The classic 90's rap song by Sir Mix-A-Lot dubbed “Baby Got Back” starts out with the statement “I like big butts and cannot lie”... Although he was making this statement for another reason he was onto something important in terms of human function. Strong, powerful gluteal muscles are an essential element of human movement and function. Researchers since the 1970s have been considering the gluteus maximus an important muscle in lower extremity function as well as one of the “hallmarks of bipedalism and erect posture in humans”.
The gluteal muscles are comprised of 3 distinct muscle groups: Gluteus Maximus, Gluteus Medius, and last but not least, Gluteus Minimus.
Gluteus Maximus is the most superficial of the gluteal muscles and it is the largest, heaviest, and most coarsely fibered muscle of the human body. The main function of the Gluteus Maximus is to produce hip extension and some lateral rotation (external rotation) of the thigh. When walking on level ground the glute max does not contract as much as one would think. It fires just after the heel strikes the ground in order to pull the leg underneath the body during forward walking. But when walking up hill or when climbing stairs the glute max fires much more intensely to produce hip extension needed to propel you upwards against gravity.
Gluteus Medius and Minimus are fan shaped muscles whose fibers converge towards the same general attachment on the hip bone (greater trochanter of femur). The main function of these muscles is to produce hip abduction (think Jane Fonda) and rotation (internal or external rotation) of the thigh bone.
These smaller glute muscles are essential to everyday tasks and fire every time we take a step. The glute medius and minimus contract on the leg that is in contact with the ground during walking (stance leg) in order to keep the pelvis level as the opposite leg swings during locomotion.
Even with a short explanation of gluteal muscle anatomy, one can see the importance this muscle group plays in everyday life. For most of us we spend a fair amount of time sitting and much less time in an upright erect posture. This prolonged sitting or standing with poor posture can lead to what Dr. Vladimir Janda described as “lower crossed syndrome”.
From the illustration you can see how sitting from a majority of your day could lead to tightness in the low back and in the front of the hips. This in turn puts the pelvis in a poor position to achieve good and strong gluteal and abdominal contraction. The power of good control and strength of the glutes is not just limited to help fix low back and hip pain issues. The glutes can also help improve knee and ankle/foot mechanics during everyday activity and sport. Because glute medius and minimus help control medial rotation (internal rotation) of the thigh they can have profound effects on both the knee and ankle joints.
With all that being said there are many different ways your physical therapist can work with you to improve your glutes. And best of all very little to no equipment is needed to start working those “buns”. The following are a few great glute exercises that can be easily performed at home.
Whether it be strengthening, stretching, joint mobilization, postural training, gait training, myofascial release, functional dry needling, or hundreds of other tricks to get your butt moving and working right, a physical therapist is well trained to get your glutes in gear.
Kyle Halavik, DPT
Selkowitz DM, Beneck GJ, Powers CM. Comparison of Electromyographic Activity of the Superior and Inferior Portions of the Gluteus Maximus Muscle During Common Therapeutic Exercises.
J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2016 Sep;46(9):794-9. doi: 10.2519/jospt.2016.6493. Epub 2016 Aug 5
Moore, K. L., & Dalley, A. F. (2006). Clinically oriented anatomy, 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.