kick. Suddenly, you feel a sharp pain, immediately grab the back of your thigh, and stop running. Chances are, you’ve most likely pulled a hamstring. How? And what and can you do to avoid injuries like this in the future? It comes down to how your hamstrings and glutes work together.

Imagine you’re carrying a table up a flight of stairs with a friend who is both shorter and weaker. Your friend can’t handle both the weight of the table and the walk up the stairs, and so the table falls and breaks. Similarly, your hamstrings can assist your glutes with extending your hip, even though that’s not what the hamstrings do best. If your glutes fail to engage and the bulk of the movement falls to your hamstrings, you’re much more likely to strain or tear your hamstrings. So how can you avoid injuring your hamstrings?

A study conducted by Shuermans et al. used electromyography (EMG) to record the electrical activity of muscle tissue during full-speed sprinting, using a group of 60 soccer players on a 40 meter track. The authors wanted to assess the muscle activation patterns of the gluteal and hamstring muscles during maximal acceleration. Each week the participants were asked to report in an online diary any incidence of injury throughout 1.5 soccer seasons.

The results found that athletes who avoided a hamstring injury demonstrated significantly higher amounts of gluteal muscle activity in the initial swing phase (when the foot just leaves the ground). Basically, the literature suggests that in order to lower your risk for a hamstring pull, you must activate your glutes! Maybe you are training for an upcoming race and have a speed workout scheduled during the week or you may just be trying to finish off an afternoon run strong.

Either way, increasing your run intensity will likely place more load on your legs, and it is important that your glutes take the majority of that extra work. So the next time you hit the gym for strength training, try to get in the habit of firing the glutes before hamstrings. If you feel a soreness in your butt as opposed to the back of your thigh, you’ll know you were successful!

Patrick Huang, SPT

Schuermans, J., Danneels, L., Tiggelen, D. V., Palmans, T., & Witvrouw, E. (2017). Proximal Neuromuscular Control Protects Against Hamstring Injuries in Male Soccer Players: A Prospective Study With Electromyography Time-Series Analysis During Maximal Sprinting. The American Journal of Sports Medicine,45(6), 1315-1325. doi:10.1177/0363546516687750