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A few months ago I talked about the Gluteus Maximus Activation Enigma and the conflicting information obtained on the glute max in the clinic versus what has been demonstrated in literature. It has been difficult for me to address this because I too was guilty of really perpetuating the idea of “gluteal inhibition” and that your “glutes are shut off”, when the evidence for these theories does not exist unless you have a true nerve lesion. It may seem like semantics to the some, but the reality is that our patients and clients take these words very seriously. In fact, I would say a good chunk of them catastrophize the fact that their “glutes aren’t working” and likely worsen the associated symptoms involved in the hip extension dysfunction. I think for athletes in particular to be told that something isn’t working in their body is detrimental to performance for individuals with certain psyches, a point which Vern Gambetta really drives home with his opinion on corrective exercise. At the same time, even if the glutes truly are not “Turned off” or “Firing in the wrong order”, clinically, they are clearly not working very efficiently either, especially if they are significantly asymmetrical. Therefore to find middle ground, I like to look for solutions which help the client/patient remain independent while still participating in their sport even if some form of dysfunction exists by using self evaluation and treatment. I previously mentioned my suspicion that muscle fatigue, rather than muscle inhibition or activation order, may play a part in why our glute emphasized treatments result in reduction of symptoms. A recent article from Hong-You Ge, et al.1 demonstrated that latent trigger points have measurable effects on muscle fatigue made me want to revisit fatigue in the evaluation and treatment of general hip extension dysfunction.  However, I’m going to broaden this idea even further (I’m once again breaking my own rules regarding excessive extrapolation of a research study by doing so) by first looking at addressing the antagonists to hip extension, the hip flexors, prior to attempting to address trigger points/restriction in the gluteals.

I want to preface this write-up to make it clear that I have no evidence for the process that I am about to describe and I am certain there are at least 10 other ways to independently evaluate hip extension. I think both Stuart McGill and Bret Contreras have touched on the use of  different types of bridges in determining hip extension dysfunction in the past, but I couldn’t find the articles offhand, so here is my take on it.

I use a 15-20 rep range of single leg bridges for the patient/client to subjectively identify whether they feel a perceived difference between sides relative to fatigue, ease, and whether it feels disproportionately loaded on the hamstrings, possibly even painful if that is their primary complaint. Then, based on which side is perceived as more challenging, we slightly butcher the classic Janda lower cross syndrome2 and just associate hip flexor involvement with gluteal function rather than look at his original cross of abs to glutes.We’ll generalize it even more and call the hip flexors over active antagonists with possible active or latent trigger points in them decreasing performance of the agonist hip extensors just to integrate the Hong-You Ge et al. 1 discussion a little more.

So for the patient to independently treat this, we start with them attempting to inhibit the hip flexors through a 30 second static stretch for and then retest the bridges. They don’t have to go all the way to 20 reps but they should just be able to go 2-3 more reps more and perceive the exercise as easier. If it does improve, have them do a full minute of static stretching of that hip flexor followed by 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps of single leg bridges to reinforce the more efficient hip extension pattern.  If it doesn’t improve, or they feel only a little better, try a self-TFL release next. Use 1-2 minutes of self release on a tennis ball followed by the same 3-4 sets of single leg bridges discussed earlier.  If they still don’t feel an improvement, go for the glutes directly with a self release. If it works, follow the same pattern of reinforcement from earlier. If there is no change, there is a slim possibility they simply need to train that side more aggressively in hip extension. If this is the case, then we want to have them work on quality reps of single leg bridging on a daily basis for the same pattern of reinforcement as described above. If within one week of working this pattern they still find a single set is fatiguing, the problem does not lie specifically in the hip musculature and it is going to require a bigger picture perspective and likely more involved manual therapy (starting with a pelvic/lumbar eval).

A couple of notes: First off, verify that the fatigue is not just related to the position of their foot and whether they are driving from the heel versus the toes because this can significantly impact loading of the hamstrings between sides.  Second, I recognize not every one of our clients and patients can even do a single leg bridge, let alone 20 of them, but this test and these self-treatment options is not for those individuals anyway. Third, by the 3rd set of bridges, if they’re not used to doing these bridges, they’re going to be fatigued anyway, just do a couple reps for them to subjectively evaluate any chance in the performance of hip extension.

Finally, I admit I am probably still going to use the terms gluteal inhibition from time to time, but I swear I’ll do my best to not give patients or clients the anecdote that their glutes are “shut off” again.

