by Bret Contreras January 11, 2013
Glute imbalances are very common – much more common than you’d imagine. Out of all of the email inquiries I receive from my readers pertaining to the glutes, the topic of imbalances comes up the most often. If you comb the web, you won’t find much good material on this topic. In fact, a Google search of the term “glute imbalance” yielded several links on the front page to threads from some of the most popular strength & conditioning forums – yet no comprehensive answers could be found. The reason why strength & conditioning experts shy away from this topic is because the answer is complicated. In this article I will first discuss the reasons why you may have a gluteal imbalance, and then I’ll discuss potential solutions.
1. Asymmetrical Human-Nature
By nature, we are asymmetrical beings. Our anatomy itself can be asymmetrical, for example right to left pelvic and hip asymmetries and leg length discrepancies are common. However, of perhaps greater importance is that our daily movement is markedly asymmetrical in nature. We tend to shift to one side when standing for prolonged periods, and we develop comfortable, asymmetrical patterns for common daily tasks.
In sports, it’s natural to rely predominantly on one side during a particular pattern. For example, when we kick, most right-handed individuals will plant off of their left leg and kick with their right leg. For this reason, most right-handed individuals are actually more stable on their left leg and therefore are initially better on their left leg compared to their right leg when learning single leg exercises. In rotational sports, most athletes swing or throw from the same side, which uses the rear glute to a much greater degree than the front glute. It comes as no surprise then that one glute or region of the glute might be stronger and more coordinated than the other.
Therefore, non-significant gluteal imbalances should not necessarily be thought of as dysfunctional, they might just be a natural consequence of life. Significant imbalances of approximately 15% or more, however, should be actively targeted for correction.
When considering the human body, we know that some muscles are more prone to inhibition than others, and the glutes are one of these “easily-inhibited” muscles. Several decades ago, physical therapists such as Vladimir Janda noticed that the glutes are quite prone to inhibition, and in the last decade strength coaches for professional teams began to notice that their athletes’ glutes were not functioning optimally.
There are a few reasons why the glutes could shut down. Neural and mechanical inhibition involving opposing muscles can interfere with gluteal activation. For example, tight or shortened hip flexors may lead to what’s been coined “reciprocal inhibition” of the gluteals. There may even be inhibitory consequences to excessive sitting, as compression slows down vascular function and interferes with nerve function. We’ll learn below that pain inhibits muscle contractility and is a major player in glute inhibition. Moreover, gluteal inhibition can negatively impact posture, and poor posture can further inhibit the glutes, thereby creating a downward spiral in gluteal function.
However, probably the biggest reason why the glutes shut down is due to inactivity. If you fail to consistently activate a muscle, and you fail to regularly activate a muscle to high levels of capacity, it will inevitably quit working properly.
If you study electromyography (EMG), you learn that many muscles get highly activated from common, everyday movements. For example, the quads get highly activated every time you stand up from a chair, pick a box up from off the ground, or climb stairs. The erectors are highly activated when bending over to move furniture or perform yard work. The triceps receive sufficient stimulation when posting up to get up from a prone position or to push open a heavy door. The calves are highly activated when climbing stairs, and the abdominals are highly activated when sitting up from a lying position.
However, the gluteus maximus fails to achieve high levels of activation during each of the aforementioned everyday movements. In fact, the nervous system only activates the glutes to around 10% of maximum capacity during the sit-to-stand, especially in the manner in which most sedentary individuals rise from a chair, and gluteus maximus activation is even less during gait at normal walking speeds. Only heavy or explosive movement such as squatting, deadlifting, lunging, hip thrusting, jumping, running, and swinging highly activate the gluteus maximus. The problem is that most people fail to perform any of these activities on a regular basis in the modern-day world.
If we were to examine the muscle density achieved via maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) of 100 sedentary individuals, it is likely that 95 of them would be able to produce significant tension in their quadriceps, calves, abdominals, and triceps musculature, to name a few. However, perhaps only 33 of these individuals would be able to achieve high levels of tension in their gluteus maximus. This is why strength coaches and physical therapists alike have gravitated toward prescribing simple, low-load glute-activation drills to their athletes and patients. They are seeking to counteract the natural tendency of the glutes to shut-down and to teach the glutes to fire fast and hard when needed during functional movement.
