Avoid the Frustration of Injury and Disappointing Performance Caused By Weak Glutes

clamshell exercise

Hello Runners,

In my last post I talked about how weak glutes and outer hip muscles are common in runners, and lead to increased risk of injury and negatively affect running performance. I also included assessments you can perform for your glute and outer hip muscle strength.

In this post, and the following post, I will discuss exercises you can incorporate into your training plan, that won’t take much time, and will be effective in increasing your glute and outer hip muscles strength.

What Are The Important Glute and Outer Hip Muscles and What Do They Do?

First, before going into these exercises, what are the glute and outer hip muscles and why are they important? The muscles that are primarily involved include the muscles of the glutes (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimize), tensor fascia latae (TFL), and deep lateral rotators (quadratus femoris, piriformis, gemellus superior, gemellus inferior, and obturator internus). Basically these are muscles of the buttocks and the outer hips important for speed and injury prevention. They are important for extending the hip (puts power in your stride!) and stabilizing the pelvis and hips when you have one foot on the ground. Without this stability your leg will be shaky when you have one foot on the ground (you may have experienced this if you tried the assessments in the last post). This shakiness makes you less efficient because your body has to use extra energy to try to stabilize and makes you more prone to the common injuries that runners experience.

Exercises for Strengthening Glute and Outer Hip Muscles

Since most runners have weak glutes and outer hip muscles, it will be best to start with basic exercises to build strength, endurance and then move into more running-specific and functional exercises, so that you can perform the more running-specific exercises properly. So, here are some basic exercises to start with:

  1. Clamshells

Most physical therapists who are treating runners with weak glute muscles will have runners perform clamshells. You’re probably familiar with clamshells and hopefully you do them! If not, here’s how to peform clamshells:

  • Lie on your side with your torso and pelvis both perpendicular to the ground
  • Straighten the spine
  • Slowly lift the belly up off the floor to create a stable core position
  • Squeeze your glutes tight like you have a quarter stuck between your butt cheeks
  • With your feet resting on each other, lift only the knee up until it’s level with the hip
  • Lower the knee down keeping the glute contracted the entire time
  • Perform 8-20 repetitions on each side

 

  1. Side Lying Leg Raises and Hip Circles

Several years ago when I was going to physical therapy to address my own plantar fasciitis issue, the clinic I was being treated at incorporated pilates into their treatment plans. They even had the pilates reformers, which look and feel like torture machines! But they are effective.

In addition to strengthening my core, which was pretty wimpy at the time, my physical therapist, Laura, had me do a lot of side lying single leg raises and hip circles (killers!).

I recommend incorporating these into your training plan. You might do these in place of clamshells on some days. Here’s how to do these:

For side-lying leg raises:

  • Lie on your side with your legs straight and one leg on top of the other so the hips are lined up and stacked on top of each other. Your shoulders should be lined up and stacked on top of each other, as well.  You can rest your bottom hand under your head and the top hand can rest on the mat in front of your ribs.
  • Adjust your legs so that they are at a 45 degree angle with your upper body.
  • Flex the outer hip muscles of the top leg and lift that leg while having the toes on that foot pointing upwards. Keep the knee relaxed.
  • Kick the top leg up toward the ceiling, and then pull the leg down, lengthening the leg. When pulling down imagine pulling a great weight off the ceiling as the leg lowers.
  • Perform 5-10 repetitions
  • Repeat with the toes in neutral position (pointed out to the side, instead of up) and with toes pointing down
  • Repeat with the other leg

 

For hip circles:

  • Lift the top leg to hip level, with the hip turned out and the heel pointing toward the floor. Keep the knee relaxed. This is the top of the circle.
  • Circle the leg down toward the bottom ankle, around and back to the top.
  • Perform 5-10 circles in one direction and then reverse directions.
  • Focus on keeping the trunk stable while doing the circles.
  • Repeat with other leg on top.

