Hip extension exercises are commonly recommended in strength training routines for endurance athletes. Think glute bridges, hip thrusts, and deadlifts. Hip extension exercises focus on improving the strength of your posterior chain, which pull the leg backwards, primarily the Gluteus Maximus and its helpers, the Hamstrings and Adductor Magnus. During running, strong hip extensors can create more force to propel you forward, while strong lateral glute muscles, like the gluteus medius, can improve pelvic control and running mechanics.
The glute bridge is a common introductory exercise to strengthen the Gluteus Maximus. When performed correctly, the Gluteus Maximus lifts the hips off of the floor during the bridge. Without proper coaching cues, however, many runners do not extend the hips properly and incorporate mostly the helper hip extensor muscles, like the hamstrings, whilst not activating the Gluteus Maximus at all.
Learn How to Rotate Your Pelvis
In order to activate and connect with your Gluteus Maximus in the glute bridge exercise, you first need the body awareness to be able to rotate your pelvis. The pelvis can rotate forward (anteriorly) or backward (posteriorly). If you rotate your pelvis forward (cue of “butt-out”), your low back arch will increase in curvature, and if you rotate backward (cue of “butt-in”) your low back curve will lose its arch. To activate the glute muscles effectively, you need to think “butt-in” to rotate your pelvis backwards.
Learning how to rotate the pelvis can be somewhat tricky. The easiest way to learn how to position the pelvis in either “butt-in” or “butt-out” is by going on your hands and knees in a “table” position. Place your hips above your knees and your shoulders above your wrist. Next, round your back up like a cat. Notice how your pelvis rotates to bring your tailbone underneath you. This is a backward or posterior rotation of the pelvis, AKA “butt-in.”
Next, lower your spine to arch your back and push out your butt. This is a forward or anterior rotation of the pelvis, AKA “butt-out.” Repeat this movement several times as you feel what you’re doing to rotate your pelvis forward and backward.
Next, flip over on your back, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Do the exact same action in this posture. You’ll notice that when your rotate forward, your low back will arch and lift off the floor. When your rotate backward, your low back will flatten toward the floor. Repeat this movement several times as you feel what you’re doing to rotate your pelvis forward and backward.
Bridge Options to Maximize Glute Activation
Here are 3 versions of the glute bridge, each with a slightly different set-up and unique advantages, but similar Gluteus Maximus activation cues. Incorporate each version of the bridge throughout the week.
Version 1: The Level Ground Glute Bridge with Band
Use: To strengthen the Gluteus Maximus and Gluteus Medius
Unique Advantage: Places minimal stress on neck compared to other glute bridge versions and only requires a band. The band around the knees creates the ability to strengthen the hip abductors (e.g. Gluteus Medius) in addition to the Gluteus Maximus.
Set-Up: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place a band around your knees.
Position your feet just beyond reach of your fingertips when your arms are flat on the ground beside your body. If you place your feet too far from your hips, you will include too much hamstring activation in your lift. If you place your feet too close to your hips, you’ll involve your quads. So make sure you place your feet in the sweet spot that allows you to target your glutes.
Place your feet hip width apart and rotate your pelvis backward – think “butt-in.” Your low back should approach the floor as it flattens. Relax your neck and turn your palms up.
Press your heels into the ground to lift your hips into the air. Keep your pelvis rotated backward and squeeze your glutes.
You will have to exaggerate the butt-in cue because many runners lift their hips too high and arch their low backs. In the correct position, your hips might be lower than when you have performed this exercise before. If you look down at your stomach, it will appear flat.
Next, press your knees outward into the band so that your knees travel outside of your feet. Continue to squeeze your glutes and hold this position for 10 seconds. Next, open and close your knees 10 times. Think of doing a clamshell exercise. During every rep, squeeze your glutes to turn your knees out.
Last, keep your knees pressed out and raise and lower your hips 10 times. Keep your pelvis rotated backwards as you do the lifts. Squeeze your glutes strongly at the top. Repeat this 10 times.
Suggested reps and sets: 3 sets of 3 x 10/10/10 (10-sec hold/10 open-close/10 up-down)
Version 2: The Back Elevated Glute Bridge with Band
Use: To strengthen the Gluteus Maximus and Gluteus Medius
Unique Advantage: Allows for greater range of motion of hip flexion and hip extension. The band around the knees creates the ability to strengthen the hip abductors (e.g. Gluteus Medius) in addition to the Gluteus Maximus. This version is best if weight is to be added across the hips.
Set-Up: You’ll need an exercise bench, ottoman or couch to perform this version of the glute bridge.
Lie on your back with your shoulders on the edge of the elevated surface with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place a band around your knees and position your feet between hip and shoulder width apart with your feet slightly turned out. Tuck your chin in to keep your neck inline with your torso.
Push through your heels to lift your hips. Rotate your pelvis backward and squeeze your glutes at the top. Lift your hips to form a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Make sure to exaggerate the “butt-in” posture. Allow your torso to pivot onto the elevated surface. It’s acceptable to rest your head on the elevated surface at the top of each rep.
As you lift your hips up to form the bridge, turn your knees out into the band. Similar to Version 1, do not lift your hips too high or else your will arch your lower back too much.
Reverse the motion and lower your hips toward the floor. Pivot on the bench and lift your head to keep your neck inline with your torso.
Suggested reps and sets: 3–4 sets of 15–20 reps
Version 3: The Single-Leg Foot Elevated Glute Bridge
Use: To Strengthen the Gluteus Maximus and Proximal Hamstring
Unique Advantage: This single leg version strengthens the Gluteus Maximus in a more running specific action.
Set-Up: Lie on your back in front of an exercise bench, couch or ottoman. Place one foot on the edge of the elevated surface with your knee bent and opposite leg in the air. Place your hands on the ground with your palms up.
Push your foot into the corner of the elevated surface to lift your hips up. Form a straight line from your knee to your shoulder and ensure you are squeezing your glute. Exaggerate the backward rotation of the pelvis to avoid over arching your low back at the top of the bridge.
Hold this position for 10 seconds. Next, raise and lower your hips 10 times, then hold the top of the bridge for 8 seconds. Then raise and lower your hips 8 times. Continue this pattern working your way down to 6, 4, 2 reps/seconds. Switch legs and repeat.
Suggested reps and sets: Perform 3 sets of the 10-2 countdown per leg.
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CSCS, CEP is a Strength & Conditioning Coach with 15 years of experience. He’s a co-owner of JKConditioning, a health and fitness business in St. John’s, NL, Canada, a retired competitive runner and a long time contributor to PodiumRunner.