3. Pain, Prior Injury, and Structural Issues
I mentioned above that pain is a huge inhibitor of the gluteus maximus. This is a big deal. Research shows that the glutes can become inhibited with just about any lower body or spinal injury. How many of you readers have stubbed your toe? This inhibits the glutes. How many of you have sprained an ankle? Glute inhibition. Hurt your knee or your hip? Pulled a groin or hammy? Fell on your tailbone? Experienced sciatica? Tweaked your low back? All of these injuries decrease glute activation. Is this a bad thing?
Not exactly. The glutes are major propulsion muscles. They produce powerful locomotion. Inhibiting the glutes will cause an individual to slow down so they can heal. Back in the day, you would not have survived long if you were forced to hobble around for the rest of your life due to injury. So from an evolutionary survival standpoint, this is a wise strategy.
The problem is that the glutes don’t necessarily turn back on automatically. They must be reactivated, restrengthened, and recoordinated back into every day movement and activity. How many people sprain their ankle, and upon healing, perform glute activation drills and utilize a progressive approach to reintegrate their glute into functional, high-force, and high-velocity movement? The overwhelming majority do not.
Following injury, most folks simply keep on keepin’ on, and their movement patterns suffer. Rather than experiencing proper glute function during movement, they rely on other muscles to get the job done. This is why you see pelvises dropping to the side and knees collapsing inward during gait, backs rounding over during lifting tasks, and an over-reliance on the hamstrings for hip extension. The body is resilient and will find a way to prevail, and people can become very fit despite using the wrong muscles or displaying faulty movement patterns. Next time you go for an early morning drive, pay attention to the joggers. You’ll notice that not many of them appear athletic or possess good running posture. Sadly, most look like they’re “speed-limping.” But even advanced athletes often have faulty glute function. One study examining strongmen showed that the best heavily incorporated the glutes during lifting tasks, whereas the less-skilled relied predominantly on the back musculature.
Finally, we must consider morphological structural issues that could contribute to diminished glute function. To list some examples, let’s say that you have lost the natural arch in your right foot, or you have bone spurs in right hip, or you have scoliosis, or you have excessive anterior pelvic tilt, or you damaged the lateral meniscus in your right knee. Each of these could create glute inhibition. To confuse matters, some of these could have been caused by glute inhibition (remember the downward spiral I referred to earlier?). So structural changes can cause or be caused by gluteal inhibition.
But don’t be alarmed – these conditions don’t guarantee glute dysfunction. An athlete could possess any one of these maladies and yet still possess sound-functioning glutes. In fact, perhaps the best pound-for-pound deadlifter in powerlifting history had severe scoliosis, and a majority of sprinters have “excessive” anterior pelvic tilt.
As we noted above, glute imbalances can be caused by dysfunction brought upon by pain or inactivity and are therefore a “dysfunctional consequence.” However, they can also be caused by everyday life and sports and are therefore a “functional consequence.”
I do not know why YOUR glutes are imbalanced. Let’s say that we had a consultation and I learned your entire athletic and injury history – at best I could only speculate as to why you have a glute imbalance. Maybe when you were in high school you hurt your left knee, which caused your left glute to shut-down, and since you never rehabilitated properly, your body memorized sub-optimal movement patterns and has been relying on faulty motor control ever since. Maybe in your twenties you quit playing sports and quit going to the gym and pretty much sat on the couch for 3 years. During this time, perhaps you rarely used your glutes, and the only times you did anything that used the glutes to any substantial degree, you relied predominantly on the left leg, causing the right glute to shut down while keeping the left strong. Maybe your favorite sport was highly asymmetrical and you swung a club or threw right handed, strengthening your right glute to a much greater degree than your left.
