Glute Dysfunction in Runners: Weakness or Inhibition?

Many of us who have previously suffered from running and triathlon related injuries, will quite possibly have been told by sports injury therapists that we have “Weak Glutes” or that your “Glutes Aren’t Firing Properly“.

Gluteal Muscles

Research indicates a significant correlation between diminished Glute function and athletic injury. For example:

  • In a 2007 study of Div III collegiate athletes by Cichanowski et al, 13 females who were diagnosed with unilateral “patello-femoral pain” were found to have significantly weaker hip abductor and external rotator muscle groups of the injured lower extremity.
  • In a study of 15 females with “patellofemoral pain” by Ireland et al (2003), hip abduction strength and hip external rotation strength were found to be significantly less than age-matched controls.
  • Robinson and Nee’s 2007 study of 10 females who sought physical therapy for unilateral knee pain demonstrated significantly less hip extension, abduction, and external rotation strength than the same number of control subjects with no known knee pathology.
  • Average hip abductor (Glute medius) torque in 24 distance runners with ITBS was found by Fredericson et al (2000) to be significantly weaker than that of the uninjured limb and controls.
  • Hewitt et al’s 2006 review of ACL injuries in Females reported a number of studies that demonstrated decreased Gluteal muscle activity and/or ability to absorb ground reaction forces by the hip musculature during landing in females who sustained ACL injuries than in uninjured athletes.

But what does this all mean? How does this Glute dysfunction happen? How do you fix the problem?...

In my experience, there are two main types problem which occur around the hips and pelvis, affecting Gluteal function, therefore creating muscular imbalances and the potential for injury:

  • Glute Inhibition
  • Relative Glute Weakness
Glute Activation & Hip Mobility Routine >>
Free Download [PDF]

Glute Inhibition

Commonly the Gluteal muscles become inhibited, preventing them from properly engaging, thus being able to perform their role. This  usually happens due to the position they are forced to adopt when the ideal neutral pelvic posture becomes compromised. This issue particularly occurs in the sagittal plane of motion, creating either an Anterior or Posterior Pelvic Tilt (usually anterior).

The position of your pelvis acts to determine the leverage available to each of it’s attaching muscles, those that control and stabilise the hips and lower back. This positioning is a postural pattern and extremely correctable with the right exercises. To broadly describe the ways in which attaching muscle groups can determine your pelvic position: your Hip Flexors pull down on your Pelvis while the lower back extensors pull up. The Abdominals pull up while the Glutes and Hamstrings pull down.

Optimising your pelvic tilt to achieve a neutral position enables your Glutes to sit in a position with the greatest available leverage to act on the Hip. To achieve this, the first thing we have to do is determine whether you have more of an anterior (bottom sticking out), posterior (bottom tucked under), or neutral pelvic posture.

An Anterior Pelvic Tilt means that the top of the pelvis is tilted forward, and the lower back is arched. A Posterior Pelvic Tilt means that the top of the pelvis is tipped back, with the pelvis tucked under the body, as per the diagram below, ideally a neutral position is required for optimal Glute function:

Factors such as excessive sitting during daily life can result in the Hip Flexors becoming chronically tight and over-active, pulling the pelvis into a anteriorly tilted position. This over-activity of the Hip Flexors, in particular Iliopsoas can result in a neuromuscular issue called Reciprocal Inhibition, where one muscle group (in this case the Glutes) is inhibited by the excessive activation of their antagonistic muscle group (in this case the Hip Flexors).

Here’s a video showing a couple of simple exercises to help correct an Anterior Pelvic Tilt:

Relative Glute Weakness

This occurs when the function of the Glutes is overshadowed by the disproportionate strength of other muscle groups, built up due to  habitual movement patterns and poor technique in training which creates strength imbalances.

Often, even in athletes who display a relatively neutral pelvic posture, the effectiveness of their Glute function is compromised due to the fact that other muscle groups (usually Quads) are, in relative terms, significantly stronger and more developed. This leads to the adoption of movement patterns and habits which place increased emphasis on the stronger muscle groups such as the Quads, rather than allowing the Glutes to contribute properly within the motion.

This is very common in Triathletes who spend a lot of time on the bike. No matter how well your bike is set up for you, it’s always going to be a “Quad Dominant” exercise, building strength in your thighs rather than helping your Glutes also develop equally. If left un-addressed in terms of adding exercises to target the Glutes, this kind of strength imbalance can cause injury problems over time as the body learns not to use the Glutes as it tries to favour the stronger Quads.

A classic example of a movement pattern that is usually influenced by strength imbalances is the squat. Many athletes who are “Quad Dominant” in terms of strength will squat in such a way that places excess emphasis on their Quads, placing a lot of strain on the knees. This can be observed by the knees shifting forwards over the toes and the heels beginning to lift off the ground at the bottom of the squat.

