As your glutes are responsible for generating movement and for stabilisation, activating and strengthening them will maximise your sprinting power and give you greater control on the bike. But let’s just call a spade a spade—yoga isn’t deadlifting. We’re not shooting for Kim Kardashian booty here. Our objectives are to activate and strengthen weak glutes, bring awareness to muscular imbalances in the hips and pelvis and train better movement patterns.
I asked Dr Euan Speirits—an Orthopaedic Surgeon, currently completing his PhD in Orthopaedic Biomechanics at the Golden Jubilee National Hospital and Research Institute—if he could add some of his own personal and professional insights to this article. (I have put his comments in italics.) As well as racing the 4X Pro Tour and running 4X Wednesdays, Dr Euan works with mountain bikers to optimize their training and reduce injuries.
I know from professional and personal experience how important functional hips are to your riding. Neglecting the glutes can lead to a catalogue of movement and strength issues that can massively impact your enjoyment and performance on the bike. After a procedure on my left hip for a mechanical impingement and cartilage treatment, I was left with a poor range of movement and instability. When this happens, recruiting the glutes is our first target in rehabilitation to restore function and performance.
WHAT ARE THE GLUTES?
The gluteus maximus, medius and minimus make up the butt muscles. They are involved in:
- Hip extension, abduction and rotation.
- Moving from squatting to standing.
- Stabilising the knee (via the IT band).
- Stabilising the hips, pelvis and lower back.
HOW IS PEDAL POWER AFFECTED BY WEAK GLUTES?
Your gluteus maximus, alongside the quadriceps, are your most powerful pedalling muscles. Therefore, for optimal performance, you need them to be strong, balanced and firing effectively. Unfortunately, too much sitting—leading to gluteal amnesia—and an imbalanced exercise program—mostly riding your bike—can lead to problems.
When your glutes aren’t pulling their weight, the synergistic muscles—the hamstrings, adductors, hip flexors, TFL, quadriceps and lower back—have to work overtime, and this inevitably leads to fatigue. This will not only impede your performance but can result in:
Control of rotational movement is essential on the bike. An attacking riding position puts your hips at 90 degrees flexion or more, where stability of internal and external rotation relies heavily on strength in the glutes. Without it, your core and legs can’t function as a unit, and you’ll find yourself unstable, especially on off-camber traverses. Imagine traversing a camber that falls away to the riders left. You will be bracing to find grip and weighting your left leg, and whether consciously or not, shifting the weight of your pelvis side-to-side to find grip and keep you centered, dipping your knee inwards towards your frame.
These movements are performed by subtle adjustments of internal/external hip rotation and abduction/adduction, and small muscles such as tensor fascia lata (TFL). And short external rotators (piriformis, obturators, gemelli and quadratus femoris) are only truly effective when big, “clumsy” muscles like the gluteus medius are optimally engaged. No matter how many fancy cross-core exercises you have incorporated from Instagram, if your glutes aren’t connecting you to your lower limbs effectively, you won’t see the results you are aiming for.
Here are 5 poses to activate and strengthen all 3 gluteal muscles. Your glutes tend to disengage if you sit for long periods of time, so it’s important that you activate them, especially before you go for a ride.
Our muscles rely upon instruction from nerves to operate. This occurs at the neuromuscular junction. Under-development of this interface is why throwing with your non-dominant hand can produce hilarious results. Coordination and effective use is only earned through training. It’s also why you feel stronger at an exercise despite having no time for actual muscular development. You are simply firing the neuromuscular junction more effectively. Much like envisioning toward success, actively recruiting muscles and preparing this junction for an activity can yield a marked increase in performance.
In Warrior 3 on your right leg, keeping your hips level—bend and straighten your standing leg 6-8 times to activate your right ese. Press down firmly through the middle of your right heel. You can use a wall for support.
Come back up to standing and switch to the left foot. Repeat this pose twice through on each side.
Hold Side Plank for 5-10 deep breaths or if you can, lift your top leg to work your gluteus minimus. In the most advanced version, lift and lower your top leg 6-8 times.
Come back to Plank and switch to the other side. Repeat this pose twice through on each side.
In Chair pose, engage your lower abs and lower back muscles to support you lower back. To activate your glutes, try to tear the mat apart with your feet. Hold the pose for 5-10 breaths, in and out through your nose.
Take a break for a few seconds and repeat.
As you lift your legs in Locust pose, press back firmly through the balls of your feet and draw your shoulders back. Then squeeze your glutes and hold the pose for 5 deep breaths.
Repeat the pose. Then bring your hands underneath your shoulders and push back to Child’s pose.
Press your feet into the mat, squeeze your glutes and lift your hips up into full extension, creating a diagonal line from your shoulders to your knees. Hold for a few seconds and slowly lower down. Lift and lower 6-8 times holding for a few seconds at the top. Try to isolate your glutes so that your lower back and quads don’t kick in.
Hug your knees into your chest and rock gently from side to side.
Now, get on your bike!
If you suffer from weak glutes, I’d love to hear your take on these poses and if they’ve had an impact on your riding. Or even better, if you’ve gone next level and tried a Lower Body Strength sequence before a ride.