Whatever the case is, it usually doesn’t matter as the solution is often the same. During the “re-education” process, it’s important to have proper perspective. You might have been walking around with a gluteal imbalance for over a decade, therefore it’s going to take some time to rewire your motor circuitry. If it takes a few months for the problem to normalize, so be it. Each session you’ll be a little bit closer to your goal so be patient. Also recall that we want to strengthen the “neuromuscular” unit. There’s a neural and muscular component to fixing the issue. Right now your dysfunctional glute is weak and doesn’t want to activate. You need to get it easily-excitable through neural reeducation, and then you can focus on increasing strength and hypertrophy.
Wait for Pain to Subside
When pain exists during movement, the brain is trying to shut down the glutes, so this is not a good time to try to be teaching the glutes “motor learning.” There simply will not be much learning going on in the gluteal motor. So wait until pain subsides to start attempting to fix the dysfunctional glute.
Assuming pain is gone, there are six strategies that you may choose to employ. Depending on your situation, you may want to stick to just some of the strategies, or you may employ all six simultaneously. It all depends on your situation. Here are the six strategies:
1. Isometric Contractions for the Weaker Glute
The first thing you want to do in order to try to fix a gluteal imbalance is perform a bunch of extra work for the weaker glute. What you need to do is establish a solid mind-muscle connection (MMC) with the dysfunctional glute. One great way of going about this is to perform isometric contractions. Here is a good series to perform on a daily basis:
* Rest 5 seconds in between isoholds
You can do these isometrics anywhere as they don’t require equipment. In fact, you can even do them while you’re at work. It’s unlikely that anybody will notice, unless the person is staring right at your butt. Don’t be afraid to perform these multiple times throughout the day.
2. Low-Load Dynamic Drills for the Weaker Glute
In addition to the isometric contractions, you want to perform a variety of dynamic movements for the weaker glute so you target all the glute fibers through their multiple roles. The goal is to choose very simple exercises that aren’t challenging. This way, you can steer the neural flow to the gluteus maximus and prevent it from flowing excessively to the hamstrings or other synergists. You do not want to go to failure when performing sets of these exercises. Five to seven days per week, you want to perform a 5-10-minute motor-learning routine for the weaker glute consisting of:
* Rest 30 seconds between sets
* Perform the exercises in circuit fashion; first the abduction, then the clam, then the quadruped, then the bridge, then repeat
* Don’t do any of these drills for the stronger leg/glute
Remember, the focus is on quality muscle contractions. You want to feel these movements as much as possible in the gluteus maximus of the dysfunctional side. Tinker around with your form and figure out how to maximize gluteal recruitment during these movements. Positioning for maximum gluteal recruitment varies from person to person so I can’t give you the exact recipe here – you need to figure it out for your body. Don’t add load in the form of bands or ankle weights, don’t perform more challenging variations, and don’t perform more than 20 repetitions. You’re not going for progressive overload – you’re aiming for gluteal reeducation.
3. Low-to-Medium-Load Symmetrical Bilateral Movements
You don’t need to completely shy away from squatting, deadlifting, hip thrusting, or back extensions. Just don’t worry about load for a while and instead focus on symmetrical movement and feeling the glute muscles work equally on each side. You’re going to be blending your newfound increased glute activation into your motor programs for each movement, so this is an important element to your success.
In fact, strengthening the glute alone will not solve your issue. Your neural circuitry has been wired for asymmetrical movement patterns and muscle recruitment. It has built a “motor engram,” or a memorized movement pattern, and you’re trying to rewire the circuitry. You need to learn to activate the weaker glute, you need it to be stronger, and you need to build up its hypertrophy, and you’ll do this by hammering the weaker side. But this alone will not provide a complete fix.
You still need to learn to perform bilateral movements properly. Every repetition of squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, and back extensions you perform with perfect symmetry while feeling the weaker glute activate properly is a PLUS. Every repetition of squats and deadlifts you perform that is not symmetrical in movement and activation is a MINUS. It’s up to you to learn your loading threshold and stick to loads that allow for proper motor programming. For some, this equates to bodyweight loading, and for others, 70% of 1RM might be okay. However, even if your imbalance is not that significant, you definitely want to shy away from anything above 90% of 1RM for at least a month.
