Are your Glutes Firing and is your nervous system playing ball?
Ever been told your Glutes (“Butt and hip muscles) aren’t firing? Bit of a weird statement so what does it mean?
Firing indicates that the nerves aren’t telling the muscles to fully contract. How could that be true? Why in the world would your brain not be using your muscles properly? As it turns out, your nervous system may be fighting your efforts to strengthen your Glutes and hips and there are two main reasons…
Two things to know about how your brain controls your muscles
Let’s geek out on some neuroscience for a minute to learn the two main reasons your nervous system may be fighting your ability to fire and strengthen them and how we can get your Glutes Firing.
Reciprocal inhibition (RI)
Bit of a mouthful but this simply means that when nerves are firing to tell muscles on one side of the joint to contract, they are also shutting down (inhibiting) the muscles on the opposite side of the joint. This makes sense because you don’t want both sets of muscles contracting at the same time – they would fight each other’s ability to move the joint.
Here is where that goes wrong. What if muscles are tighter than they are supposed to be. That situation means that the nerves for those muscles are sensing that those muscles are in a constant state of contraction. That sensation will feedback and automatically create a reaction where the muscles on the other side of the joint will be inhibited.
Just remember that when you are tight on one side of the joint, your brain will automatically inhibit your ability to fully use the muscles that move the joint in the opposite direction. These muscles will be weaker than they should be.
Synergistic dominance (SD)
Apologies for the large, complicated terminology but we are talking neuroscience here. The brain thinks in terms of movement, not individual muscles and the muscles work synergistically (i.e. together) in order to create movement. So if we decide we want to walk from Point A to Point B, our brains need to come up with a strategy to make that happen. In a perfect world, all the muscles work together doing their fair share to make the movements efficient and non-stressful.
Here is how this goes wrong…
Remember the situation where muscles on one side of the joint are too tight, which results in the opposite muscles being weak (not firing)? SD is how the body compensates for that weakness. If the big muscles are weak and not capable of fully contributing to that movement, then the brain has to look around for other muscles it can substitute in to help out.
This substitution helps to keep us moving however it isn’t very efficient. Basically, the body is asking a muscle to do a job it isn’t really designed to do. This means it will fatigue much faster so you won’t be able to do as much but also, the increased strain that occurs builds over time to create pain and injury.
The Secret Sauce
You need to make sure the tight spots aren’t getting in the way of firing the weak spots. Loosening the tight spots is a 2-step process:
- Roll (Myofascial release)
Strategies for rolling and stretching are covered separately from this article. Releasing the tight spots first shuts down the Reciprocal Inhibition so the nervous system allows you to fire (strengthen) the weak muscles.
Let’s look at how to do this with your hips. The muscle imbalance we typically see is:
- Tight Hip flexors (including Quads and Tensor Fascia Lata and IT Band)
- Tight Adductors (Inner thighs)
- Weak Glutes (Gluteus Minimus, Medius and Maximus)
Let’s look at three awesome exercises to strengthen your Glutes.
Three Ways To Strengthen Your Glutes and to get your Glutes Firing!
Buchberger Hip Activation Sequence
Hip Rotations (AKA Fire Hydrants)
Hip Mobility 90/90 Drill
Strengthening your Hips and Glutes and to get your Glutes Firing is important but maybe not as easy as it sounds. The secret sauce is understanding that your nervous system may be fighting your success. We are all designed to use our butt muscles but unfortunately, de conditioning that happens over time creates Gluteal amnesia. This means that our nervous system forgets or stops using your Glute muscles for movement and substitutes other muscles to try and help keep you moving.
The secret sauce means releasing the tight spots first to shut down the reciprocal inhibition reflex. That means your nervous system will actually fire your Glutes so that these three exercises will have you trying out for the next model on “Buns of Steel”! 🙂