Spending time in the mountains give us an opportunity to escape from reality and re-connect with nature and is a proven way of improving your mental and physical health. However, the physical demands of hiking in the mountains can be often overlooked. This blog explores the key role the Glutes have in keeping us injury free and we look at the most effective exercises to help prepare your body for your next mountain adventure!
What are your Glutes?
The Glutes help move your lower body at the hip joint. Gluteal muscles play a very important role in movement, maintaining pelvic stability, hip stability and keeping an upright posture. Together, your Gluteal muscles extend your leg, rotate it (internally and externally), and move it towards, and away from your body.
Research has shown weak Gluteal muscles have been associated with several conditions. (Presswood et al., 2008)
Knee pain ( Patella Femoral and Illio- Tibial band syndrome)
Lower back pain
The Glute complex is comprised of three superficial muscles.
Your Gluteus Medius and Minimus play a key role in stabilising the pelvis on the weight-bearing leg. Therefore, if you have weakness in these muscles it can make it difficult to stand on a single leg as the pelvis drops on the non-weight bearing leg. This is called the Trendelenburg sign.
Reduced pelvic stability can alter your bio-mechanics and has been shown to reduce the activation of Glute Maximus particularly during more dynamic movements (Reiman et al., 2011). The Glute Maximus is the strongest muscle in the human body and highly active during running, sprinting, and climbing and is functionally important in many dynamic movements.
Walking in the mountains involves traversing up and down on steep and uneven ground, so the benefits of good single leg stability and movement control, cannot be overstated. Optimal function of all three Glute muscles will help to support your lumbar spine, hip, knee and ankle when walking downhill and help reduce excessive load through your joints. Research suggests that training your Gluteal muscles properly and frequently can help prevent injury (Tyler, 2006).
So what can you do?
First of all it’s worth carrying out a basic movement screen to test Glute strength and lower limb stability.
Can you stand on one leg for 30 seconds?
Can you do it without your knee dropping inwards, your pelvis dipping or your ankle feeling unstable?
If not, it’s possible you need to strengthen your Glute Medius and Minimus and improve your general lower limb stability and balance before progressing onto harder exercises. See Level 1 exercise below.
If single leg balance is no problem for you, see how well you can single leg squat. Aim to keep your knees over your toes and keep your pelvis stable. If your movement looks like the picture below you will likely need to strengthen your Glutes.
Crossley et al, (2011) found that it was possible to accurately diagnose how well patient’s Glutes worked from a single leg squat. These movement screens give you a rough idea on how well your Glute complex is already working and where to begin when strengthening.
In the context of helping reduce pain in the mountains, functional exercises which promote strength and good movement control will be the most effective and time efficient.
Level 1: Single leg stance
This is the basic building block for more challenging exercises and building functional Glute strength and movement control. Try to keep your torso as upright as possible and ensure you knee is extended but not fully locked back into extension.
Aim x 30 second holds.
Reps – little and often throughout the day.
Level 2: Single leg step up and balance
Single leg step up and balance on a step. Bring you other leg up like in the photo this will force your Glutes to engage more on your standing leg.
Aim to hold for 10 seconds and repeat x 10 reps.
Level 3: Single leg squats on a step.
Forwards x 10
Start in the single leg step up position.
Keeping good alignment Bend your standing knee and reach back with your raised foot to tap the floor behind you. Ensure you have correct form and build up slowly until you can repeat x 10 reps.
Once you have mastered forwards single leg squats, try doing it sideways.
This is more challenging as you have to try and control two planes of movement as your knee will want to drop in sideways (knee valgus). Try and keep good alignment. This is a highly functional exercise and will help when descending steep terrain.
Aim x 10 reps
So does it work?
The single leg squat has been show to be effective in targeting all the Gluteal muscles, due to its capacity to recruit the Gluteus Maximus more than any other tested exercise and more than all other exercises bar one for Gluteus Medius activation. It is also been shown that if athletes are able to perform this exercise with neutrally aligned pelvis and without the knee dropping inwards then it could be considered that the Glute complex is working sufficiently to stabilise the body in unstable environments (Bishop et al., 2016)
In summary, whilst this isn’t the absolute solution. The research would suggest that a few simple exercises done regularly can be effective enough to reduce injury and keep you pain free whilst you enjoy the mountains to the fullest. If you have any further questions or enquires don’t hesitate to get in touch. Good luck!
Thanks to Warrior Training for use of the gym for the photographs. It's a great functional training gym in Ellesmere Port so be sure to check them out.
Bishop et al (2016) ‘The single leg squat: when to prescribe this exercise’ London Institute of Sport, Middlesex University 2 Cranleigh School 3 St Mary’s University, London. https://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/21984/1/SingleLegSquat.pdf
Crossley et al (2011) ‘Performance on the Single-Leg Squat Task Indicates Hip Abductor Muscle Function’. Am J Sports Med 2011 Apr;39(4):866-73. Epub 2011 Feb 18.
Michael P. Reiman, Lori A Bolgla & Janice K. Loudon (2012) ‘A literature review of studies evaluating gluteus maximus and gluteus medius activation during rehabilitation exercises’, Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, 28:4, 257-268.
Presswood et al (2008) Gluteus Medius: Applied Anatomy, Dysfunction, Assessment, and Progressive Strengthening. Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2008 - Volume 30 - Issue 5 - p 41-53
Tyler et al (2006) The role of hip muscle function in the treatment of patellofemoral pain syndrome. Am J Sports Med. 2006;34(4):630–636.