What are the glutes and how do you stretch them?
What are the glutes?
The glutes are the muscle group that largely make up the buttock. There are three glute muscles – gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. The gluteus maximus is the largest and heaviest of all the gluteal muscles and plays an important part in enabling us to stand. The gluteus medius and minimus are smaller muscles and lie underneath the gluteus maximus working together to help us walk. One of the ways they do this is to hold the pelvis level when one foot is lifted from the ground. Because the glutes are involved in helping us stand up and move around, they ‘switch on’ when we walk about and are active but then ‘switch off’ when we are inactive. If inactivity or sedentary jobs take up most of the day, the glutes will weaken over time and this can lead to secondary issues such as back pain. It’s therefore very important to maintain glute health by keeping an active lifestyle and also stretching them regularly. This blog explores some interesting facts about the gluteal muscles as well as four amazing glute stretches that I prescribe to my patients on a regular basis.
Where does the name gluteals come from?
As with so many muscles in the body, the name is Latin. The word ‘gluteals’ comes from the Latin version of the Greek word ‘gloutos’ which literally means ‘buttock’.
It’s thanks to evolution that the shape of the buttocks are as they are. As we evolved to run, the muscles grew to form the round buttock shape. But the shape and size of our buttocks are not just down to how big the glute muscles are. The buttocks shape are also influenced by how much fat we store there. It’s one of the body’s preferred areas to store fat. Humans are one of the fattiest primates but keeping fat stored in the buttocks is healthier than storing it around our vital organs. And having that layer of fat in the buttocks makes it much more comfortable to sit on! Fat distribution is also influenced by hormones, in particular oestrogen, which is why women tend to have larger bottoms than men.
When thinking about glute strengthening exercises, most of us automatically think of the squat. It is true that doing regular squats can help to strengthen the glutes but it mostly only strengthens the gluteus maximus. Don’t forget there are three glute muscles and it’s important to strengthen all three of them. Other great glute strengthening exercises include:
Lateral leg lifts
You can change the shape of your bottom
Although genetics can influence the shape of our bottoms, by training the glutes on a regular basis, you can affect the shape of your bottom. To train the buttocks, it is important to remember that when it comes to strength building and muscle growth, it’s not about performing lots of reps. It’s about lifting heavy! Studies have shown that in order to build muscle strength, weight training is by far the best method. (Obviously, when I say lifting heavy, it’s important to remember that everyone has an individual baseline of their own strength and lifting heavy means to lift as heavy as you are individually capable of doing without injuring yourself).
Why stretching the glutes is good for you
The glutes are a very hard working group of muscles. They can become tight from too much activity as well as not enough activity. When they tighten, they will pull on different areas of the pelvis, hip and legs and this can contribute to tension not only in the buttocks, but also the legs, hips and back. Therefore stretching the glutes regularly can ease this tension and discomfort as well as improve flexibility and overall mobility.
The following four stretches are my personal favourites for the glutes and the four that I tend to prescribe most often to my patients. And always, follow these tips to get the most out of your stretch:
Always hold the stretch for at least 20 seconds. (Aim for 30 if you can).
The best time of day to stretch is last thing before you go to bed. This is because the stretch you apply to the muscles will last much longer as you’ll be stretching out the muscles before you sleep (so you won’t be using them for the next 6-9 hours or so).
Do not stretch first thing in the morning when you wake up. This is because your muscles need to warm up a bit before you stretch them. If you stretch when you first wake up, you are more at risk of straining the muscles.
Stretching may feel uncomfortable if the muscle you are stretching is particularly tight but it should NEVER feel painful. If it starts to feel painful, ease back on the stretch to avoid straining the muscle.
Supine glute stretch
The word ‘supine’ means to be on your back. With this stretch, lay on to your back onto a comfortable surface and bend one knee with the foot still on the floor. Bring the opposite ankle over to the bent knee and rest it onto the knee. Use both arms to reach through on either side of the leg with the bent knee, clasp around the back of the leg and lift it towards your chest to feel a stretch through the buttock. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
This is quite a strong glute stretch so work within your own stretching capabilities. Bring one foot up to the hip (as shown in the image below) with the other leg extended out behind you. Gently roll your weight into the centre of your pelvis to feel a stretch into the glute of the bent leg. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Sitting glute stretch
This is a gentler glute stretch and can be used if the other glute stretch positions are too stressful on your body. Sit up with one leg straight out in front of you. Bend the other leg at the knee and wrap it over the straightened leg. Then bend the knee of the straightened leg (as shown in the image below). You can keep the leg straight if this is more comfortable. Rotate the body away from the leg using the elbow against the bent leg to assist you as you rotate. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Standing glute stretch
This glute stretch not only helps to lengthen the glutes but also helps to improve balance and stability. It is effectively the same position as the supine glute stretch but in a standing position. Stand on one leg and bring the other leg into a bent position so that the ankle overlaps the standing leg’s knee (as shown in the picture). Carefully ease your weight back into a sitting position whilst maintaining balance on the one leg to feel a stretch in the glute. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.