The glutes, or gluteal muscles, are the muscles in your butt that are responsible for hip extension and stabilizing the hips.
The gluteus maximus is the largest and strongest gluteal muscle. It is involved in extending the leg at the hip and driving powerful hip extension when you run, jump, climb stairs, and walk up an incline.
The smaller gluteal muscles—gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and deeper gluteal muscles like piriformis and the obturator muscles—help stabilize the hips in the side-to-side direction or frontal plane.
These smaller glute muscles are particularly important during unilateral movements, meaning movements that involve your two legs operating independently, such as walking, running, climbing stairs, doing split squats or lunges, or using an elliptical machine.
But, what are the signs of weak glutes? How can you strengthen your glutes? Keep reading to find out!
In this guide, we will cover:
- What Causes Weak Glutes?
- 4 Common Signs of Weak Glutes
- How to Strengthen Weak Glutes
Let’s get started!
What Causes Weak Glutes?
There are several common causes of weak glute muscles.
A sedentary lifestyle, such as sitting at a desk all day and then sitting in the car or other form of public transportation while you commute to and from your job, allows your glutes to “turn off“ or be inactive most of the day.
Over time, this relative disuse of your muscles will lead to weakness.
Poor Glute Muscle Activation
Even if you are highly active and exercise consistently, it is quite common to have weak glutes. Many people do not properly activate their glute muscles when performing cardio exercises such as running, walking, and cycling.
There tends to be an overreliance on the hamstrings for hip extension. This allows the glute muscles to essentially get a “free ride“ and turn off or go to sleep during your workout.The tendency for this to occur is increased if you already have weak glutes from sitting most of your day, habitually performing repetitive cardio activities with poor glute muscle activation, and failing to regularly incorporate glute-strengthening exercises into your workout routine.
4 Common Signs of Weak Glutes
Clinically, weakness in the gluteus medius and hip abductors can be assessed objectively via a dynamometer or subjective manual muscle testing on a 0-5 scale.
Most clinicians say that the ratio of adductor to abductor strength in the hips is important and that athletes who have suffered strains in the gluteus medius or other abductors, or conversely in adductors, should not return to sport until the relative strength of the opposing muscle groups is within 90% of one another when tested with a handheld dynamometer.
There are several potential weak glute symptoms or signs of weak glutes that can clue you into a relative weakness in this essential muscle group:
#1: Low Back Pain
One of the hallmark signs of weak glutes is low back pain.
When the glute muscles are not performing their fair share of the workload of hip extension, your lower back muscles, such as the erector spinae get overworked, particularly when you lift heavy objects.
#2: Sore Hamstrings
The hamstrings, which are the muscles along the backs of your thighs, work with the glutes to extend the leg at the hip.
However, the hamstrings are biarticular muscles because they also cross the knee joint, where they help flex the knee, whereas the gluteus maximus—the largest muscle in the butt—is chiefly responsible for hip extension.
The glutes should be stronger and more powerful than the hamstrings.
As such, the prime movers of hip extension, particularly during forceful and powerful movements such as running, jumping, and brisk walking, should be the gluteal muscle group rather than the hamstrings.
If you find that your hamstrings are particularly sore after running or other endurance-based workouts, it’s a good indication that you are being overly reliant on your hamstrings for hip extension rather than your glutes.
This can be a sign of weak glute muscles and is certainly indicative of poor glute muscle activation.
#3: Poor Balance and Pelvic Instability
The glute muscles play an important role in stabilizing the hips and pelvis and providing a stable base of support for your spine and core as a whole.
One of the classic signs of weakness in the gluteus medius muscle, which is one of the main hip abductors (muscles responsible for moving your leg laterally out to the side), is called the Trendelenburg sign.
When you view the pelvis in the frontal plane (from straight on in front of the body or directly behind), a positive Trendelenburg sign refers to the biomechanical abnormality where the weight-bearing hip drops down relative to the leg in the swing phase.
If you have adequate strength in your gluteus medius muscles, your pelvis should remain level even during unilateral ambulation.
In other words, even when you land on one leg when you walk or run, your gluteus medius should contract to stabilize your pelvis from side to side.
If you’re running gait or walking gait displays a noticeable side-to-side undulation in the level of the iliac crests of your pelvis, it’s a good sign that your glutes are weak.
