What separates human gait and posture from our primate relatives and other animals ? The answer is behind you…or rather your own behind. The Gluteals or the Glutes (Gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus) as they are commonly called consists of three muscles located on the backside of the hip/pelvic area. They are generally, as a group among the largest & strongest muscles of the body and play a major role in speed, posture, flexibility, power and sexual attraction. They glutes have three functions to extend the upper leg, abduct the upper leg and extend the hip. Due to their location in the body they often serve as a connector between the continuous sheath of muscles known as the posterior chain. The posterior chain (PC) is a continuous sheet of muscle via connective tissue consisting of all of the muscles on the rear of your body from the calf muscles to the back of your legs, the glutes, lats, muscles of the upper back, rear neck muscles and rear skull muscles, and muscles located on the top of the skull and face. I used to tell my clients that it is like the sheets you wrapped around your head when we were playing as children, except that it is underneath the skin and attached to bone (this is sometime referred to as a kinetic chain).
When things that are connected are weak in one segment there is some effect on other part of the chain. As in the case of us as kids running around with the sheet or towel wrapped on our heads, when our siblings grabbed the towel or stepped on the sheet what happened? Our heads and shoulder went back and sometimes we stood up on our toes (a reflex to round the back to reduce pressure on the vertebrae). Now if we imagine ourselves as adults with the same sheet, imagine that sheet while sitting on the subway, the office, standing in a retail store or driving. Our PC is like a band-it has a certain amount of stretch and tightness. Over time this rubber sheet would become over stretched in the portion over our back, neck and head, right? Our posture would cause our back to round and overstretch this sheet.
What does that have to do with our primate cousins and our behinds? If you look at a chimp for example, they tend to walk on all fours (although they can stand and walk on two legs briefly). Their walking gait actually looks similar to our posture while sitting and slumping- the back is rounded, and their pelvis tucked.
Consequently they have relatively weak and small glutes.
Humans evolved large glutes in part to stand and walk on two legs, which also they play the most important role in walking forward, upstairs, certain swimming techniques, running, etc. In addition they stabilize and mobilize the lower body and the spinal column.
If you were to place the pelvic bones of apes, monkeys, deer, and other quadruped animals on a table they would be flat and elongated in appearance with only a few prominent features. A human pelvis however would be raised in multiple angles. The upper, fan shaped portion would have a S-shaped, wavy appeared with lots of little bumps, thickened parts and indentations. The S-shape, looking down on it, is really designed to hold up the weight of the human body and the its curves generally are attachments on the rear side for each of the three glute muscles.
Without getting into too much more detail the glutes are really designed to hold the body up in the center as the center of the posterior chain. Relative inactivity and posture causes this chain to become weak and over stretched in parts, with the glutes usually weak and actually inflexible. We are supposed to use our glutes when we do a lot of activities but they are often weaker than they should be and the muscles of the leg, usually those extending/flexing the knee take over when we go up stairs for examples. Weak glutes often contribute to low back pain and to knee pain as well. Think about it, when was the last time you saw a sprinter, lineman, hockey player or speed skater with thick, muscular round glutes complaining of general knee pain and back pain?
Most of the people who we see complaining are flat or flabby assed people with rounded upper backs and weak, smallish glutes (referring to muscle mass).
Our older family members are perfect examples, complaining about achy knees or their backs “going out.” When was the last time you saw an older person with strong,thick glutes? Most older people, especially in the Developed world are relatively inactive and hold fairly low amounts of muscle all over their body. Studies have shown that inactivity (esp. in conjunction with age) causes muscles to shrink and weaken over a period of time. Now imagine inactivity over a period of 30-40 years, combined with bad posture and the resultant overstretching of the back muscles. You can easily see a recipe for disaster. Whenever I see an older person with a walker or a cane I can’t help but think about how simply building some strength in their glutes might improve their quality of life. Why is that person using a walker? It’s because they can’t balance, don’t have the strength to keep their hips stable and in the proper position.
A strong set of glutes is more than just an attractive physical asset. They improve your gait, speed, posture, power and overall movement. I’m not talking about big, fatty glutes; but truly strong, muscular glutes. Generally I would say they cannot be too big, but not everybody needs Michael Turner, Nadal or Jennifer Lopez sized cheeks, people really just need to work on their glute strength. Many people do not know the benefit of exercising their butt muscles; so outside of women using butt blasters and bodybuilders most ignore their backside. Squats, thrusts, deadlifts, lunges are greatly underutilized or improperly executed. I have personally heard a lot of people say they avoid them or men say working their lower body too much seems “too feminine.”
Some people, especially those with specific athletic body types and of African descent are predisposed to larger glutes, this however does not mean that they do not experience the same issues with weak glutes.
Look at your side profile in the mirror; if your back is rounded, squeeze our butt cheeks HARD. Your back will most likely straighten up and your pelvis will move forward. This movement pattern is what most people should work on. If you want to increase your glutes size and strength you should start doing four exercises: Squats; lunges; side lunges or squats; and hip extension, usually deadlifts. If you don’t have much experience working out try doing bodyweight for each, do them twice a week for 2-3 sets 15-20 reps. Do this for about 3 weeks, then add weight to each, try to do them with free weights as opposed to a squat machine for example. Free weights allow more natural movements and add stability as a factor. There are a lot of resources on youtube to show you the very basic movements and variations. I think it is a good idea to at least talk to an experienced personal train or instructor to learn the exercises. For those who are more experienced, try 4-5 sets of 6-8 for each exercise using a pretty heavy weight and try squeezing your glutes in each rep. Don’t worry about a lot of variations until you have been blasting your butt for about 4-6 weeks. I would add hip thrusts for those looking to increase the sze and shape for those who are very experienced. Thrusts will turn you glutes in shapely, human stones! If you are recovering from an injury or have mobility issues try using bodyweight while squatting to a bench or chair, you can also hold on something when you squat or lunge to move through the range of motion, and keep some weight off your leg or knees. Simply bending modestly at the hips and squeezing the glutes very hard to extend them will help for those who are elderly or injured, until you are strong enough to move on.
If you have weak glutes, they almost certainly tight and inflexible as well. So it is VERY important to stretch and warm up the glutes when doing new workouts or exercises. Youtube and t-nation.com have some great resources as far as this though.
Strong round glutes won’t solve all your problems but, if you want to improve posture, overall movement, strength, and attractiveness work on your glutes. Stick with basics, until you have them down and then move on. And remember to squeeze! Look for random ass pics for motivation below!
Evans, W.J. Skeletal muscle loss: cachexia, sarcopenia, and inactivity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol 91:(4) pp. 11235-47, 2010.
Gray, Henry. Henry Gray’s Anatomy of the Human Body. London, UK, 1858.
Sirianni, J.E. Comparative Primate Anatomy Atlas. Bates-Jackson, Buffalo NY, 2010.