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.