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Since running involves receiving and creating energy in single leg stance, the hip abductor muscles need to be strong to maintain a level and stable pelvis. Weak hip abductors create an unstable hip, allowing the opposite side of the pelvis to drop during each stride. This creates a biomechanical flaw that may lead to knee-cap pain, IT-Band syndrome alongside the knee, or the pain in the butt known as piriformis syndrome. Strong, stable hips allow you to stay tall and balanced, spend less time on the ground and propel yourself forward powerfully.
Proper Form is Everything
The hip abductors, particularly the Gluteus Medius, do not get stronger during running, which places greater importance in strengthening exercises. Unfortunately, many common hip abductor strengthening exercises are performed incorrectly.
For example: Many athletes do the side leg lift to target their gluteus medius. But it’s easy to lift your leg just slightly forward, which will recruit more of your tensor fasciae latae, or TFL for short. That’s a problem because, while TFL is a hip abductor muscle, it’s also a superficial hip flexor, which means it aids in bringing your knee forward at the hip.
Since the running stride consists of repeated knee lifts from the hip, the TFL receives plenty of stimulus. Doing side lying leg raises incorrectly will miss your Gluteus Medius and further strengthen an already strong TFL which does not help prevent pelvic drop, making your time invested into doing the side lying leg lift exercise null.
Here are three exercises to more effectively target and strengthen your Gluteus Medius muscle. You can do these exercises pre- or post-run and it helps to do them 3–4 times/week.
1. Side Lying Leg Lifts Against Wall with Towel
This version of the side leg lift exercise will ensure you target the correct hip abductor.
Lie on your side with your entire body against the wall. Bend your lower leg to create stability and place your underside arm beneath your head. Place a hand towel behind your top leg heel. Press your top hand down into the floor to create more stability and to press yourself into the wall. Brace your abs and become as stable as possible. Press your top leg heel into the wall with your toes pointed downward.
Now, raise your leg against the wall without dropping the towel. Focus on feeling a contraction in your gluteus medius (just behind the hip bone), not in your TFL (front of your hip).
Only raise your leg 12–18” high, which is as high as you’ll be able to go without twisting your hip and engaging the hip flexors. Slowly return your leg to the starting position.
Perform 3 sets of 12–15 reps/side.
2. Glute Med Activation Leg Swings
This exercise is more running specific because you’re actually standing on one leg.
Stand on one leg in your bare feet and place your hands on your hips. Make sure your pelvis is level and your upper body is straight.
Swing your lifted leg slowly like a pendulum roughly 12” forward and 12” backward to the body. Don’t move your body and keep your pelvis stable. Do 30 reps.
Without stopping or holding on to anything, swing your leg in front of your body from side to side. Again, don’t move your body and keep your pelvis level. Do 30 reps.
Without stopping, repeat the forward and backward leg swings again, then the side to side leg swings again. That is one set.
Switch legs and repeat. Do 3 sets per leg.
3. X-Band Monster Walk
Stand shoulder width apart on a 3 foot circular band and cross the band in front of your legs. Choke down on the band to create tension. Bend your elbow and pull the band up. Get tall and brace your abs.
With parallel feet, take a 1 inch steps sideways. Do 15 steps, then return to where you started. Do the full cycle twice.
Without taking a break, take a 1 inch step forward. Do 15 steps, then carefully walk backward and return to where you started. Do the full cycle twice.
This all equals one set. Do 3 sets total.
Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc, CSCS, CEP, is a strength & conditioning coach with 15 years of experience and co-owner of JKConditioning, a health and fitness business in St. John’s, NL, Canada. He’s a retired competitive runner and a long time contributor to PodiumRunner. Follow him at @JKConditioning.