Help! I Can't Feel My Glutes!
01/30/2023 - Alex Sterner
Do you struggle to feel your glutes when doing lower body exercises? Are you afraid that they don’t even fire, and that only other muscles will get larger? If this sounds like you, this blog will help you ease your fears AND work on the problem directly.
My glutes don’t even activate when I exercise. How will they ever get bigger?
This is a SUPER common concern I get with my in-person clients. So first, let’s establish that you aren’t alone! It’s also worth noting that I’ve helped many clients work on this problem. So much so, that I wanted to document my methods and share them with you here! Why limit myself to people that I can meet in-person?
Now that you know you aren’t alone and that you’ve come to the right place, let’s establish a few important facts. First, the phenomena of voluntarily activating a muscle and receiving feedback on that activation (strength of contraction, fatigue, metabolic stress, etc.) is called the mind-muscle connection (MMC). This is made up of efferent signals from our brain to tell a muscle to contract, and then an afferent response where the body senses changes in the muscle to relay to the brain that it feels activation, fatigue, changes in pressure, metabolic stress, or even pain.
You, probably: “Cool, dork – what the hell does that have to do with my butt?”
If you can stand up from a chair, I have some good news for you: Your glutes activate and produce force just fine! Your glutes aren’t perpetually “turned off” like some influencers may have you fear!
“Oh, so I’m just making it all up then?”
Absolutely not! You’re definitely noticing something that’s a bit “off,” but I just wanted to establish that the problem may not be as dire as some would lead you to believe. The issue is usually sensory in nature. And lucky for you, there are ways we can improve this over time!
Let’s begin by stressing the importance of focus – even if it feels futile at first! I’m going to give you some tools to develop our MMC but PLEASE be sure to avoid simply going through the motions. You can make more progress in less time if you attack these drills deliberately and with great attention to detail.
Part 1: Light them on fire!
Okay, so maybe avoid actual flames. But let’s really embrace the burn! So what exactly is it?
When we repeatedly contract a muscle in a short amount of time, metabolites accumulate in the muscle faster than our circulatory system can clear them out. These metabolites – particularly Hydrogen ions – contribute to the ‘burn’ that we feel when we lift weights for higher reps. Metabolic stress not only directly signals muscle growth, but it can also be a priceless tool when we’re trying to develop or strengthen a MMC. So let’s apply this principle to our glutes!
If we’re trying to focus internally on a muscle activating (instead of an external focus like pushing through the floor or trying to punch a dumbbell to the ceiling), we want to utilize isolation exercises. So lets ignore movements like squats for now, and go grab a booty band.
While we’re fresh – either at the start of our session or even spaced throughout a sedentary work day – we’re going to take a seat and perform band seated abductions.
“How many reps should I perform?”
Yes. You’re going to perform precisely ‘yes’ number of reps. We all have different starting points, so there isn’t a magical number of reps to hit. We definitely want to hit more than 15 reps, but I want you to start abducting those hips, and keep going until you think you’re going to take flight like some apple-bottomed butterfly.
Flying yet? Good! Now comes the important part – I want you to focus as hard as you can on feeling your glutes burn. For some of us it may not even be right on the glutes. Some individuals with a less-developed MMC may report that the sides of their thighs are where they feel it. That’s a start! Place your hands on your upper/side glutes (pictured below) and feel the muscle contracting.
Even if we don’t immediately feel the sensation here I want you to TRY. When you start to feel something, I want you to take note of what rep you were on. But keep on abducting away, and for the love of god keep FOCUSING.
And when you can’t abduct to the same ROM (range of motion) as you started, I want you to take a break and breathe.
As you’re resting do you know what I want you doing? That’s right buttercup, we’re still focusing! Feel the burn slowly recede as we rest. Take note of any changes in sensation that occur. As we focus, we’re developing more neural pathways. We’re learning to feel our glutes!
So we’ve rested a minute or two, and that burn has gone away (like everybody else that ever loved us AM I RIGHT!?). Never mind that! What did I tell you about FOCUSING!?
Good. We’re back. And now we’re going to perform the same exercise again. But this time, we’re going to focus so freaking hard that we’re going to feel that burn earlier! So do that drill again, focus those growing glutes right off, and note the number where you start to feel that burn. And just like last time – don’t stop there! Continue until we notice a decrease in ROM.
Maybe we felt it earlier? Maybe the burn was a little more pronounced? Good. GOOD!
We’re on the right track! But it’s worth noting that in our final form, we’ll be able to feel our glutes fire before there is any metabolic stress! So once we’ve noticed some progress with the burn (across a few separate sessions) let’s jump into those steps.
Part 2: Activation
One common reason we struggle to fire our glutes, is that they’re very different from other muscles – in more ways than one. But let’s focus on one aspect in particular: where the glutes exhibit the greatest voluntary activation.
The signal to make a muscle activate can be measured by detecting the electrical activation at the neuromuscular junction via surface EMG.
“Um, cool dork. How does this help me activate my glutes? I don’t have an EMG machine or whatever”
No worries! I guess what I was getting around to was that the findings of these EMG studies have showed us something pretty cool. Our glutes, unlike other muscles, activate most strongly at terminal hip extension – when then muscle fibers are at their shortest. And we’re going to use that to our advantage! Our activation drills will focus on this particular position so we’re in the best position to make progress on feeling our glutes!
It’s also the reason why we may have struggled to feel our glutes in squats, deadlifts, or lunges – the most difficult portion of these lifts is when the glutes are lengthened. This means that despite the fact that there is indeed tension going through the fibers of our glutes, we may always struggle to feel activation on these exercises - and that’s okay! This is especially true when they’re compared to more horizontally loaded exercises like hip thrusts, back extensions, or reverse hyperextensions.
Once we’ve made some progress in feeling the burn, it’s time to focus on mere activation. Some may struggle on this step, so feel free to sprinkle in our previous drill as you see fit. But if we’re ready, enter the Standing Glute Squeeze
Step 1: Stand comfortably (model exaggerated relaxed glutes for emphasis)
Step 2: Activate glutes.
You: “I struggle with that dummy, that’s why I’m on your stupid blog.”
Easy there, my gluteal apprentice! Let’s go over some useful cues that can allow us to fire our glutes:
• Pull your ribs and hips together
• Pinch a quarter between your cheeks and don’t let it fall
• Make an “ugly butt”
Once you feel like your current cue is doing something, it’s time to HOOOOOOOOLLLLDDDDD
– and like before, we’re going to mark when we feel that all-familiar burn
Now, let’s try a similar method with some bodyweight hip thrusts! It’s important that aim to finish with a PPT (posterior pelvic tilt) so we can get those glute fibers as short as possible to facilitate our quest for greater activation. Cues we used before may help, as the finish should be terminal hip extension in both exercises (accompanied, of course, with a juicy PPT).
Questions to mark progress:
Can I feel my glutes when they begin to burn?
Is the sensation of the burn moving closer to the position that I feel muscle activity with my hands?
Can I feel activation (as soon as I hit terminal hip extension) in the standing glute squeeze or bodyweight hip thrust?
Now if we ARE making progress, it’s time to take our practice to other lower body exercises, and work to pursue strength while also *continuing* to make progress with our MMC! Not sure what exercises are best? Let us help you with a scientific approach to training the glutes - making sure that your efforts are moving you closer to gluteal glory!