Glute conditioning exercises (© Mara Yamauchi)
While competing as an elite athlete, one of the major injuries I succumbed to was a high hamstring tendinopathy – an injury of the hamstring tendons where they attach to your pelvis. Generally considered an over-use injury, the tendons can become damaged in a number of ways, such as partially detaching from the bone, or their fibres degenerating. Whatever the cause, this injury shows up as pain at the top of the back of your leg where it meets your bottom. Sitting down for any length of time, driving, and running fast or uphill can be very painful. This injury is, literally and metaphorically, a pain in the behind!
Working on my glute muscles was the key to fixing this injury. Glutes are large muscles which perform several important jobs, including stabilising your hip joint and extending your leg backwards as you run. However, sitting down tends to switch off our glutes. If they aren’t functioning or activating well, other muscles, such as the hamstrings and lower back muscles, will step in and do their work. This can make the situation worse as your glutes just come along for the ride, and other muscles become over-loaded, leading to tightness and possibly injury.
Among the athletes I coach, I see signs of glute dysfunction often. This, along with my own history of inactive glutes and hamstring injuries, has made me put glutes at the very top of my priority list for conditioning work. Keeping your glutes in good working order will certainly benefit your hamstrings, but also be helpful more widely with preventing injuries.
So where to start with glute conditioning? Top distance runner Eilish McColgan shares a glute strengthening circuit here, with some great exercises such as hip thrusts, crab walks and diagonal kicks.
Apart from these, there is a huge range of exercises you can do to target your glutes, including squats, lunges and glute bridges, as explained in my article on preventing injuries, here. On top of these, here are my favourite glute exercises.
One-leg stand with hip rotation
Stand on one leg and tense the glutes of that leg, placing your hand on them to help with activation, if necessary. Keeping them tensed, bend your other knee and move it out to the side slowly and back again. Try to keep your standing leg glutes activated the whole time.
This is an example of a type of exercise which is very good for glute activations: stand on one leg, and keep that leg’s glutes activated. Then create instability by moving your other leg or arms, which your standing leg glutes have to work against. Another example is ‘diagonal band pulls’ using a resistance band.
Similar to the clam while lying down, this exercise really makes your glutes burn! Stand on one leg, bend that knee, and lean forward until your torso is almost parallel to the ground. Then raise your other leg slowly by opening your hips in a clam movement. Stay low to the ground with your knee bent. Perform enough repetitions to reach nine out of 10 of fatigue.
Step-ups with resistance
Step-ups are a simple but effective glute exercise. By using weights you can increase the load. A squat bar is ideal but if you don’t have one, hand-held weights are a good alternative. Push down into the ground with your heel as you start the movement, finishing with your hips forward and an upright posture. You can make step-ups more dynamic by really driving down with your heel to perform a little jump at the top of each step-up.
If you are not sure if you are using your glutes correctly, always place your hand on them to feel if they are contracting or not. Good brain concentration may be needed to fire up your glutes, so performing exercises in a quiet location without interruptions is always helpful.
Finally, if you are using your glutes properly having not been doing so for some time, they should feel stiff and tired afterwards. This is a normal reaction to using muscles and should disappear within 2-3 days.
Mara Yamauchi for World Athletics Be Active