Glute Activation – How Butt Training Makes You an Athletic Bad-Ass

By on July 20, 2020

Being “glute dominant” refers to use proper glute activation during a range of movements. Many people believe that this is one of the key determining factors predicting athletic performance. And while the term itself is a little overplayed and may paint an oversimplified picture, it’s certainly true that many of us struggle to properly activate our glutes during movements that should feature them front and center. This is due to mistakes made in the gym and harmful aspects of modern life.

Squatting glute dominance

If, like many people, you are currently quad dominant, then making a few changes to your training may help reawaken your dormant glutes. This will aid with glute activation, such that you can tap into greater explosive strength.

This makes a lot of sense when you consider that the gluteus maximum is the largest muscle in the human body, and that its main role is propulsion: jumping, climbing, and sprinting. It is often referred to as the “antigravity” muscle.

Are You Glute Dominant or Quad Dominant?

If you perform a large number of squats and you notice that your quads are more fatigued at the end than your glutes, there is a large chance that they are playing a disproportionately big role in that movement. Thus, you are probably quad dominant.

You might also notice that your lower back does more work during back squats, and you may encounter knee pain. This is all happening because you are leaning slightly too forward during the movement, meaning your quads are taking more of the strain, and you need to work harder to compensate for posture and to avoid falling over. It has become more akin to a sissy squat or Hindu squat!

Quad dominance can be somewhat genetic. But for many of us there is a very simple fix: use flatter shoes without a heel-to-toe drop and work on your mobility. This forces glute activation in a greater variety of scenarios.

Here’s the thing: if you are performing squats using highly structured shoes that raise your heels off the ground, then that’s going to force more weight onto the balls of your feet, especially as you drop into the bottom of the squat. This also means that you now require less ankle mobility.

To see this for yourself, try performing a pistol squat with shoes on and make note of how easy it is and whether you fall over. Now perform the same thing barefooted. You’ll find that it is easier to stay balanced with the shoe on. Why? Because you are being slightly tipped forward, thus ensuring you don’t fall backwards. With the shoe off, however, you now need more ankle mobility to lean forward more and avoid falling: the weight is further back in relation to your heels.

Glute activation barefoot shoes

Pistol squat with and without heeled shoes are two entirely different movements! The latter is far better for glute activation.

Remove your shoes or use barefoot shoes during the squat then, and you’ll be able to engage your glutes more. To further enhance this effect, you’ll need to be more mindful of the way you’re moving. During the squat, that means you’ll want to focus on driving through the heel of the foot.

Glute Activation: How to do it

The other problem, of course, is that many of us spend all day sitting on our buttocks. This not only weakens the muscles, but also deadens our proprioceptive feedback entirely. Eventually, we actually lose some of the ability to communicate with the glutes, thereby making it harder to achieve glute activation during training and performance. This is then combined with unwanted adaptations and lost mobility such as tighter hip flexors, which makes it extremely difficult to drive through the posterior chain.

Glutes sitting

A very simple way to solve this is to take regular breaks throughout the day and to get into a low, resting squat. I do this in the morning as part of a morning routine, and any time I get up to make coffee. It has made a huge difference to my mobility and athleticism. Just as useful is include a few slow air squats before starting my workout proper, and taking the time to feel which muscles are activating.

Glute dominance and athleticism

But of course, when jumping during sports or in parkour, you don’t actually drop into a deep squat first! More often, you push off the ball of your foot with only a slight bend at the knee. This is something that JC Santana pointed out to me during a recent chat. Glute dominance is still important, but we need to find other ways to ensure they are active.

The answer then, is to make sure that you are using the leg properly by landing on the ball of the foot when running or leading up to a jump. This, while keeping the knee and ankle directly below the center of gravity, is what will allow you to compress your joints properly to absorb impact and return that energy through the ground (rather than just jolting through your knees).

Quad dominance cossack squat

Author Chong Xie speaks at length about the “Hyperarch Mechanism.” He explains how forming a stronger arch in the foot by landing on the balls of the feet (not the toes), can help glute activation. Then during propulsion, starting with a slight dorsiflexion of the toes allows you to drive through the big toe and activate the glutes even more. Chong believes that many of the top athletes demonstrate glute dominance thanks to this pattern of movement.

In short, your legs act like springs, allowing your hamstrings, glutes, and quads to work together as they are supposed to, while your big toe is able to help drive more force through the ground.

Foot anatomy

The big toe and the glutes are necessarily connected, seeing as the glutes aid in external rotation of the hip. And this also makes a ton of sense when you consider how many movements – from jumping movements to torqueing movements, involve driving power through the big toe. The toes are the “bridge” between the massive muscles in our lower body and the ground. This is also why, according to Thomas Myers, we have fascial connections (“trains”) that run from our feet to many other muscles in our upper bodies.

Again, this is something you will lose if you constantly wear thick shoes that prevent you from engaging your toes and encourage you to land on your heel when running. This is another way that our modern lifestyles prevent us from using a glute dominant gait.

Specific training for glute dominance

The hallucis longus, which is the toe flexor responsible for the big toe, has also been shown to respond to direct training – providing improvements in running speed, jumping height, balance and more.

My favorite options for toe training are to use an isometric hold, trying to push the big toe into the ground – a trick used by ballet dancers. Another option is to use calf jumps or calf raises, while being mindful to really engage the big toes.

Likewise, we can of course improve glute activation with specific, targeted training. Glute bridges in particular help to not only strengthen the glutes, but also stretch the hip flexors and counteract the anterior pelvic tilt. They’ll stabilize the knees, and help you to be more mindful when running and squatting. I love any exercise that also enhances mobility and posture!

Glute bridge

Another great one is step-ups. Do these with a barbell and you’ll be forced to drive through your posterior chain with no option to let the quads take over. This is a fantastic movement in general actually, as it also requires you to stabilize the hips and push off of a single leg: two things which again reflect the way we actually use our legs in the real world.

Notice that these recommendations are compound and not isolation. Isolating the hamstrings and quads with resistance machines might have contributed to the issues with glute activation in the first place! The aim is to practice using these muscles together, as they were designed to be used. And of course we don’t want to become glute dominant at the expense of proper balance!

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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