Eliminating Gluteal Amnesia

I’ve pretty much come to the realization that gluteal amnesia has been a major cause of leg problems during my running and cycling.
All we have done all our lives is just sit around. Surely that is what I have done up to now. I sat in class, I sat to study, I sat in front of a TV, I sat in my office in front of a computer for countless hours. And all that resulted in my glutes forgetting how to fire. The fact that my glutes are not participating in any of the kinetic chains related to running or cycling means other muscles are overworked, get injured faster, cramp up during a race, and a host other problems.
By reactivating the glutes, the whole kinetic chain of muscles works more efficiently and better, being more resistant and tolerant of heavy and long efforts. By the way, you’ll also run/cycle faster too; isn’t that our real end goal?
To combat this, I started on a program of getting my glutes to activate in the kinetic chain again. Here are the things I’ve done:
1. First, I learned how to Hip Hinge. Hip Hinging is critical for performing the exercises that will activate the glutes. If you can’t Hip Hinge, any potential exercises you would do for glute activation endanger your spine and back so make sure you learn how to do this.
Prevention of proper Hip Hinging can be the result of a nervous system which is unused to letting the hips hinge like that, and tight and/or weak muscles in and around the hips. It is possible that a program of stretching and physical therapy is required to help speed the muscles and nervous system to allowing this movement to happen.
I managed to figure this out on my own, but there are a number of exercises to help pattern the movement. Here is a good one:

I practice Hip Hinging whenever I can, especially if I am squatting down like when I’m playing with my kid. Or if I’m reaching down for something on the ground. Or going from standing to sitting. I make sure that my hips are hinging correctly in any kind of squatting type movement.
2. I then had to learn how to flex and tighten my glutes. Pavel describes this as “closing off the sphincter.” It’s not a bad way to start learning, but ultimately the glutes are to the side of the sphincter but you can start figuring out what nerves to fire in order to flex the glutes. I practiced flexing both at the same time, and also each one side separately.
3. Next come exercises to engage and activate the glutes, whereas previously they were completely inactive and other muscles were taking up the load. The core exercises I use, in terms of movement, are the deadlift, Bulgarian single leg deadlift, and the Romanian single leg deadlift.
It would be highly advisable to rehearse the movements with only body weight before you try extra weights like dumbbells, kettlebells or barbells. Go to a gym and perform the movements in front of a mirror multiple times. Make sure your form is perfect each time. Then once you have some mastery of the form, then you can move on to using weights.
If you don’t rehearse the movements with body weight only, you could really hurt yourself. This is what happened to me when I tried to find my 1 Rep Maximum in deadlift and didn’t have proper form nailed down. The moment I stopped and found help was the day after I hit a max and my back was bending down due to the heavy weight, and my back was very sore for 2 days afterwards. This was completely avoidable. I could have really messed something up badly in my back.
This is why I mention this now before I list some demonstration videos of the deadlift, Bulgarian single leg deadlift, and the Romanian single leg deadlift which all show weights being used. But read onwards to see how each one is done, and practice them without weights first, and master the form before adding weights.
4. After I get the hang of Hip Hinging, then I started into deadlifting via Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Body, Pavel Tsatsouline’s Power to the People, and Barry Ross’s Underground Secrets for Faster Running. My blog posts on this subject are: Deadlifting for Faster Running and I also give a description of deadlift form in Deadlifting is HARD (and Dangerous). A great video on form is here:

The key here is to squeeze your glutes at the top of the lift. This really helps the body learn how to engage them during the lift. Later, you can attempt to maintain flexure of the glutes all the way from the bottom of the lift to the top. If you can do that, your glutes are on their way to be activated.
5. I also started doing some single leg exercises to isolate the glutes on each side. The first is the Bulgarian single leg deadlift. Check this video out:

Key point again is to squeeze the glute at the top of the movement, a bit awkward with this exercise, but still doable. Also, there is a temptation to flex the quads in an attempt to get up. Resist this and focus on the glutes instead. You will be amazed that you can get up by using more glutes, and without doing what feels more natural which is to use your quads.
This is also a great balance exercise, so do each movement deliberately and slowly so that you don’t lose your balance and tip to either side.
Start with no weights, practice/master the form, then try very low weights, like 10-20 lbs and move up from there. A lot of people like to use 2 dumbbells, one in each hand. I like to use one dumbbell, held by the hand that is opposite the leg that is forward. This provides a bit more stability challenge to the core and body which I like.
I started with only 4 reps with body weight each side and my glutes were sore the day after! So start with low reps and body weight, do only one set on each side to start and then move up from there.
6. The second glute isolation is the Romanian single leg deadlift. Check this video out:

The person in the video is using two dumbbells which you can graduate to after you practice and master form without weights. Once again, I like using one dumbbell for more of a balance/stability challenge, the dumbbell held by the hand opposite the leg that is placed on the ground.
Key points are, keep that slight curve in the back and do not let it curl forward – very bad! You can bend the knee of the leg that is on the ground. Watch your balance, use your leg behind you to help counterbalance your body going forward. Maintain focus on your glutes during this movement.
Again, I started only with 4 reps with body weight on each side. Start low and move from there. Always maintain strict form; fatigue is the enemy of form! If your form falters due to concentration/focus or fatigue, stop immediately and take a break.
The bigger brother to the Romanian single leg deadlift is using a barbell with both legs on the ground, bending down with the bar and then standing straight up while keeping both legs in a slightly bent, braced position. I would recommend mastering the dumbbell version first and on one leg before attempting this one. This move is much more advanced and requires more mastery of bracing your upper body and back against the stress of a heavy barbell held with both hands. I do not think it is necessary, however, in a program to help runners or cyclists. The single leg deadlift is more than adequate.
7. This one is really tough but awesome. It’s the Natural Glute Ham Raise. Check this video out:

This move is REALLY HARD. The first time I tried it I could not even lift my nose off the ground at all! If you try from the high position and lower yourself down, you’ll end up face planting for sure. To do this move requires not only strength, but also activation of a chain of muscles down your back, glutes, and hamstrings that you’ve probably never ever used before. But as Barry Ross says, people with strong hamstrings never ever get injured during running. So this is worth aspiring to. For a better process to mastering this move, see this video which shows the Assisted Glute Ham Raise using a pole or lat pulldown bar:

Much safer to start with as you won’t faceplant and embarass yourself in the gym!
8. I’m not in love with other movements on the ground but you can try them and see if they work for you. I’ve tried these:
Bridge Exercise
Quadruped Hip Extension
Single Leg Bridge Exercise
I haven’t found them to be as effective as the deadlifts and glute ham raises. Nowadays I mainly use them when I’m travelling or not at a gym, or just want to switch things up. There are many others that you’ll find if you search on the internet.
9. After you start on a program of glute activation, now you need to integrate this into your daily life or else they’ll just get amnesia again!
First, stop sitting. Stand or squat if possible. Hard for sedentary workers, but do what you can. Sitting is the enemy of activated glutes.
Second, whenever you squat or bend down, practice your hip hinging. When you bend or stand back up, focus on the glutes as you come up. Resist flexing the quads to get up. Keep activating those glutes!
So far so good. I’ve been doing all this since about March this year and things are looking up. My speed on the low end is climbing, and I think the glute’s contribution to the kinetic chain is showing in the speed increase as well as less muscle problems.

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