In case you've been living under a rock for the past decade, there is a lot of interest in the glutes among cyclists. Nooo, not just pervy dudes, but everyone: coaches, riders, physical therapists and we're starting to better understand the contribution of the glutes to the strong cyclist. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you can understand that the glutes are vitally important for cycling and should be taken care of and trained.
Our Glute Muscles
For the purpose of this article, the glutes are the muscles of the butt. There's the gluteus maximus (glute max), the largest muscle in our body, the gluteus medius (glute med), the largest abductor muscle, and a few others commonly grouped into the term 'external rotators'.
The glute max is a massive muscle that spans across the butt from the centerline at the bottom of the spine down to the outside of the upper femur. It sits outside the other muscles, closest to the skin. When activated, the compression of the muscle causes the femur to move back towards the butt and outward slightly as well. For squatting, jumping, running, cycling, and many other major movement patterns, the glute max is a major contributor. With so much total mass, the ability to generate force with the glutes is unmatched, if they are functioning properly. Next time you watch a professional bike race, have a gander at their glutes. There will be a lot of muscle mass there, I promise.
The glute med sits to the outside of the pelvis and attaches to the posterior side of the iliac crest and the outside of the femur on the greater trochanter. The attachment point gives the muscle a moment arm and leverage to pull the femur to rotate outward, commonly referred to as hip abduction. The glute med has a part to play in knee stabilization as well. Since it controls the abduction of the femur, excessive or inadequate muscle tension can cause the knee to drift side to side. This is the most common cause of valgus knee. A condition where, during squatting, an athlete's knee tucks inward. Although common, this pattern inhibits major muscle groups and weakens the athlete's ability to produce force. Proper glute med utilization improves the capacity for other muscles to function properly.
External rotators are in charge of twisting the femur outward. Connecting the bottom of the pelvis to the femur, when activated, they cause the bottom of the femur to rotate inwards, causing a net inward movement of the foot. This movement is called hip external rotation. When cyclists bring their knees wide at the top of the pedal stroke, they enter hip external rotation. Excessive outward knee motion can fatigue and tighten these external rotators. Bike fitters generally desire a position where external rotators are not utilized. The reasoning stems from the fact that external rotators are relatively small, weak, and quick to fatigue. Pushing the curved back of the saddle up against the external rotators can help support them, but too much pressure can pinch nerves and cause pain. The glutes as a whole can be characterized by a few key items, they all:
- connect the femur to the pelvis
- bring the femur back and outward
- are contained in the butt
How Our Glutes Power Our Cycling
Ok cool, there are lots of muscles in the butt, but who cares? As it turns out, moving through the pedal stroke involves a lot of motion of these muscles. As you'd expect from the position of these muscles and their associated movement patterns, the glutes generate force in the downstroke. Below is a graphs of the fiber length of the glute max throughout the pedal stroke. There are significant changes in total length of the fibers for a typical cyclist and since the glute max has the most muscle mass of any muscle in the body, the glutes are a prime candidate for force production. Specifically, proper glute activation and force production in the downstroke can dramatically increase power, but some people let the hip passively move through the joint range of motion. The next logical question is then, "How do I get my glutes to work for me?" because in reality most people do not use their glutes adequately in their everyday lives not to mention in their cycling.
There are a few key areas to look out for that may indicate you do not have significant glute utilization. In my experience, if you haven't worked on your glutes specifically then it's likely they are under-active and underutilized during cycling.
Scenario 1 - Tight Hip Flexors
Tight hip flexors from sitting can cause excessive anterior pelvic tilt and 'turn off' the glutes by causing their passive length to drift too far outside the typical length-tension relationship. This excessive lengthening causes the contractile force of the glutes to drop off and their activation decreases. Stretching your hip flexors can be a good technique for keeping the glutes healthy and the correct length, especially if you tend to sit for long periods of time due to work or hobbies.
Scenario 2 - Tight Hamstrings
Tight hamstrings, also commonly caused by sitting, can inhibit the glutes as well. By pulling the glutes out of their typical position, this time by pulling the bottom of the pelvis into a posterior pelvic tilt, the hamstrings prevent the glutes from moving through their full range of motion. Power is force times time, so less range of motion means less time producing force which means less total power. The best way to alleviate hamstring tightness is regular stretching with the proper technique. The hamstrings are one of those muscles that can be stretched very far without negative repercussions, so there is no excuse not to take a few minutes everyday to get them nice and loose. Check out this article on hamstring use during cycling; your glutes aren't the only area to be concerned about.
Scenario 3 - Lack of Glute Activation
Glute activation is another keyword in popular media. The idea is that our glutes have lost their connection to the brain; the neural connection is no longer established. Firing the glutes by completing an exercise like a glute bridge can cause the brain to 'remember' the firing pathway and help encourage the glutes to activate in the future. There is some research evidence that glute activation could be beneficial and it is commonly recommended by physical therapists. With that being said, glute activation is not a replacement for ensuring the glutes are happy and of a natural length. If you have tight hip flexors or tight hamstrings then glute activation is not likely to cause significant change because the glutes are inhibited by their geometric position in the body. Postural fixes are the first step, then strengthening and improving activation can be beneficial.
Stretching the Glutes
Stretching the glutes is also important. Once your glutes start firing while cycling, their usage will cause fatigue and tightening just like any other muscle in your body. Knowing how to stretch them and resist the chronic shortening is essential or they will become dysfunctional again. The best way to stretch the glutes is the pigeon stretch, but almost all pictures of people doing the pigeon stretch are incorrect.
Correct Pigeon Pose
Correct pigeon pose has these characteristics:
- hips are square and facing forward
- rotation occurs between the femur and the pelvis
- back should stay in a neutral position, no bending!
- the forward femur should be pointing directly forward or slightly inward toward the midline
- the forward knee should be at 90 degrees, with the lower half of the leg across the front of the body
Don't get frustrated and keep trying new positions and slight adjustments to pigeon pose to find the stretch. If you feel the stretch in the body of the glutes, you've got the correct stretch.
Proper glute activation is tough, but the rewards are greater hip mobility and power on the bike. As with many changes to the body, it takes some 4 to 8 weeks to start seeing improvements. Stick with the stretches and strengthening for at least that long. Strive to use your glutes while cycling and the performance improvements will follow!