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Hip problems, back pain, extension problems, and strength issues often have one thing in common:  gluteal weakness.  In our increasingly digital world, core strength and gluteal activation has taken on an even more crucial role.  Strength in our glutes gives us the ability to maintain balance, prevent common injuries, improve turnout, and build strength and endurance for jumps, extensions, and more.  There are three major glute muscles:  the maximus, medius, and minimus.  Ensuring proper activation of all three of these muscles is the key to successful body mechanics.

How to Identify Gluteal Weakness:

Posture

Have you ever seen a young dancer with a sway back? (See image above for reference.)  Individuals with sway backs look like they’re leaning backward, often crossing their arms in front of themselves and stacking their weight on their spine, putting pressure on and creating an exaggerated curve in the lower spine.  This is a dead giveaway of gluteal weakness.  The pelvis tilts forward, and the back “sways” as a result.  The glutes aren’t activated enough to pull the pelvis and spine into proper alignment.  If you see an individual standing this way, it often means they’re using the wrong muscles for extensions and balance.

An illustration showing the differences between good and bad posture

How to Identify Gluteal Weakness:

Turnout

Have you ever noticed an individual walking with their knees falling inward, or turning inward or outward when they walk?  Most of us are taught turnout from the hip, which is great!  However, not all of us possess the ability to use turnout as beautifully as others, and individuals who walk with their knees slightly out of place are likely suffering from severe muscle imbalances that should be fixed sooner rather than later, as repeated jumping in dance class can quickly lead to more serious injuries that I’ll talk about later.

How to Identify Gluteal Weakness:

Pain

People with gluteal weakness will often complain of lower back and knee pain.  When the pelvis is out of place, it puts extra strain on back muscles.  One might feel pain particularly in the erector spinae. (See image below.) These muscles connect at various locations in the hips (sacrum, iliac crest, lumbar vertebrae) and when the glutes are weak, the body can start depending on these muscles for strength, even in place of particular abdominal exercises.

 

Issues at the pelvis are hardly contained to the pelvis and back.  Others with gluteal weakness may experience persistent joint pain in various areas of their body, IT band syndrome (pain that runs from their hip down to the side of their knees), or even tibial stress syndrome (shin pain).

An illustrated skeleton showing the length and connection of the erector spinae muscles

Potential Injuries

Weak glutes can have catastrophic effects.  A common injury among dancers as a result of this muscle imbalance is a torn hip labrum, which can lead to early onset of arthritis in the affected area; it can sometimes require surgery to fix.  If dancers aren’t activating their glutes upon landing, they could injure or tear their ACL, a major ligament in the knee. This injury is also only fixed by surgery, which could take a dancer out of commission for months.

How Do I Fix It?

As dancers, muscle memory is key.  One can easily find how “turned off” their glutes are by laying on their back with their knees up and by doing a bridge with their shoulders on the ground.  Try it yourself. At the top of the bridge, feel your glutes.  Are they turned on?  Feel your hip flexors.  Are they turned off?  One should be able to execute an ideal bridge with their glute muscles turned fully on, and their hip flexors turned off.  Regular practice (two to three sets of ten a day) may take a few hours or days to do with ease, but it will take weeks or months to become a habit..  Once you master this activity, you can start single leg bridges.  This may feel unsteady at first, but with practice, you will become stronger.  Be sure to engage your ab muscles to create a neutral spine.

 

The “fire hydrant” is also a great activation exercise for the gluteus medius.  As pictured below, you start on your hands and knees, and lift your knee out to the side with your glute muscles.  Therabands are great tools to make this exercise more difficult for stronger individuals.

A demonstration of the fire hydrant exercise
A demonstration of the bridge exercise