When you go too heavy, your body WILL find the path of least resistance in order to get the job done. One of your glutes is weaker than the other and if you push the envelope your body will work around it by using other muscles and contorting the body (i.e.: shifting to one side, rotating at the hips). So please remember: good reps take you forward; bad reps take you backward and cause stagnation!
Gradually increase loading over the course of several months. If you ramp up too soon, you won’t progress as you’ll just confuse the weaker glute and prevent reintegration. You may wish to start off with easier variations such as goblet squats and RDLs. Take your time and be patient.
4. Bilateral Movements with Resistance Bands Around the Knees, Ankles, or Feet
Bodyweight squatting and bridging patterns with resistance bands around the knees are very effective for gluteal reeducation and should be performed during warm-ups. In addition, various types of band walks can and should be performed. These have different names, such as x-band walks, sumo walks, and monster walks. I recommend placing bands around the mid-feet and performing both crouched and upright walking movements. I also recommend performing these walks both forward and backward as well as from side to side. Just pick a couple of these band exercises each session and perform 2 sets of each during the warm-up. Again, don’t go for PR’s and progressive overload, go for activation. Think QUALITY, not QUANTITY.
5. Single Leg Movements and Core Stability Drills
Here’s the deal. You don’t want your strong leg to get weaker, and you don’t want the glutes, hamstrings, adductors, and quads on the good leg to shrivel up. What you do want is for the glute on the weaker side to catch up as quickly as possible so it matches that of the stronger side. Performing low-to-medium load bilateral movements will prevent the hip and thigh muscles on the dominant side from experiencing significant atrophy, and you won’t lose appreciable amounts of strength either. So let that give you peace of mind.
However, you can still perform some traditional single leg work (think Bulgarian split squats, step ups, reverse lunges, single leg RDLs, single leg hip thrusts, and single leg back extensions) or core stability work (think Pallof presses, side planks, and band hip rotations) with two caveats:
If you play an asymmetrical sport that’s in season, I advise you to not do any work for the dominant side as it’s getting plenty of work during the sport and practices themselves.
6. Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) and Static and Dynamic Stretches
It is very important for your hip mobility to be symmetrical. You should test your hip flexibility for each leg in all possible directions. You want to test your hip flexion, hip extension, hip abduction, hip adduction, hip internal rotation, and hip external rotation flexibility for each hip. If you have a marked asymmetry in any of the motions, then you should attempt to restore balance as quickly as possible. While the strengthening movements can help with this goal, some SMR and stretching is synergistic and will expedite the process. Often you will find that hip rotation imbalances exist (external or internal). If so, you will benefit from performing a combination of foam rolling, static stretches, and dynamic stretches to help achieve balanced flexibility. Stick to 5 minutes of SMR and flexibility work for the affected side.
Automaticity is the Goal
Your goal is to eventually reach automaticity and quit having to “think glutes” all day long. Sure, any good lifter has to remind him or herself to squeeze the glutes on maximal hip extension exercises such as when locking out a deadlift. But both of your glutes should fire automatically when you extend the hip (or conduct any other movement that relies on the glutes). Within six-months of gluteal reeducation, you should be able to balance out your strength and movement patterns – hopefully even quicker.
You eventually want to be able to perform high-load movements such as maximal squats and deadlifts and explosive movements such as jump squats, power cleans, kettlebell swings, plyos, and sprints, with symmetrical and properly functioning gluteals. As you progress in your gluteal reeducation you will begin to ramp up in loading and perform more challenging exercises. As this occurs, you will begin to wean yourself off of isometric contractions and low-load glute activation drills. For less-serious cases of glute imbalances, this process might take 4 weeks. For more serious glute imbalances, the process could take 3-6 months. It’s impossible to tell. Just be consistent and diligent and you should be able to restore proper function.
I hope that this article has shed some light on gluteal imbalances and provided you with solutions to your problem. In summary:
Always think quality over quantity, and focus intensively on reprogramming the weaker glute and developing a proper MMC. In time, you should be able to solve your problem, reach automaticity, and possess a balanced booty.
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