Although “you can do it, put your back into it” might be reasonable lyrics for rap songs (I dunno – I’ll save that judgment for the lyrical scholars), it’s terrible advice when it comes to developing your glutes.
Unfortunately, this is how many people move by default, that is, unless they become aware of what to focus on and can correct it (like hopefully you’ll be better at by the end of this email).
In MOST exercises, the main roles of the glutes are to provide hip extension (think what your trailing leg does while you walk, albeit that is somewhat passive extension) and posterior pelvic tilt. Posterior pelvic tilt can be thought of as making your tailbone tuck underneath you. Or the opposite of “sticking your butt out”.
What happens often in exercises requiring hip extension, people instead in varying degrees will replace with low back extension. Instead of the glutes driving the hips into extension, the low back will arch to create a somewhat similar visual – to the untrained eye, it looks like they’re doing the exercise.. If you look closer, this looks like the ribs and stomach jutting forward rather than the getting in line with the torso and the belt line on the back side would go up significantly. This often the most obvious on exercises like prone hip extensions, where a person is face down and then reaches their heel towards the ceiling. The low back will move the whole time and look like an accordion.
This poses a few problems. #1 is that simply you can hurt yourself. Your low back is best used as a stabilizer and not doing ALL of the work. #2 is that the low back is STEALING the benefits from your glutes. If you are trying to get stronger glutes and your low back is doing a lot (or all) of the work, then you just robbed your booty of the bounty of that exercise.
How do you prevent your back from being a dirty rotten thief who steals from your glutes?
That’s where your abs come in. Your abs primarily work to eccentrically resist spinal extension. What this means is that as forces (like you moving your leg behind you) act to pull your spine into an excessive arch, they go “Nuh uh, I don’t think so” and they help keep your spine in a neutral position.
Your abs work with your glutes. I’ll spare you the in depth anatomy discussion and just abbreviate it to: your abs help keep your pelvis and low back in the right position so that your glutes can put in work.
How can you become more aware of this and put it to use?
A few ways…
#1 -Become aware of when you’re moving from your low back versus your hips. A good trick can be to put one finger around your belly button and one finger around your chest. If you see or feel the distance increase, then you’re arching from your spine.
#2 – Become aware of what it feels like for your glutes and abs to work, period. Stand up (yes, right now) and squeeze your glutes. Contract your cheeks together like you’re bracing for a birthday spanking from hell and think about getting your belt line in the front lift up a little bit too. Try to make your butt disappear from behind. You may feel some ab work here as you get that posterior tilt of the pelvis. If so, great.
#3 – Practice keeping your low back snug to the floor (or wall) on certain core stabilization exercises. If you were to use deadbugs and develop the sensation for what it feels like to resist low back extension with your abs as you move your legs, you’d be better off when you go to use active hip extension and need to keep your abs tight.
#4 – Practice low level glute exercises using the cues talked about above. Do a standard two legged bodyweight glute bridge where each rep begins *and ends* with your low back snug to the floor. If each time you get your butt back to the floor your low back is 5 inches from the floor, then it’s safe to say you put a lot of back into that movement. So abs tight, drive your back snug to the floor. And use your finger on belly button and chest trick to help keep the focus on core stability as you recruit your glutes to lift you up off the floor.
Once you develop this foundation awareness on the difference between hip movement and back movement and with how to use your abs to “help your glutes”, you become a lot less prone to hurting yourself, will learn exercises easier, and you’ll be able to work your glutes harder in all of the movements that require them, since you won’t be shifting the work elsewhere.
And that’s how you use your abs to develop your glutes.