Similarly, if you have difficulty balancing without needing to hold onto something or quickly drop your other foot to the ground, or you have poor balance when standing on one leg, such as when walking, dancing, pivoting, or performing exercises such as lunges and single-leg balance exercises, you probably have weak glutes.
#4: Knee pain
Another hallmark sign of weak glutes is knee pain.
The lower body operates in a kinetic chain, which essentially just refers to the fact that the joints of the lower body are connected through the long bones such that movement or lack thereof in one joint can affect movement or lack thereof in another joint.
If you have weak glute muscles, for example, it can place extra stress and strain on the knees.
Anterior knee pain, such as patellofemoral pain syndrome (runner’s knee) or patellar tendinitis, or lateral knee pain, such as iliotibial band syndrome, can be caused by weakness in the gluteus maximus and gluteus medius, respectively.
In terms of patellofemoral pain syndrome or patellar tendinitis, when your gluteus maximus, in particular, is weak, there can be a muscle imbalance between your hip extensor muscles and your hip flexor muscles.
This can lead to quad-dominance or quad-dominant running.
This can cause abnormal knee extension forces, causing compression on the knee joint and overuse of the patellar tendon, which connects the quadriceps to the tibia below the kneecap.
With weakness in the gluteus medius muscle, you may run or walk with an exaggerated Q angle or knee valgus movement. This can place excessive strain on the iliotibial band, causing pain, tightness, and clicking along the lateral side of your knee or hip.
How to Strengthen Weak Glutes
The key to effectively strengthening your glute muscles is to train your body to activate and recruit your glutes during everyday movement patterns as well as during deliberate exercise.
Essentially, not only should you focus on performing high-intensity strength training exercises that specifically target the glute muscles to directly strengthen and build muscle mass in your gluteal muscles, but you should also work on lower-intensity glute isolation exercises that help activate your glute muscles.
Although the latter type of exercise won’t necessarily lead to glute muscle hypertrophy or massive increases in glute strength, these types of exercises are valuable for reinforcing the neuromuscular connections to your glutes for more effective muscle activation.
Glute isolation exercises basically help train your brain to turn on your glutes and use them effectively during other movements.
Particularly if you have had weak muscles for a while, it’s important to begin your glute strengthening program with these types of glute isolation and activation exercises for several weeks before adding more intense strengthening exercises.
Exercises like step-ups, squats, split squats, and lunges are great for building muscle mass in your glutes and increasing functional strength.
However, if your glutes are relatively weak compared to the synergists involved in compound movements or you struggle to properly activate your glutes during dynamic movement patterns, these compound exercises will do little to actually increase the strength of your glutes because the other muscle groups involved in the movement will dominate as they normally do.
In other words, your hamstrings, lower back muscles, and quadriceps will get more of a workout than your glutes until you properly learn how to recruit your glutes and engage them effectively.
The best glute exercises to strengthen weak hip abductors (gluteus medius and minimus) and hip extensors (gluteus maximus) include:
|Glute Activation and Isolation Exercises||Glute Resistance Training Exercises|
|Side-lying hip abduction||Sumo squats|
|Side plank with hip abduction||Forward leg step-ups|
|Clamshells with foot elevation||Lateral step-ups|
|Front plank with leg extension||Single leg deadlifts|
|Single-leg bridges, particularly when the foot is on an unstable surface||Single leg squats|
|Skater squats||Ski squats|
|Fire hydrants/donkey kicks||Curtsey lunge|
|Quadruped hip extensions||Split squats|
|Traverse, lateral, forward, and reverse single-leg hops||Reverse lunges|
|Lateral banded walks||Bilateral squats|
|Glute kickbacks||Farmer’s walks|
|Side planks with side leg lifts||Split-squat jump|
|Standing hip circumduction||Barbell hip thrusts|
|Dynamic leg swings–forward and back and side to side across the body||Hex bar deadlifts|
Once you have built some strength in your glute muscles and improved your mind -connection through glute activation and isolation exercises, you can progress to more dynamic, compound, functional exercises that strengthen the glutes alongside other leg muscles.
For step-by-step instructions on some great glute activation exercises, take a look at our guide: 11 Great Glute Activation Exercises.