***Update 6/24/12: A great example of when self treatment for hip extension dysfunction fails and more involved manual therapy is needed  from Bill Hartman is found here on his blog.

1. Ge H, Arendt-Nielsen L, Madeleine P. Accelerated muscle fatigability of latent myofascial trigger points in humans. Pain Medicine. 2012:no-no. doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4637.2012.01416.x.

2. Janda V. Muscle strength in relation to muscle length, pain, and muscle imbalance. International Perspectives in Physical. 1993:83-97.

I was originally going to do a little write-up on Vladmir Janda’s prone hip extension (PHE) test, but I found that Dr. Greg Lehman has already done a great job with the topic on his blog. As Dr. Lehman mentioned, we really don’t know what to take from this test from a research perspective. Clinically, many have seen that this test does demonstrate test-retest changes with a successful outcome in a treatment. In fact, I have observed a clinical example in which a patient with hip pain had been participating in numerous closed and open chain exercise interventions that involved hip extension and hip abduction to address their hip pain with no improvement. Yet, ultimately a single prone exercise which emphasized conscious effort to perform isometric gluteal contraction completely resolved her year long struggle with hip pain. Despite this clinical evidence, little research regarding injury and the gluteus maximus has been performed. I thought I’d do a quick blurb on some of the few studies which have shown some correlation between gluteus maximus activation and any injury.

Bullock-Saxton, Janda, and Bullock demonstrated a correlation between ankle sprain injury and an increased delay in gluteal activation2. Similarly, Bruno and Bagust demonstrated an increased delay in gluteal activation in low back pain (LBP)1. One concern with both of these studies were that they utilized the PHE test, in which Dr. Lehman already pointed out previous research showing inconsistencies in activation patterns including the relevance of the gluteus maximus delay. Further yet, since the PHE is performed in “prone”, we have remember, as Gary Gray likes to point out, everything changes once the foot hits the ground. Vogt and his team examined muscle activation patterns in both an LBP and asymptmatic population during walking. In their study, they demonstrated that both the gluteus maximus and the erector spinae were active for a prolonged period of time in an LBP population and that, oddly enough, the glut max fired earlier (although so did the erector spinae and hamstrings) in the gait cycle than the asymptomatic population5. Likewise, during standing extension from a full flexed position, Leinonen et al. demonstrated that in a LBP population, the glut max  fired earlier than the erector spinae4. So wait, aren’t we trying to get the glutes to fire earlier as a result of our treatment, or possibly even longer, in the thought of protecting the spine? However, research seems to indicate the body is already trying to do it for us.

So here in lies our enigma regarding gluteus maximus activation and our beliefs regarding its role in musculoskeletal dysfunction. Clinically we’re seeing results with what we perceive to be our gluteal emphasized exercise prescriptions, but it might not be for the reasons we think. As Dr. Lehman mentioned, we may be looking at the wrong variable of gluteal function, perhaps it is peak amplitude or glute max endurance3? Or perhaps our treatments are effecting something else entirely, and simply performing a neuromuscular extensor pattern in the “region of dysfunction” is enough to get a therapeutic benefit (a good future blog topic!).  Regardless, we need to be open to alternative explanations for the gluteus maximus enigma, in particular if those explanations come with improved outcomes.

1. Bruno PA, Bagust J. An investigation into motor pattern differences used during prone hip extension between subjects with and without low back pain. Clinical Chiropractic. 2007;10(2):68-80. doi: 10.1016/j.clch.2006.10.002.

2. Bullock-Saxton JE, Janda V, Bullock MI. The influence of ankle sprain injury on muscle activation during hip extension. Int J Sports Med. 1994;15(6):330-334. doi: 10.1055/s-2007-1021069.

3. Kankaanpaa M, Taimela S, Laaksonen D, Hanninen O, Airaksinen O. Back and hip extensor fatigability in chronic low back pain patients and controls. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1998;79(4):412-417.

4. Leinonen V, Kankaanpää M, Airaksinen O, Hänninen O. Back and hip extensor activities during trunk flexion/extension: Effects of low back pain and rehabilitation. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2000;81(1):32-37. doi: 10.1016/S0003-9993(00)90218-1.

5. Vogt L, Pfeifer K, Banzer W. Neuromuscular control of walking with chronic low-back pain. Man Ther. 2003;8(1):21-28.