 

  1. Monster Walks

This is another favorite exercise prescribed by physical therapists to strengthen the glutes and outer hip muscles. You might start without a resistance band, but then later start incorporating one to make this exercise more challenging. I recommend performing monster walks both side-to-side and forward-to-back. Here’s how to perform these exercises:

For Monster walks side-to-side:

  • While standing place a resistance band just above your knees (if you don’t have a resistance band you can still perform the exercise without a band)
  • Start with both feet about shoulder width distance apart and parallel to each other
  • Engage your abdominal muscles and bend at the knees like you were sitting in a chair
  • Make sure the knees don’t go over the toes
  • Take a step to the right with your right foot so that you feel the resistance
  • Take a small step with your left foot so that the tension remains in the resistance band (feet should be about shoulder width distance apart)
  • Repeat this motion to the right for 5-10 steps
  • Then repeat in the left direction
  • Breathe normally during this exercise

For Monster walks forward and backward:

  • While standing place a resistance band just above your knees (if you don’t have a resistance band you can still perform the exercise without a band)
  • Start with both feet about shoulder width distance apart and parallel to each other
  • Engage your abdominal muscles and bend at the knees like you were sitting in a chair
  • Make sure the knees don’t go over the toes
  • Take a wide step forward with your left leg
  • Take a wide step forward with your right leg so that it passes your left leg and you have tension on the resistance band
  • Repeat for 5-10 steps for each leg
  • Repeat this exercise, except now taking steps backward

 

  1. Glute Bridge Hip Lifts

You’ll want to pay attention to where you are feeling this exercise. The glute muscles, and possibly the hamstring muscles, should be doing the work. Runners with weak glutes, or glutes that aren’t being properly engaged, may feel this exercise in other muscles, including the muscles of the lower back. If this is the case for you, discontinue this exercise for now, and revisit it when your glutes are stronger and instead, focus on the other exercises.

Here’s how to do this exercise:

  • Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Clasp your hands together and raise them up towards the sky
  • Lift the hips off of the ground and hold briefly and then slower lower, trying not to arch your back
  • Perform 10 repetitions and on the last repetition hold at the top of the lift for up to 30 seconds.
  1. Fire Hydrants and Hip Circles Forward and Backward

These exercises are great for the deep lateral rotator muscles, which don’t get mentioned, like the glute muscles, but play an important role in stabilizing the hips when one foot is on the ground.

Fire hydrants:

  • Position yourself so that you are on all fours (on hands and knees in table top position), with the hands under the shoulders and knees under the hips
  • Keep the back straight
  • Use the outer hip muscles to raise the left leg out to the side keeping the knee bent, only raise as high as feels comfortable and for which you can still keep the back straight
  • Slowly lower the left
  • Repeat with the right leg
  • Perform 5-10 repetitions for each leg

Hip circles forward (clockwise) and backward (counter-clockwise):

  • Position yourself so that you are on all fours (on hands and knees in table top position), with the hands under the shoulders and knees under the hips
  • Keep the back straight
  • Use the outer hip muscles to raise the left leg out to the side keeping the knee bent
  • Now make circles in a clockwise direction from the hip
  • Perform 5-10 repetitions
  • Repeat these circles in the counter-clockwise direction
  • Repeat for the other leg

 

How Often and When Should These Exercises Be Performed

I recommend performing these exercises at least three days per week. Ideally, you should perform these right after your run and before your cool down. However, if time does not permit, you could perform them at another time during the day. For example, you could perform them at work, or while watching television, or you could perform them with your kids when you get home.

Video Demonstrating These Exercises

Here is a video with several exercises including most of the exercises I just described:

 

 

Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can help in any way.

In the next post, I will discussed more advanced exercises to improve glute and outer hip strength, which are more running specific.

 

Your friend and coach,

Brian

 

References

Bob Seebohar. Triathlon Specific Strength Training. USA Triathlon Level I Coaching Certification Clinic, Englewood, CO, 2013

Jay Dicharry. Anatomy for Runners. Skyhorse Publishing, New York, 2012.

Jay Johnson.

 

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