Having buns of steel not only helps you fill out your jeans better, having a powerful posterior can also help you avoid lots of common injuries. There are the usual pain-in-the-butt ailments familiar to many runners – sciatica, piriformis syndrome – but did you know that even knee problems and low back pain can be caused by asymmetries or weaknesses in the hips?
Our culture of sitting shortens the hip flexors while simultaneously over-stretching the muscles of the posterior, creating weakness in a group of muscles that should be among our strongest. This, in turn, throws our standing posture out of alignment and alters our walking gait, so that we repetitively reinforce these muscular abnormalities day after day. Worry not, though, there is a cure for these ailments – strength training! By working a few key butt and hip exercises into your routine twice per week, you can strengthen those muscles and regain proper alignment. Here are three exercises I recommend for building great glutes:
1. Reverse Lunge/Single Leg Squat – Let me start by saying that this is an advanced move! If your leg and glute strength doesn’t allow you to do full forward or walking lunges, then you should start with those. However, if you regularly strength train and #don’tskiplegday, then you should replace those ordinary squats or lunges with this move. Holding a couple of dumbbells down at your sides, shift your body weight onto one leg and lift the other foot a few inches off the ground. Then, slowly control your movement as you lower yourself into lunge position backwards, moving the hovering foot about two feet behind you as you bend your front knee and sink into the lunge. If you’re strong enough (most of you won’t be – don’t feel bad), you’ll be able to do the entire movement on the one working leg, only touching the rear toe to the ground for stability before powering back up. For everyone else, put the rear foot down as soon as you need to assist by taking some of the weight off of the front leg. If you have access to a gym with a Smith Squat machine, you can build up your strength while practicing this with the bar only. Using the machine to help you balance as you get the movement down is a bit safer and easier than doing it as a free standing lunge. Here’s a video from YouTube that demonstrates a reverse lunge where some of the weight is transferred onto the back leg halfway through the movement. I would suggest starting with no dumbbells until you’re able to do two or three sets of 8 reps, then add weight as you get stronger.
2. Hip Hike – This is an easy-to-do exercise that works the oft-neglected outer muscles of the hip region. These muscles are essential for maintaining proper alignment as we walk and run, so this exercise is a good preventative measure against piriformis syndrome. Stand sideways on a stair touching the wall or holding a railing for balance. Dangle one foot off the edge of the stair. Tilt your hips so that you lower the dangling foot about three or four inches lower, then reverse the hip tilt until that foot is a few inches higher than the step. Continue in a slow, controlled motion for 10 to 12 repetitions, then switch sides and repeat. Here’s a video from YouTube.
3. Bird Dog – Most people think of the Bird Dog as a yoga move or a balance posture, and it can be, but when done correctly, it’s also a great move for building muscular endurance in the glutes. Get on all fours on a mat on the floor. Keeping your hips square and your torso parallel to the floor, slowly raise your right leg straight out behind you as you raise your left arm straight out in front of you. Take care not to rotate or tilt your hips, and don’t let your right femur rotate out as you lift your leg. Only raise your leg until it is parallel with the floor, not higher. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the motion, then lower to the starting position and switch sides. Keep the motion slow and controlled. If you aren’t sure whether you’re rotating your hips, have someone place a yardstick across your lower back, right at the top of your pelvic bones. If you’re rotating, the yardstick will tilt (and maybe even fall off if you’re really twisting a lot). Try to keep that stick parallel to the ground. Here’s a video from the American Council on Exercise. Do 12 to 15 repetitions on each side (so, 24 to 30 alternating repetitions) per set.