Here’s an example with using a Single Leg Squat:

It’s hugely important for athletes of all types to work on Glute activation during all movement patterns, as a muscle group they really do provide the key to maintaining postural balance and stability.

Glute Activation & Hip Mobility Routine >>
Free Download [PDF]

Example Glute and Core Exercises

Here are a couple of quick videos to give you some workout ideas:

Read Next >>
10 Minute Glutes Workout for Runners
Last updated on June 29th, 2019.
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38 Comments

  1. Hi,i have pain/discomfort in my right inner thigh and at the top of my hip,which when walking has transferd itself to the glute on same leg and walking becomes uncomfortable,a physio has said iam very very tight in my hip flexors and inner thigh area.i have had this now for 3 months or more,I have also been told that my hips have a slight anterior tilt,I have been told that exercising is ok as the tightness is the problem,I have been taking more time after exercise to stretch and i now take part In a body balance class 2/3 times a week this is a mixture of palites and yoga.my exercise routine is based around bts classes such as body attack( high impact cardio ) and body pump ( weight class ) now as I do a lot of squats and lunges I would think my glute would be strong an not week!! I have never had a problem like this and it’s driving me mad as some days are ok and some bad,pls help if possible,also raising my knee up is ok by the lowering phase is slightly uncomfortable,and lol!!! My lower back feel tight when squatting and finally i get discomfort in my knee at night after exercise.Many thanks chris.

    1. I advise stop doing stretching. A tight muscle is like a knot. When the nervous system understands is being stretched, it tenses it up even more. instead, try ti se if your Vastus medialis oblique muscle is weak, as well as your hip abductors and external rotators. I advice glute bridges, calf raises, lots of cat cow, bird dog exercise and deadbug to begin. If squatting gets painful body free use a broomstick to align your back and perform a good hip hinge. Alternatively use a ball and place it along your back, doing a squat and trying to mimic the sit down movement.

      best wishes

      Enrico Piccinini
      Intern Chiropractor

  2. gave up running about 12 months back due to itb pain lateral to left knee…then I started with mild chronic lower back pain about 9 months ago – mostly around the right si joint (i say chronic as it is not due to any injury)…since doing glute activation exercises over last few weeks my back pain seems to be slowly subsiding. Heck – I might start running again…be interested to see if that knee pain disapears.

      1. James! I have read that post and I definitely agree with it. One of my future blogposts that is going to be about simple and effective ways to increase hip extension for runners!

  3. I wish i had this information years ago. I had periformis issues for a long time. I recently started bodybuilding in exchange for all of the long distance running i use to do. I noticed a lot of weekness in my hips when doing single leg squats.

    I went through a lot of physical therapy and spent a lot on orthotic inserts in my shoes. The pain always came back. So i reduced my running a lot. Gained weight and tried aerobics. I finally am happy with weifht lifting and lower cardio. The Jamie Eason program is amazing on bodybuilding.com

  4. since having a run of injuries early this year i have been strengthening the muscles around my hips, glutes and core and all is much better, not only injury free but running feels a lot smoother due to good posture. brilliant information given by kinetic-revolution, thank you.

  5. For YEARS I had problems running and cycling, to the point that it became too painful and my leg spasmed at night. A doctor diagnosed sciatica but it was only recently a visit to a physio revealed weak and underused glute muscle. I was given excercises and also noticed myself that when walking my left hip is slightly forward, causing my left leg to take all the weight ans making my right leg trail slightly. Ive made a conscious effort to correct the way I walk and run so that only 2 weeks on I can run with no pain and Im keeping up the excercises.
    Anyone with this type of problem should see a proper physio, well worth it.

  6. Hi James,

    Great post. A few things we have noticed in our sEMG/video/foot pressure lab.

    1. Sometimes the glutes fire, but at the wrong time.
    2. Sometimes they fire, but are delayed in activation.
    3. When we encourage hip flexion, we get pre-activation of the glutes before foot strike
    4. Obliques fire more on ipsilateral side of glute medius inhibition
    5. Powers et al also found that glute max fatigued faster in PFPS in females – but strength was fine.

    Hope that provides some input, too. Love your work, your blogs, your assessments, and your fixes! Keep them coming.

    Jess

  7. Thoughts on the hyperextension at lower back with failure to neutralise pelvis in saggital plane with your suggested rectus femoris stretch?

  8. Hi. I’ve been around the block on this one. Fed up of telling therapists that all my hip issues stemed back to a horse fall. Eventually confirmed that my SI joint was damaged and locked up. Glutes mis firing, anterior pelvic tilt, over strong quads, extreme hamstring flexibility, tight hip, these were all consequences not the cause.

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